An ever-present challenge confronting food manufacturers is being able to track, monitor and respond to market trends, whether inspired by the latest nutrition advice, health scares, public fickleness or economic impulses.
Consumer behaviour has a powerful impact on driving product demand or decline. Therefore, it is crucial to be able to identify influencing factors, predict what customers are going to want and be sufficiently agile to meet requirements in a timely, cost-efficient fashion.
Take the example of sugar. For many years sugar has been a staple ingredient in a vast range of products, both sweet and savoury. It helps to preserve foodstuffs, enhances their flavour and contributes towards desired consistency.
However, an increasing groundswell of scientific and media opinion also indicates that sugar can be addictive. Further claims are that its insidious presence in so many food and beverage products is a contributing factor to the increase in obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other health issues.
Sugar has been vilified before, but flourishing media interest and hardening concerns amongst the general public mean that food manufacturers have to take this issue very seriously, especially in light of the “sugar tax” proposed by Public Health England, emulating Mexico’s successful 10% levy.
This presents an opportunity to take a lead in reducing the amount of sugar used in their products, or even eliminating it completely. The dilemma is that there is a consumer population with palates well and truly attuned to – perhaps craving – sugar content.
The key to dealing with this is to take a ‘stealth health’ approach, in much the same way as salt content has been reduced in many products. This would involve a gradual reduction in sugar quantity, balanced out with other natural sweeteners. The aim has to be to ensure that food and drinks contain no more sugar than is necessary. It is all about making the healthier choice an easy choice.
The process is a complex one. Will it impact on flavour? Increase calories? Change the balance of fat and saturated fat? Finding acceptable, proven variations is time consuming. In the highly competitive and media sensitive consumer market, time is not always on the manufacturer’s side. Add to that the need to optimise production costs and maintain quality – and the pressure really is on.
It is crucial to be able to react quickly to public demand, by taking advantage of the considerable expertise that is available in the industry already. The goal: to fast track healthy, long term, cost effective solutions on to the supermarket shelves.