China played a big part in this launch by dint of two well-documented sides to the market there: its growing wealth and concerns towards the safety of dairy products.
Over the last 10 years, Arla has been working on egg replacements using functional milk proteins, and that is a big deal for a country in the throes of panic over avian flu, says John Kjær, who heads up global marketing for the company.
“What we can offer customers in China is well-documented traceability from the cow to the table, so to speak, and that is something very strong. Our milk proteins are important because of increasing health concerns with eggs offering very little traceability. There are obviously a lot of food safety issues there with instances of bird flu,” he says.
“I don't think companies are doing enough to tell people about the science behind the ingredients, and we have a new strategy not only about making more natural products, but also inspiring our customers to use more natural products.”
This involves getting the message out to consumers about what actually constitutes the ingredients in the products they eat. “The Chinese are increasingly turning over the packaging and looking at what's on the back. They have to be able to find ingredients that are in their own kitchens.”
While just a couple of decades ago, milk proteins were being used on farms as supplements for cattle, today they form a whole range of all-new functional ingredients with a wealth of applications for the bakery industry.
“There are a lot of milk proteins available,” explains Kjær. “We have taken a look at the whole range of milk proteins in our system and worked out how these can be of benefit to bakery products in terms of emulsification properties, improving softness and changing viscosity in a better structure.
“We have taken knowledge from Arla’s other business areas, like dairy and nutrition, and started to cross-reference it for bakery applications. We have tested this knowledge against seven different functionalities in terms of whipping and mix tolerance, for example, and the result is four new functional milk proteins, each with different strengths in different areas of functionality.”
The Nutrilac Natural Improvers range includes Nutrilac CH-4650, IM-8027, IM-5566, IM-7042, and initially, he says the market has been impressed.
In spite of its size, the Chinese market is tough, and with the current great gold rush among Western ingredient manufacturers entering the country, companies are under great pressure to devise new products in the midst of ever-changing trends brought about by a swelling new middle-class.
But China is not as alien as it was just a few years and trends like removing E numbers from products, which is so popular in Europe, have caught on in the Far East. This is largely because consumers are gaining a greater awareness of what they are eating – as much through necessity as out of personal interest.
“In that sense, our products go well in hand with trends that are moving across the world in terms of naturalness, in terms of healthy eating. It is now not only about content and cholesterol levels, but also about where the products come from, how they are manufactured and processed, and what kind of nutritional profile they have,” explains Kjær.
“We always have a lot of product development going on in Denmark and we often send technicians out to China to learn about the local ways of doing things there, and then bringing that information back to our techs. From that point of view we have a lot of local engagement with people in the market so our guys can learn about individual tastes and preferences.”
In terms of changing tastes, he adds that China is becoming increasingly closer to the West, with growing demand for European- and American-style products like muffins and pound cakes. Meanwhile, the retail sector boom has delivered a trend towards offering pre-packaged good.
But that doesn’t mean the industry has changed wholesale. “We have only five or six years very intensive experience of China. It has a very distinct bakery market with very many differences from Europe. It has a lot of local products that you would never see in Europe, like fried bakery products with very little salt. That means we have to continually adapt to the local Chinese taste through our research and development division.”