UPFs have long had a reputation for being the bad boys of the grocery aisles – and with consumers evermore focused on their health – the potential for these products to sink further in estimation has ramped up.
A recent GlobalData report highlighted how the so-called health and wellbeing megatrend is manipulating consumer purchasing decisions, with 65% of global consumer in 2022 ‘always’ or ‘often’ influenced by the impact the product would have on their health.
“This makes it the most influential aspect at time of writing and represents a takeover from the period just a few years earlier,” Burgess told Bakery&Snacks.
“In 2018, consumers were more likely to base purchasing decisions on how well a product aligned with money and time constraints.
“The market is heading steadfastly in a healthy direction, driven by consumers seeking out products that align with their aspirations for a healthier lifestyle.
“Governments, too, are increasingly applying pressure to ensure manufacturers improve the nutritional credentials of their products, as well as to make labeling clearer to enable consumers to make informed decisions.
“In the US, for example, where diet-related chronic diseases are the leading cause of death and disability, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued draft guidance that gives producers recommendations on how and when to use Dietary Guidance Statements on the label of food products. This is designed to ensure label statements promote good nutrition and provide greater consistency in labeling.”
Burgess added, like high-sugar products before them, UPFs have become the industry’s latest “bogeyman.
“The general consensus is the more processed the product, the less nutritious it is.” But that doesn’t have to be so.
Reformulating for a healthier nutritional profile
Many processed foods derive a large part of their signature flavour from the seasoning stage of production – making this an important site for nutritional improvement.
In the UK, for example, government regulations designed to limit the placement and promotion of foods classed as high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) have already prompted snacking giant PepsiCo to launch a reduced salt version of Walkers’ classic packs.
“Seasoning is, of course, a vital process, but in many cases, this is where the majority of a product’s added salt or sugar content is incorporated,” said Burgess.
“As such, the seasoning process is a key area where producers can reduce and control sugar and salt levels via more accurate processing equipment. In doing so, they will be better equipped to meet tight nutrition targets, while at the same time reduce food waste and changeover time.
“In order for brands to adapt, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) must support them accordingly, and where seasoning is concerned, one of the core elements is providing solutions that deliver the freedom to adapt and exercise precise recipe control,” said Burgess, adding the latest on-machine seasoning solutions feature independent scarf feeders and separate tumble drums to accommodate alternative product varieties on a single production line.
“This more automated, recipe-driven approach is vital as demand increases for products that contribute to better health and wellbeing, as lowering salt and fat content will be fundamental,” he said.
Intelligent seasoning systems that incorporate integrated controls and monitoring solutions can monitor the quantities of salt or oil being applied accurately. As a result, brands are able to offer greater transparency and enhance efficiencies at the same time. Digitally enabled systems also allow manufacturers the freedom to adapt recipes, meaning that switching between standard and lower salt and fat content products can be done at the touch of a button at the beginning of each batch.
Focusing on frying
Frying is often associated with high fat, high salt foods, which go against the grain of perceived healthy foods.
However, contended Burgess, with the right processing equipment, brands can control oil quality during the frying process and open up the possibility of using ‘healthier’ oils to give their products a more attractive nutritional profile.
“When it comes to creating products that are more suited to the health and wellness category, oil quality is a hugely important aspect,” said Burgess.
“Selecting a high quality, high stability frying oil can help to minimize and even remove trans fats entirely, and there are additional benefits in the form of prolonged shelf life and superior taste. These elements translate very well to onpack messaging and help to distance processed foods from the stigma surrounding products with high levels of unhealthy fat content.
New ingredients are also on the radar of producers looking to improve the nutritional aspect of their snacks. Ingredients such as lentils, whole seeds and quinoa have all featured in recent recipe innovations, as well as vegetables and even some fruits.
Again, “with the right machinery capable of adapting to different raw materials, there is a real opportunity for producers to excite consumers with healthy twists on the classics,” said Burgess.
While many plant-based foods are technically more processed than animal products, they are almost always perceived to be healthier and more sustainable.
“It’s a matter of mindset – moving away from the idea that processed is somehow a negative element and introducing the concept of the process being the facilitator of the healthy end product,” explained Burgess.
“In addition, that process can also be optimized from a sustainability perspective, adding further to the overall positive credentials brands are able to convey to consumers. There is everything to gain from targeting both elements.”
The key is choosing flexible, efficient processing and packaging solutions that can be adapted quickly to produce plant-based products.
Features such as automated gas-flow analysis software drives power and resource savings, for example, and can help boost the power of the health halo effect even further by minimizing energy wastage and ensuring fewer packs are rejected due to being under or over-filled with gas.
A 2021 GlobalData report revealed 57% of consumers cited food safety concerns as a major influence on their purchasing decisions.
“Processing is also needed to create allergen-free products – the popularity of which has increased exponentially in recent years – and accurate, energy-efficient and hygienic processing equipment helps brands deliver these benefits to consumers,” said Burgess.
“Food producers, therefore, must keep processing equipment scrupulously clean to prevent such things as cross-contamination.”
Hygienically designed processing equipment, with minimal moving parts and features, can be easily sanitized between product runs, while production elements such as horizontal distribution conveyers, for example, can be constructed using food grade stainless steel with a 2B natural finish. Such materials can withstand aggressive fats, oils and flavours, while remaining resilient to caustic cleaning materials.
“Similar to tackling climate change, seismic change needs to be led from the top,” said Burgess.
“The food industry has a responsibility to help consumers make healthier diet choices, but this doesn’t have to mean a complete rejection of processed foods. From keeping shelf life stable to making essential nutrition accessible and affordable for all, there are many ways processing can actually make products healthier and give consumers more control.”
Producers should also be highlighting this more.
“By clearly and honestly communicating these benefits – both in terms of marketing and labelling – and taking steps to improve the nutritional credentials of their products, manufacturers can break down the myths that make consumers suspicious of UPFs.”