June 19, 2012

12 Min Read
Improving Nutrient Density

By Donna Berry, Contributing Editor

As more Americans commit to shaping up their eating habits, they are replacing foods loaded with empty calories with nutrient-dense products. From snack bars to drinkable yogurts, packaged foods that deliver more nutrition for fewer calories are increasingly sought by consumers.

The challenge for product designers is that Americans like flavor and variety. They crave interesting tastes and textures. And, most Americans also require convenience. Heat-and-eat, grab-and-go these are food product attributes that have come to be part of daily routines. Boosting the level of nutrients in such complex food systems is no easy feat.

Cathy Arnold, senior formulation scientist supervisor, Fortitech, Inc., Schenectady, NY, explains that an increasing number of food and beverage manufacturers are boosting the nutrient contents of everyday products in order to open market opportunities and drive sales. Competitive edge can be won through factors including functional-ingredient load, health claims and product customization for specific demographics and health conditions," she says. The key to manufacturers ability to meet the promise of their nutritional labels and health claims is the stability of the nutrients in the product matrix. There are, however, many variablesinternal and externalto the products environment that affect nutrient integrity, potentially limiting their potency, efficacy and shelf life. It stands to reason, too, that the effects of these variables are compounded as the number of functional ingredients being integrated increases."

Thus, when designing a food or beverage, it is essential to consider five basic factors as a foundation for optimizing nutrient stability, according to Arnold. These are nutrient activity, composition of the finished food, manner of addition, processing condition and procedures, and storage and other conditions prior to consumption," she says.

Further, to ensure market appeal, it is imperative to identify the most appropriate products to improve" and the desired nutrients for a target demographic. Some generally recognized nutrients can benefit a broad audience, and many can typically be added to food formulations via purified ingredient or through the use of nutrient-dense whole food ingredients.

What consumers want

According to the hot-off-the-presses "2012 Food & Health Survey" from the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation, Washington, D.C., the majority (58%) of Americans give a lot of thought to the foods and beverages they consume. Yet, only 20% say their diet is very healthful and 23% describe their diet as extremely or very unhealthful. This disconnect presents an opportunity for product designers to formulate more healthful foods. 

Over the past decade, consumers expectations of foods and nutrition have evolved," says Sherry Coleman Collins, senior manager, marketing and communications, National Peanut Board, Atlanta. The knowledge of health professionals is also evolving as they learn more about critical public health issues such as diabetes and obesity. For instance, two decades ago, people were told to avoid fat as a health strategy, but now we know that all fats are not created equal and some fats are actually good fats."

Arnold says: Consumers are definitely more conscious of what they are eating. On pretty much any trip to the grocery store, you see people reading product labels. And they are also looking beyond the calorie and fat content. In many cases, they are looking for call-outs like the products equivalent serving of fruits and vegetables, as well as the addition of vitamins and minerals.

They are also looking at select products as condition-specific to address health concerns such as heart health, bone and joint health, and immunity, and they are beginning to be able to identify specific nutrients targeting those areas," Arnold continues. For example, a consumer looking for a heart-healthy product will seek out ingredients such as fiber, omega-3 fatty acids and plant sterols.

Consumers are looking for foods that maintain great taste while still delivering desired levels of nutrition for benefits you can feel," says Patrick Luchsinger, nutrition marketing manager, Ingredion, Inc., Westchester, IL. We know that areas of high consumer interest and awareness include bone, immune, glycemic and digestive health."

When it comes to the various marketing terms used on food and beverage labels, a number of them are often perceived by consumers as providing improved nutrition. For example, with the term organic, there is a perception among some consumers that greater value is added," says Wendy Bazilian, author of The Superfoods RX Diet and a spokesperson for The Cherry Marketing Institute, Lansing, MI. This value might be environmental and animal welfare, or superior nutrition."

For some, locally sourced foods are associated with increased nutrition, as are products claiming to be fresh." But its the marketing term real" that seems to be the greatest driver of product development these days.

The term real is an indicator of both value and quality, and is increasingly associated with better nutrition," says Bazilian. For example, made with real fruit and contains real fruit are examples of attractive call-outs."

Formulating with the real deal

As mentioned, one way of increasing the nutrient density of commercially manufactured foods is through the inclusion of nutrient-dense whole-food ingredients, including whole grains, fruit pieces, puréed vegetables, nuts and more. These label-friendly ingredients contribute to the finished products vitamin and mineral content, and also often add protein and fiber, depending on the ingredient.

Fortified foods dropped in sales in 2011, according to Nielsen data," says Bazilian. Thus, formulators are embracing food ingredients that deliver in-demand nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals and even fiber, as recognizable ingredients resonate best with todays label-savvy consumer. Fruits and vegetables, named as themselves and high up on the ingredient list, are very appealing. And whole grains are becoming solidly entrenched in the consumer mind."

For example, as part of Mars Chocolate North Americas health and nutrition initiative, this division of -Mars Inc., McLean, VA, recently introduced goodnessKnows® luscious snacksquares. Made with whole fruits, nuts and flavanol-rich dark chocolate, a serving delivers 3 grams of fiber, 3 grams of protein and 200 milligrams of heart-healthy flavanols, while containing 150 calories and only 20 to 35 milligrams of sodium.

Recognizing the appeal of including identifiable pieces of fruit in snack foods, Inventure Foods, Phoenix, recently developed Jamba Multigrain Fruit Crisps. Made with real fruit and six whole grains, the crisps come in two fruity flavorsBlueberry Blast and Cranberry Craveeach containing real bits of fruit.

Formulators are increasingly turning to fruit ingredients to provide nutrients, flavor and color," says Bazilian. For example, tart cherries are a naturally functional powerhouse, rich in antioxidants and anthocyanins, which give them their bright red eye-appealing color. They specifically are a source of new nutrients that cutting-edge consumers increasingly crave, including potassium, magnesium and beta carotene.

Products that claim to deliver a full serving of fruit or vegetables appeal to label-reading consumers," continues Bazilian. This can often be achieved by using a number of forms of fruit ingredients in a single product; for example, adding pulp, concentrate and identifiable pieces to the fruit component of yogurt."

Tom Payne, industry specialist, U. S. Highbush Blueberry Council, San Mateo, CA, agrees: Including fruit ingredients is a booming trend. Blueberries have been especially popular ingredients because they are easy to formulate into all food categories, from dairy and baked goods to beverages and condiments."

Theres also increased emphasis on formulating with whole grains, in particular gluten-free and ancient grains. Many fruits dont just complement these grains, they make them more palatable.

Blueberries are synergistic with oats, amaranth, buckwheat, chia, millet, quinoa, sorghum, kamut, spelt and more," says Payne. With heightened interest in gluten-free products, blueberries are a popular ingredient; their presence can lend the gluten-free formulations a more-desirable flavor and texture.

Further, consumers equate blueberries with antioxidant power and readily accept them as ingredients in almost any product," continues Payne. In a sense, their inclusion validates a product that contains less familiar ingredients. Because blueberries are familiar, they help make novel and innovative products less intimidating."

Raffaela Marie Fenn, president and managing director, National Peanut Board, concurs: Ingredients that consumers love and that they are familiar with help to make new food creations more inviting. We like to say that peanuts and peanut butter make the exotic familiar and the familiar exotic.

And, from the consumer standpoint, fortifying with whole foods makes label reading easier and more attractive, especially when the focus is on avoiding perceived food additives," Fenn adds. For instance, peanut flour is a great way to increase the protein content of nutrition bars, while at the same time adding a familiar and comforting flavor."

Coleman Collins says "peanuts have more protein than any other nut and they have more antioxidants than broccoli, carrots or green tea."

Indeed, nuts and seeds are an easy nutrient-dense addition to many foods. Not only do they add nutrition in terms of healthful fatty acids, protein, fiber and various vitamins and minerals, they also provide unique flavors and textures.

Tree nuts are another healthy option. Depending on the product formulation, FDA allows nut-containing products to claim, "Scientific evidence suggests but does not prove that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts [such as name of specific nut] as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease."

Whole foods in ingredient form

Some whole-food ingredients make better sense in a commercially manufactured form. For example, eggswhole, whites only or yolks onlycan be obtained by cracking shells and, if necessary, separating the white from the yolk. But this is a tedious process, and also one that has too many critical control points for quality and safety in an industrial food manufacturing setting. Thus, to add this nutrient-dense ingredient to food formulations, many product designers rely on egg products, which come in frozen, liquid and dried forms.

Foods formulated with egg products contain all the nutrition originally found in the egg product, including high-quality protein, trans fatty acid-free mono- and polyunsaturated fats, vitamins, minerals, and other highly bioavailable nutrients with recognized health and wellness benefits," says Elisa Maloberti, director of egg product marketing, American Egg Board, Park Ridge, IL. Specifically, the eggs lipid portion, which is found primarily in the yolk, contains fat-soluble vitamin D. In fact, eggs are one of the few foods to naturally contain vitamin D, a nutrient associated with bone health.

The lipid portion is also a source of lutein and zeaxanthin, two nutrients that are classified as xanthophyll carotenoids, and have been shown to contribute to eye health," Maloberti adds. And the yolk is a concentrated source of choline, a nutrient necessary for the normal functioning of all cells in all people."

Dairy foods are also recognized as valuable contributors of a wide variety of nutrients, including high-quality protein, vitamins and minerals. These ingredients range from the basics of milk, yogurt and cheese to ingredient forms of dairy, such as whey proteins, milk protein concentrates, nonfat dry milk and cheese powders.

At this years IFT Annual Meeting and Food Expo, Glanbia Nutritionals, Fitchburg, WI, showcased a nutrient-enhanced yogurt. We included a functional milk protein concentrate to boost protein levels and create a thicker yogurt viscosity," says Loren Ward, director of research and development. Accompanying the yogurt were toppings fortified for additional nutritional benefits, including probiotic flaxola sprinkles and a pterostilbene-enriched blueberry topping."

The company also developed a tart-cherry recovery beverage featuring a sports nutrition micronutrient premix. This customized, easy-to-use premix includes L-carnitine L-tartrate and electrolytes to support muscle recovery and hydration, and provides a good source of vitamins B6 and B12," says Ward. The beverage features a whey and soy protein blend that not only provides protein fortification, but also offers excellent flavor expression and clarity."

Purified nutrients                                        

Product designers who want to deliver noteworthy and consistent levels of specific nutrients to consumers will often use purified nutrients in order to err on the side of caution in regards to content claims. Thats because purified ingredients are designed to deliver a predetermined dose of the characterizing nutrient.

Purified nutrients have a lower addition rate to obtain efficacy," says Arnold. And formulators recognize that they are a more homogenous, consistent material and can be added to a wider range of applications."

But that does not mean they are trouble-free additions to various food matrices. Choosing the proper ingredient form is critical for success," says Chaudhari. For ready-to-drink beverages, nutrients such as calcium, iron and copper would use a different market form than for powdered beverages. The same is true for other nutrients relating to solubility. When a nutrient has a high-solubility level, it will ionize, altering the taste as a result of interactions.

Selection of the right kind of coating can preserve taste by limiting migration and preventing premature release of ingredients that can negatively affect taste and limit shelf life," Chaudhari adds. Beyond ingredient selection, processing methods may also play a role in delivering flavor characteristics to please consumers."

Luchsinger says: To address bone health needs, we offer an ingredient derived from marine red algae (Lithothamnion species) that provides calcium fortification along with 72 additional trace minerals. This unique mineral matrix has organoleptic properties that allow for the fortification of a wide array of applications." This ingredient is considered to be naturally derived making it an appealing choice for consumers interested in the natural segment.

Fiber food ingredients are also commonly used to boost fiber levels in whole-grain products to make an excellent source claim. Purified fiber ingredients are also readily added to products such as yogurt or powdered drink mix. 

Food companies are looking for dietary fibers that easily fit within their targeted applications," explains Luchsinger. Fibers such as short-chain fructooligosaccharides (scFOS), galactooligosaccharides (GOS) and resistant dextrins are easy-to-use, process-tolerant and can be used in various foods and beverages. Similarly, resistant starch is sought for its proven health and functional benefits, which includes supporting healthy blood sugar levels, energy and weight management, and satiety."

Its important to remember that indiscriminate enrichment of foods and beverages is not in anyones best interest. However, improving the nutrient density of foods can help consumers get the nutrition they need without all the unnecessary calories.

Donna Berry, president of Chicago-based Dairy & Food Communications, Inc., has been writing about product development and marketing for 13 years. She has a B.S. in Food Science from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. She can be reached at [email protected].

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