When Upscale and Nutrition Collide

June 4, 2008

13 Min Read
When Upscale and  Nutrition Collide

Decadence doesnt often create imagery of a healthy lifestyle. But when it comes to todays foods, that image is changing.

The very idea of creating nourishing food products begs many questions: Does formulating with good-for-you ingredients upscale a product? Do wholesome products demand a premium price targeted to more-affluent consumers?

Powerful perceptions

John Matchuk, CRC, research and development manager, Grecian Delight, Elk Grove Village, IL, believes nutritional concerns are more easily addressed in upscale products, because of the additional labor that they have, the additional care that they can take with their products, and also, to a degree, the demographics of their market. He points out that, for example, in foodservice, white tablecloth has a tremendous opportunity to enhance the nutrition of the products that theyre serving their guests because they have a lot more freedom to be creative and nutritional. At the same time, chefs are still more interested in their organoleptics than they are their nutrition. I think the chefs in that marketplace are hip enough or savvy enough to recognize that if they can kill two birds with one stone they would rather do thatthis is a wow and that is really good for you.

Todays evolving cuisine also can contribute to increasing healthfulness. Since the introduction of nouvelle cuisine in the 80s, chefs have been reducing the amount of butter and cream in their dishes, notes Guy Beardsmore, corporate chef, Sargento Foods, Inc., Plymouth, WI. Previously, food was heavy and very rich, he notes. Nouvelle cuisine was born by chefs to break away from the old and classical ways of preparing dishes.

But is this what consumers really want? Conflict often exists between what consumers think they should order and what they actually buy. Research shows that the consumer who is dining out is requesting healthier and lighter options, says Beardsmore. The reality is this is not shown through sales. However, in retail, sales of reduced-fat items are rising, especially cheese. One of the best sellers is reduced-fat, four-cheese Mexican cheese blend, he says.

Making nutrition a priority is more difficult as price points decrease and expectations for large portions increase. Its the same conundrum, says Matchuk. Everybody says they want great nutrition, and then they go out to dinner and they super-size. Restaurants, he says, have to try to walk both paths, try to be able to raise the bar in terms of the quality of the nutritional attributes of the foods theyre serving, but also be able to recognize that, at over $6 for lunch, people start to get sticker shock.

Formulating healthy

While the majority of consumers speak of the importance of healthy foods, the perception still exists among some consumers that healthy food has less flavor. Thats particularly crucial for products that command a premium. Beardsmore notes that, in product development, you have to now look very close at fat, sodium and calories. This is also affecting size, with companies reducing the size of servings to give a perceived healthier nutritional fact panel.

But, practically speaking, trying to give it all to consumers presents a conundrum. Something has to give, and sometimes that something is price. For example, in the processed-foods sector, Matchuk notes, if Im going to choose the best format to make a product, its going to be a frozen product without preservatives, rather than worrying about new preservative alternatives or lowering the pH so low that its safe. The problem with the pH dilemma is that youre really skewing the flavor profile by not using preservatives. Products could have a clean label but taste like hell, because theyve had to acidify them so far that theyve changed the nature. You wont taste the sesame; you dont taste the chickpea. You taste the lemon juice or the citric acid. I think the stumbling block comes up when theres just not enough frozen-food space, or the manufacturer cant afford the heavy tariff for the slotting fees.

Flavor often goes hand-in-hand with often-unhealthy fat. When formulating with cheese, Beardsmore says the key is balance. To get a stronger profile while using less cheese for lower-fat products, he recommends looking at the age or sharpness of the cheese, as older cheeses tend to have more flavor than younger cheeses. Also, look at boosting flavors with different types of cheese, he says. For example, a small amount of sharp Cheddar and blue will boost the flavor in a mac-and-cheese. Luckily these will also be perceived as more-upscale options.

Careful flavor selection can generally help upscale a product. Theres plain vanillaor vanillinand then theres Bourbon vanilla, which commands a premium. Or, orange-flavored products are very popular, but tangerine and blood orange are perceived as upscale, says Paulette Kerner, marketing and advertising manager, Virginia Dare, Brooklyn, NY. To increase desirability of desserts with lower fat or sugar content, designers might choose superfruit flavors with their healthy aura, like pomegranate, açaí, goji berry, black currant, blueberry, raspberry, acerola, noni, lychee, pomelo and mangosteen, she says.

That universal indulgence, chocolate, is now touted for health benefits due to its antioxidant content. While everyone loves chocolate, Kerner suggests that alcohol and fruit flavors add a special cachet to upscale chocolate-based products. Pairing of an alcohol flavor with a complementary fruit flavor works very well, she says, offering orange brandy, apple wine and pear vermouth as examples. Also, identifying the geographical source of the ingredient adds interest and allows positioning for products such as Belgian chocolate, Tahitian vanilla and Kona coffee, she says.

Five a day

One obvious intersection of upscale and health is in vegetables. Vegetables play a big role in boosting both perceived and actual nutritional value, says Dan Hemming, manager R&D, Gilroy Foods, Gilroy, CA. The fresher and brighter the vegetable taste, the more they contribute to that upscale image of health and value.

Soggy canned beans wont make the cut, and the industry is turning to individually quick-frozen (IQF) vegetables. Vegetable processing techniques vary widely in the IQF vegetable industry, but they play a crucial role in retaining brighter colors and fresher flavors. Frozen vegetables are harvested at the peak of their freshness and are flash-frozen. Their nutritional content is generally higher than fresh vegetables, because nutrients are continually lost after picking in cold and ambient storage.

The techniques employed by Gilroy Foods reduce water content, which concentrates nutrients, flavor and color, Hemming says. Nutritionally speaking, it takes one-third less controlled-moisture vegetables to deliver one vegetable serving, compared to fresh and IQF vegetables. When vegetables are processed using technology that decreases moisture content, their higher solids mean less syneresis, improving the quality of finished frozen and microwavable products.

Its important to note that vegetable preparation is a visual clue for upscale foods. Grill marks and some irregularity of size and shape can imply a handcrafted touch. Grilling and roasting concentrates flavor, says Hemming. This can help add to the savory quality of prepared dishes without added salt or fat.

Another strategy is to use vegetables as whole-foods substitutes to increase clean-label appealsomething that consumers perceive as higher quality. Soft-frozen vegetable purées are a great choice for product developers seeking to cut down on less-healthful ingredients, Hemming says. For example, a concentrated mushroom purée could provide a natural source of glutamic acid, increasing umami in finished sauces or soups. Customized blends and ethnic flavors also add distinction to upscale formulations and create signature flavor profiles.

Hemming suggests seasoning with chiles as a means to add flavors. The added health bonus is that, in some formulations, this increased flavor intensity can allow salt levels to be reduced, making healthy foods, such as vegetable dishes, even healthier and more palatable to boomers with less-sensitive palates.

Superfruits and natural nutrition

Many consumers, including baby boomers, admit to falling short on recommended fruit and vegetable consumption. It makes sense, then, that some would try to make up for a deficit by choosing more power-packed options. The price of pomegranate hasnt hurt its appeal, and premium products make a perfect vehicle for adding exotic and generally more-costly superfruits.

Superfruitsi.e., açaí, goji, mangosteen, noni, pomegranate, sea-buckthorn, dragonfruit, Indian gooseberry and yumberry, just to name a fewand their purported health benefits continue to gain notoriety as popular ingredients that target an array of health conditions, Ram Chaudhari, Ph.D., FACN, CNS, senior executive vice president, chief scientific officer, Fortitech, Inc., Schenectady, NY, notes. While clinical research on this category is still in its infancy, these fruits and their benefit claims, which range from promoting heart health to anti-aging and increased immunity, have been culturally upheld by the various ethnic groups whose diets include these exotic fruits.

Besides the superfood berries, Emilio Gutierrez, R.Ph., vice president technical services, BI Nutraceuticals, Long Beach, CA, notes ingredients with strong antioxidant properties include alpha-lipoic acid and well-known herbal extracts, such as green tea, grapeseed, rosemary, lutein and lycopene. These two categories have mass appeal for virtually all consumers, young and old, and lend themselves to be used in conjunction with a multitude of upscale products, he says.

Incorporating these types of enhanced nutrition ingredients into food can be trickyespecially when the goal is gourmet, not medicine. Suddenly, you have to deal with unpleasant odors, bad tastes and unpleasant mouthfeel that could turn the consumer off to your product, Gutierrez says. In the presence of water, as in beverages, you concern yourself much more with product stability, the need for preservatives and potential interactions between ingredients. In beverages, you are also limited by the extent of solubility of the ingredients that often prevents you from adding as much as you would like to your product.

Many challenges are associated with incorporating multiple nutrients in a premix formulation, especially when high quality is key. These include the type of finished product, as well as the desired taste, flavor and color of the finished product, solubility, bioavailability, pH level, safety and/or toxicity, interactions among various ingredients, and stability of the individual ingredients, Chaudhari says. Factors that can affect stability, for instance, include temperature, pH, oxygen, light and moisture, to name a few.

One example of a potential interaction is combining thiamine with a sulfur-dioxide-containing fruit, such as pomegranate, berries, tropical fruits, cranberries or apples. Some fruit purée preparations, which are concentrates of fruit juice and purée, may contain sulfur dioxide as a preservative, especially from imports. Thiamine plays an important role in helping the body metabolize carbohydrates and fat to produce energy, and helps to maintain proper functioning of the digestive system, explains Chaudhari. Combining this nutrient with a superfruitwhich have become quite popular as a point of product differentiation and positioning a product as upscalecan possibly result in immediate degradation of thiamine, due to the fruits carry-over of sulfur dioxide. The level of sulfur dioxide should be determined prior to fortification, and appropriate overages should be added to compensate for losses.

One way to minimize interactions is to separate vitamins and minerals into two individual premixes. Encapsulation of certain vitamins or minerals might be a different approach. In some cases, it might be wise to utilize a particular form of a specific ingredient. Iodines ingredient form may be potassium iodide, magnesiums may be magnesium phosphate, zincs may be zinc oxide, copper may be copper gluconate, and calciums could possibly be tricalcium phosphate, dependent upon what other ingredients are utilized in the premix, says Chaudhari.

Once the technical hurdles are overcome, to further complicate development, Chaudhari says its important, depending on the target consumer, to determine the amount of nutrients to be added per serving to make a nutrient claim that gives a beneficial effect if consumed in moderation: Regulatory aspects must be considered as a part of a new product-development process. Also, the stability of nutrients through shelf life must be verified prior to product launch.

Gutierrez stresses the need to ensure that the product is as safe for the light eater as it is for the heavy eater who may consume several portions a day beyond the package recommendations. This is particularly true if the product is viewed as a tasty food that is also good for you, he says. As a result, you see lower doses of active ingredients that may or may not offer therapeutic value to the consumer.

Colleen Zammer, director of sales, FutureCeuticals, Inc., Momence, IL, makes the point that some of the popular fruit extracts and powders in the market now in the superfruit category do contain high antioxidant levels, but not always more than the traditional fruits available. Blueberries and cranberries are proven superfruits. Their antioxidant levels are also significant, and in many cases higher than some of the more-exotic fruits.

So if pure goji berry is beyond the reach of the targeted consumer, a goji-cranberry blend might satisfy the need for antioxidants without breaking the bank. It might prove more palatable, too.

Still, exotic is typically perceived as more upscale, and those consumers are always on the lookout for the next big thing. FutureCeuticals manufactures a coffee fruit that may provide unique product opportunities in teas, beverages or other foods. The mildly flavored coffee fruit is high in antioxidants, with 6,000 ORAC units per gram, and is available in granules, a liquid concentrate and a water-soluble extract. It is very flexible for use in any kind of formulation, says Zammer. For maximum antioxidant potential, however, lower-temperature applications are best.

Price points

In addition to safety concerns and formulation challenges, ingredient costs must be kept in line with finished-product pricing. With upscale, sometimes that means using less of a nutritional ingredient than might truly be desired.

Many consumer groups comment on the fact that it is expensive to eat healthy, says Zammer. Fresh fruits and vegetables are costly to handle, and when those costs are transferred to the consumer, it is much more acceptable in an upscale offering.

That said, demographics also play a role in upscale food choices. This encompasses education levels and incomes and, at the higher end of each, you have a consumer that is bound to be more amenable to making more-nutritious food choices, Zammer says. That is not to say that, at so many levels, we are all tempted by not-so-healthy food choices. However, at the upscale level, often even the unhealthiest foods from a macro-nutrient standpoint are often made with higher-quality ingredients that render them slightly better for you than the more-processed foods found at the lower end of the spectrum.

Combining higher nutritional quality with smaller portions may be key. Tapas, for example, are defined by small servings, and the traditional ingredients can provide many healthful combinations.

Beardsmore uses mini desserts as an example of how restaurants can be more creative and drive sales. For example, the guest might be too full for dessert or may not want to indulge in a large dessert, but will spend $2 or $3 on a mini dessert as a treat without the guilt, he says. With mini or smaller, the key is a strong, impactful flavor. These items should be craveable. A smaller size means thateven with some rich, indulgent ingredientscalories and fat grams consumed are lower.

The portion should be a 2- to 3-oz. serving, or two to three bites, Beardsmore advises. I also think that there is a perception that smaller is healthier. However, eat three and you may find you could have had a full-sized dessert, he warns.

Consumers need to rely on common sense. The presence of healthy ingredients in a product does not make the product healthy, says Gutierrez. Calories, fat content and sodium should still be monitored. But small indulgences can be a healthy choice.

Cindy Hazen, a 20-year veteran of the food industry, is a freelance writer based in Memphis, TN. She can be reached at [email protected] .

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