Making healthier food just got easier, says Colette Backwell
For over a decade, many of Britain’s food and drinks companies have been reducing calories, fat and salt in their products while boosting fibre and micronutrients. This work is complemented by efforts to encourage change in consumers’ behaviour and inform choice with clear on-pack nutrition information
Reformulating products is an exacting process which often requires the input of a range of technical experts, from research and development and ingredient specialists to technical experts. Ingredients in our foods perform a range of functions which vary depending on the product and go well beyond adding flavour: for example they can provide texture or extend shelf-life. Company experts carrying out recipe reformulation take great care to ensure that these changes are made without compromising a food’s safety, quality or taste.
At the Scottish Food and Drink Federation (SFDF), the voice of Scotland’s food and drink manufacturers, we saw an opportunity to help smaller businesses who do not always have the necessary technical resources. Beyond helping companies to play their part in helping the UK public to have healthier diets, we also wanted to help these businesses to access the growing market for healthier products.
Between 2011 and 2014, SFDF helped around 50 small- and medium-sized food producers to improve the healthiness of their products under our Scottish Government-funded Reformulation Programme. The programme provided free, hands-on technical support for companies to help them change their product recipes without compromising on taste.
Through SFDF’s Reformulation Programme, bakers, butchers and other food producers across Scotland have been lowering the salt, fat and calories in products, in some cases by more than half.
Stromness-based manufacturer Stockan’s, which is best known for its oatcake range, was the first company to work with the SFDF’s technical manager under the programme. The ‘Thin’ and ‘Thick’ oatcake ranges were targeted as these were the company’s bestsellers and so would potentially achieve the greatest customer benefit. As the recipe for these ranges is also the base recipe for the flavoured oatcakes, the salt reduction achieved across the entire range is 20 per cent overall. An opportunity was also found to reduce the sugar content of the ‘Thick’ oatcake to balance the flavour of the product, which has reduced costs.
Another company that took the advice of the reformulation programme to the next level is Skinner of Kippen, a family butcher based in Stirlingshire. The company has reduced the salt content of its steak pie gravy by half by using a new lower salt gravy mix and streamlining the process used to make the gravy. The company has also reduced the salt content of its sausage range by 45 per cent over two years. “Working with the Reformulation Programme has significantly improved our understanding of the ingredients in our products,” said Cameron Skinner. “This insight has not only helped us make our products healthier, it has also ultimately reduced waste, improved quality and enhanced product and business profitability.”
Aberdeen-based Chalmers Bakery has also been helped to deliver some impressive reformulations. With the help of a student intern hired by the programme, Chalmers reformulated several of its popular ranges. This included reducing the sugar content of the shortbread base used for the Empire biscuit by 17 per cent; reducing the fat and salt content of the pastry shells used for a number of the meat pies by 30 per cent and 56 per cent respectively; and tweaking the buttery range to reduce the fat content by 21 per cent and the salt by 10 per cent. Chalmers were also helped to create a new healthy vegetable pie which won the Commitment to Healthy Eating Award at the Grampian Food Forum Innovation Awards in 2014.
In addition to company efforts to make changes to finished products, ingredients suppliers also have a role to play in reformulation, Four of the leading seasoning companies in the UK, Dalesman, Dalziel, Kerry, and Scobie & Junor, created new lower salt sausage seasonings which are now accessible to hundreds of butchers across Scotland which will help them to make their products healthier.
These success stories and the lessons for manufacturers are to be found in a new booklet, Reformulation for Health: Guidance for SMEs which may inspire other companies to look for opportunities in their own product range.
• Dr Colette Backwell is director of the Scottish Food and Drink Federation sfdf.org.uk