Niche Formulating: The Five Essentials

by Laurie Gorton
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Consumers faced with medical diets can find them hard to follow. The foods don’t taste right. Their textures differ from conventional products. They lack variety. They may even be poorly balanced nutritionally. These problems commonly affect processed foods developed to help susceptible individuals cope with diabetes or celiac disease, to reduce sodium or fat intake, to avoid food allergens, and to otherwise combat or correct a medical condition. The same drawbacks impinge on foods selected for lifestyle reasons — to lose weight, to follow vegan/vegetarian diets, to avoid food additives, to eat organic or even to enhance mood or boost beauty.

People may be willing to try specially formulated niche products, but will the foods live up to expectations? With today’s intense consumer interest in such choices, how can a formulator ensure the repeat purchases that make a brand successful? The past two decades, dominated by health and wellness trends, provide plenty of practical experience. Challenges exist, but so do solutions. Winning in this arena requires the five essentials: taste, texture, authenticity, nutrition and economics.

TASTE.

First of all, food must taste good — that was the big lesson learned during the low-fat/no-fat craze of the 1980s and reinforced in the 1990s by the low-carb fad. The plain truth is that many ingredients that make functional claims don’t taste very good. Specially formulated products using them certainly don’t taste like the original, conventional food.

For example, wheat-free foods require a replacement for flour, but as Angela Ichwan, CEO of Arico Natural Foods, Beaverton, OR, observed, nonwheat flours have their own flavors, and they’re not that of wheat. “The challenge is that by using a different flour, you may have created another flavor, an unexpected flavor,” she said. “As consumers, we tend to take wheat flour as our baseline. To those accustomed to wheat flour’s flavor, other flours may taste funny.”

Flavors developed to mask off-tastes offer one option, but a number of more conventional ingredient choices also work.

Ms. Ichwan’s solution to the flavor challenges of the nonwheat flours in the company’s gluten-free line was to select flavors that skewed away from the norm. Arico’s bar-style cookies come in Almond Cranberry, Lemon Ginger and Triple Berry flavors, among others. Another tactic involved cocoa. Not only is cocoa a popular flavor with consumers, but it also masks other, less-desirable flavors. “When we made our double chocolate cookie, which uses cocoa powder, we had more leeway in grain choice,” she observed.

TEXTURE.

To consumers, texture weighs in as important as taste. Wheat- and dairy-free foods require a flour replacement that yields the proper texture, according to Ms. Ichwan. “Alternate flours such as teff, quinoa or bean may not have the same structuring function as wheat’s gluten,” she observed. And when using whole-grain rice flour, there’s the matter of the brown specks from the bran.

Texture and appearance rank high in determining consumer acceptance, according to Yadunandan Dar, PhD, applications technology manager, National Starch Food Innovation, Bridgewater, NJ. “When presented with a version of something, people automatically compare it to the original,” he said. “They tend to want the ‘free from’ version to be as close in texture to the original [as possible]. An alternative is to launch a completely different product, something not related to a conventional product, and then texture becomes a nonissue.”

Resolving texture problems requires ingredients that mimic the functionality of the material being replaced. Providing discipline to the process, Dr. Dar indicated four crucial steps that the product developer must take. First is to objectively measure the texture of the original product. Second is to identify the best functional replacement ingredient. Third is to understand the role of the replacer ingredient in the formula and the process. “It’s not always a 1:1 replacement,” he said. And fourth is to measure the new product’s characteristics in comparison with the original product.

“There’s always a difference in the finished products. As a formulator, you have to be able to measure and fine-tune,” Dr. Dar said.

AUTHENTICITY.

Formulating for organic, vegan, kosher, halal, non-GMO and other such lifestyle niches requires selection of absolutely authentic ingredients. The standards for kosher and halal are well-documented and widely available from certifying agencies. Tripping up on a certification is not acceptable.

The National Organic Program (NOP), which operates through the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), defines organic ingredients and publishes the National List of nonorganic ingredients permitted in foods labeled “organic.” These materials are typically the minor ingredients responsible for texture and structure. NOP also controls the labeling of organic foods, matching specific levels of organic content with label claim language.

Another way to manage the authenticity of niche products involves following the recommendations of the key specialty retailers. Whole Foods Market, Austin, TX, and Trader Joe’s, Monrovia, CA, maintain lists of ingredients considered unacceptable in the foods sold in their stores.

Even more basic, the formulator must make sure that the functional materials chosen for a product are generally recognized as safe (GRAS) under US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rules. The GRAS system is voluntary, and most substances self-affirmed as GRAS pass FDA scrutiny without challenge. If ingredients are not vetted by this process, their use could lead to the product being deemed adulterated and trigger a possible recall.

The broader question “what really is in our food?” is being asked about more and more products, not just those in niche categories. This question is voiced most prominently by noted nutritionist Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University, New York, NY. But it is increasingly heard through websites such as Aol Health and OurNakedFood.com and has been the continuing topic of a BBC News TV series.

Proving the naturalness of functional products could be vital to winning consumers’ trust, according to Jamie Rice, director of RTS Resource Ltd., a UK-based market insight and analysis firm specializing in the food and ingredients industries. She cited growing consumer concern about the sources and provenance of ingredients. As she explained it, the emerging notion of “natural functional” will appeal to consumers who want health benefits but don’t necessarily want them synthesized artificially into foods.

NUTRITION.

A person seeking foods that target specific dietary needs should not have to settle for items that are less nutritious than conventional products. While enriched flour provides a nutrient base to many foods, it cannot be used for gluten-free products. This fact raises concerns, voiced by Shelley Case, a registered dietitian and author of “Gluten-Free Diet: A Comprehensive Resource Guide.” She spoke at a panel presentation sponsored by the Grain Foods Foundation during the International Baking Industry Exposition held this past fall at Las Vegas, NV.

Typically, gluten-free products are made with white rice flour, tapioca, corn and potato starch. When compared with enriched white flour and whole-wheat flour, such flour-replacement ingredients may lack protein, fiber, iron, calcium and other vitamins and minerals, in Ms. Case’s analysis. She’s not the first to warn of this problem. Harvard Health Letter, a newsletter written for the popular audience, called attention to the nutritional issues of gluten-free eating in its June 2009 issue.

Many gluten-free manufacturers are not enriching their products, even though US and Canadian government regulations allow it. The magnitude of this emerging issue has yet to be measured because few studies have examined the nutritional status of people who follow a gluten-free diet.

The good news is that gluten-free formulations are starting to employ whole-grain flours made from amaranth, buckwheat, millet, quinoa and pea flour, all of which are gluten-free by nature. Those choices raise the nutrient profile.

Nutritional value is front and center with many adults and not just among gluten-free shoppers, according to “Healthy Eating Strategies by Generation,” a report from The NPD Group, Rosemont, IL. Older generations (age 54 and up) eat more healthfully than the younger sets, but overall, consumers ranked nutritional value/healthfulness as No. 1 or No. 2 in importance, thus driving what they select to eat and drink.

“It comes down to adult consumers needing help to improve the healthfulness of their diets,” said Dori Hickey, director of product development at NPD and author of the report. “Knowing which consumer groups need the most help and understanding how to address consumers’ current and future needs and desires for healthy food is the opportunity for food and beverage marketers.”

ECONOMICS.

The NPD report about healthful eating by generation also noted that taste and price/value are in the Top 3 for younger population groups. For older consumers, freshness replaced price/value in ranked importance.

Yes, specialty ingredients can cost more than the conventional materials. Whether used as replacements for given ingredients or to supplement the existing ones, such ingredients add extra costs that change the economic models. Food manufacturers must be able to recover the higher bowl costs that niche formulations involve. Most niche product consumers understand that the resulting foods will have higher prices, but as these items go mainstream, manufacturers’ flexibility in pricing will diminish.

Price premiums commanded for functional baked foods can inhibit purchases, according to Mark Whalley, a consumer analyst at the market research firm Datamonitor, based in the UK. Recessionary times only magnify this behavior. The formulator will need to balance the price-value equation by seeking savings in the conventional ingredients required.

Although the ingredients and claims of niche products differ from mainstream items, the success of such foods relies on much the same game plan as that of any other processed consumer food product. Taste must be appealing. Texture must be acceptable. Ingredients must be appropriate. Nutritional value must be achieved. And the price must be right. This fistful of advantages makes winning solutions possible.

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