Article appeared in issue 4, 2020

Food for thought

Shay Hannon, Prepared Consumer Food Centre manager, shares his insights from Teagasc's recent Food Innovation Gateways Event: Food Formulation for the Future

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Food Innovation Gateways is part of the Teagasc Food Technology and Knowledge Transfer Strategy to support Irish food companies. The initiative promotes opportunities for the food industry to engage with Teagasc more easily, to exploit opportunities arising from our research outputs and to access our know-how, expertise and infrastructure in a more efficient manner. Research is recognised as the path to innovation and commercialisation.

Food Formulation for the Future – for a fair, healthy and environmentally friendly food system was virtually broadcast, and the topic is inextricably linked to the European Green Deal which sets out how to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. The European Green Deal maps a new sustainable growth strategy to boost the economy and improve people's health and quality of life. At the heart of the Green Deal is the Farm to Fork Strategy which comprehensively addresses the challenges of sustainable food systems, and recognises the connection between healthy people, healthy societies and a healthy planet.

Over the coming years, the European Commission will seek commitments from food companies and organisations to take concrete actions on health and sustainability and will see a particular focus on reformulating food products in line with guidelines for healthy, sustainable diets. The Commission will also seek opportunities to facilitate the shift to healthier diets and stimulate product reformulation, including setting up nutrient profiles to restrict the promotion (via nutrition or health claims) of foods high in fat, sugars and salt.

The Covid-19 pandemic has underlined the importance of a robust and resilient food system that functions in all circumstances, and is capable of ensuring access to a sufficient supply of affordable food for citizens. It has also made us acutely aware of the interrelations between our health, ecosystems, supply chains, consumption patterns and planetary boundaries. It is clear that we need to do much more to keep ourselves and the planet healthy.

Within the Prepared Consumer Food Centre (PCFC), we can help food companies reformulate their food products. The PCFC is a state-of-the-art innovation and research centre located in Teagasc Ashtown, designed to support research, development and innovation in the prepared consumer food sector. The Prepared Consumer Food Centre's capabilities range from new product development and food innovation; nutritional analysis and quality; food safety;  sensory analysis and quality; and research around advanced processing technology. The PCFC is actively helping Irish food business prepare for changing demands. To date the PCFC has worked with a number of small, medium and large enterprises to reformulate food products and help solve scientific challenges.

At the Food Formulation for the Future event, key Teagasc researchers discussed the latest concepts and technologies in food reformulation.

Brijesh Tiwari highlighted how the focus of the food industry has shifted towards advanced food processing technologies due to an increased consumer demand for safe and nutritious food and the need for improved process and energy efficiency. The PCFC, Ashtown, hosts a range of advanced systems including pulsed electric field, a versatile non-thermal technology that can be applied in the development of reformulated food products, offering improved safety profiles, nutritional, shelf-life and sensory properties across a wide range of foods.

Eimear Gallagher discussed the trends in bakery reformulation explaining how Teagasc conducts fundamental and applied research in the cereal and bakery area. Teagacs can provide advice around the application of novel flours and ingredients in wheat and gluten-free bakery formulations, and in reduced fat and sugar products, with a particular focus on natural, healthy ingredients. Among the facilities in the PCFC is a mill room, test bakery, dough rheology lab and sensory suite, all of which are used to support companies in the areas of ingredient selection, product reformulation, mixing regimes and baking practices for a wide range of bakery products.

In the Role of Packaging in Food Reformulation, Shivani Pathania revealed the increasing demand for healthy, natural and minimally processed high-quality foods with an acceptable shelf-life. With many companies looking at reducing fat, salt and sugar levels, food packaging has a critical role to play in enhancing the safety, quality and sensory properties of these reformulated food products. Along with expertise in food product and packaging development, the PCFC houses versatile packaging equipment for applications across the sector from raw, semi-cooked and ready-to-eat liquids to semi-solid, solid, dry and granular food products.

The application of advanced analytical techniques is critical to support the development of reformulated food products, particularly those with enhanced nutritional claims, according to Martin Danaher. The state-of-the-art equipment and analytical methods available within the centre allows for the determination of macronutrients, sugars, minerals, water soluble and fat soluble vitamins. A range of nutritional tests can be conducted to assess food product quality in relation to allergens and toxins.