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Insights from Food Vision Asia 2017

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Following the first Food Vision Asia last year, this year’s was once again attended by Euromonitor International. This article will cast the spotlight on alternative sources of protein again, an indication that it is an up-and-coming trend here to stay. The other industry developments discussed were product reformulation and fortification. Relooking into the nutrients and ingredients of our food serves as the industry’s response to solve the conundrum of both over- and under-nourishment in Asia.

Consumer insights and behaviour: product reformulation and fortification

Last year was a turning point for the food industry, when debates were held over the effectiveness of sugar taxes and the various studies about the impact of sugar on health. The debate surrounding sugar is of particular concern to Asia where more than half of the world’s population with diabetes resides, according to estimates by the International Diabetes Federation. As such, industry players have identified product reformulation as one of the weapons to bear against the “war on diabetes” in Asia. One way was to reduce sugar intake while minimising the change in perceived taste. Natural sugar replacements/alternatives such as Isomaltulose (said to show lowered glycaemic and insulin response) and the weaning off of sugar by imperceptible amounts, are proposed. Increasing dietary fibre and reducing simple carbohydrates are other ways of tackling diabetes, aside from reducing sugar intake. Product reformulation was also touted as key to impeding other metabolic diseases, like obesity.

That being said, there are those that argue that singling out any particular macronutrient as the cause of diabetes and obesity can be misleading. After all, there is a multitude of factors that contribute to metabolic diseases in a significant way. Perhaps the reason sugar is the focus of heated debate right now is because consumption of sugar is still at such a high level. According to Euromonitor International’s Nutrition data, the average global consumer consumes about 73g of sugar from packaged food, fresh food, soft drinks and alcoholic drinks per day; doubling the recommended daily intake advised by most health authorities for men and close to tripling that for women. The reason for the slow change could be that reducing salt, sugar and fat can be tricky as the perception of flavour is inherently complex. For example, there are sweeteners known to alter the textural or flavour properties, while some leave an undesired aftertaste. A product perceived to not taste well would not sell well.

The over- and under consumption of certain nutrients can occur within the same country or city. For instance, India’s obesity and diabetic population are rising while at the same time, it is abound with people with micronutrient deficiencies. India’s efforts in tackling undernourishment include fortifying foods and implementing educational programs, such as a fortification logo, to push the consumption of fortified foods. Efforts to fortify staple foods have been gaining momentum as organisational bodies expound them as a solution to the deficiency problem. 45RICE, a social enterprise based in Singapore, seeks to resolve micronutrient deficiencies like Vitamin A and iron deficiency among the migrant construction workers, through rice fortification. Companies were also reminded that there are potential profits to be reaped from having a crack at malnutrition in additional to the social cause of it. That said, the business opportunities will vary between countries and from city to city and companies have to tailor their solutions to their intended consumer group along the way.

To bring it all together, product reformulation and fortification were identified as key to addressing the double burden of malnutrition. The focus of product reformulation should however, not just be on foods produced by multi-national companies as traditional local foods in the region can be high in fat, sugar and salt as well. Other than the ingredients of the food, the behavioural aspects of consumers have to be central to the approach as well. Government associations and companies have to come together to influence consumers’ food choices. It may have come to the point where consumers are already aware of what is considered beneficial for their health but they may not have acted on it due to convenience or taste preferences. Product fortification for the undernourished may be a different ball game altogether, where the simplicity of the message, affordability and availability might count for more.

Consumer insights and behaviour: alternative sources of protein

Alternative sources of protein have been a hot topic for a while now. As for insect protein, promoting consumer acceptance will be essential for its viability. As Nathan Preteseille from Bugsolutely and AETS Consulting puts it; consumers in the west might see insect foods as a novelty or as an environmental solution, but insect eating could be polarised in the east. For instance, in the rural areas of Thailand, insects are consumed as an important source of protein while those who grew up in urban areas might be less exposed to them. Another issue to be addressed would be to eventually move insects from being an experimental snack or sports supplement, to an everyday food product. For example, Bugsolutely launched a pasta made with wheat and cricket flour, providing 21.7g of protein for every 100g of pasta, along with high levels of other nutrition. The idea of consuming insects is easier to stomach when the insects are ground into powdered form; an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach to it. However, getting consumers to obtain their protein from pasta, a food that is traditionally regarded as a staple food, might take some persuading as well. Supply chain issues are the other big obstacle on the road to mass adoption. From bulk production to food safety, the supply-side factors are not to be neglected when discussing the viability of alternative sources of protein. Regulations for insects as human food are still on-going. The eventual move to other types of ‘less mainstream’ insects would require new research into its nutritional value and food production methods, aside from creating consumer acceptance. Getting insects to be accepted by regulators would likely be an involved process with insects being a relatively new source of food to the general public.

Other sources of protein were also presented in additional to insects and plant-based protein during this year’s event. Dr Tim Finigan from Quorn Foods introduced mycoprotein, an ingredient derived from a fungus via fermentation, as a rich and healthy source of protein among other nutrients. Sold as an ingredient in Quorn in countries including the US as a meat substitute and a cooking ingredient, it was bought over by Monde Nissin, a Philippines-based company in 2015. Given the acquisition, we might be seeing Quorn sold in this part of the world in the near future. Quorn was made with the intention of replicating the texture and taste of meat. It is marketed as being closer to biting into real meat, compared to the ‘rubbery’ feeling of soy protein. Similar to insects, it is also said to reduce our water footprint as well as other environmental impacts, compared to animal protein.

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