There are many different aspects to achieving success in new product development (NPD), but there is always a fundamental requirement to have a thorough understanding of ingredients and the process conditions, and how these impact on the ultimate performance of the end product.
After all, whilst the marketing department might want to take the credit for identifying a market niche, and the packaging and advertising executives might want to take credit for attracting new consumers, it is still down to the technical people to deliver a product that can be made, that performs as intended, that is safe, tastes good and has a shelf-life that makes it marketable. It is down to the technical team to deliver a product that meets any regulatory requirements, and that contains the ingredients that are described on the label, and lives up to customer expectations.
There is a breadth of expertise that is needed to take a product from the earliest stages of concept generation through development to ultimate production. That applies whether we are considering developing an entirely new concept, or reformulating an existing product to have less of one ingredient or more of another. Indeed, creating something entirely new can be easier than reformulating an existing one. The technical challenge to match the reformulated product with the original one can be massive when reducing sugar, fat and salt, or supplementing products with added vitamins or antioxidants, or substituting an existing ingredient with a more attractive/functional alternative.
One complication that always needs to be borne in mind when formulating any product, is that changing an ingredient to produce one desirable outcome can sometimes lead to another aspect being modified. So, for example, altering the amount of sugar in a biscuit recipe might also change the flavour release of some ingredients as well as the structural properties of the biscuit, perhaps rendering it less crunchy or more prone to crumble. Or perhaps an added ingredient requires the pH of the product to be altered in order to ensure chemical stability, but this then alters the eating experience, or affects another ingredient adversely.
So, having flavour chemists on hand who can help with understanding how recipe changes are affecting flavour release and perception, and microscopists and physical chemists who can explain the impact on the micro-structure and product performance, can prove to be a huge advantage for the food technologists and scientists involved in product development. It can also help to avoid some potential problems before they even occur.
Depending on the ingredients involved and the nature of the final product, the expertise of others might also be useful, perhaps to address issues such as allergen management, or about ingredient safety or authenticity. Analytical input will also be required to substantiate any labelling and marketing claims.
The potential to understand ingredients and their interactions more fully is always expanding with the advance of new technologies. Across all areas of analytical chemistry, physical chemistry and microscopy, new technologies are emerging that can help the food development team.
For example, particle size has long been recognised as a key specification parameter for certain ingredients. More recently, the food industry has become aware of the significance of nanoparticles. Dynamic light scattering (DLS) instrumentation that can measure nanoparticles in food, and also help scientists to understand and predict the stability of food emulsions, is now moving out of university research departments and into the commercial arena.
Similarly, X-ray tomography, which is a non-destructive technique that can be used to build up a three dimensional image of the internal structure of a food product, is now part of the food scientist’s armoury. This technique not only provides three dimensional information which allow visual investigation of the original, untampered with internal structures of a food product, but can be used to interrogate them further with image analysis to provide statistical data for product comparison or time-lapsed studies. Coupled with light and confocal microscopy with selective staining and powerful electron microscopy, X-ray tomography can be used to relate product performance to microstructural features, and to explain anomalies when they occur. Hence these techniques are useful in NPD and troubleshooting.
In the chemistry laboratories too, there are new methods such as proton-transfer reaction time-of-flight mass spectrometry (PTR-ToF-MS) which can be used to detect how volatile organic flavour chemicals are released into the mouth and nose as food is consumed. This powerful technique allows flavour chemists to build a much more accurate profile of how different formulations affect flavour release, and how intense and long-lasting the flavour profile might be, and how changes to recipes help or hinder the perception of flavour from a consumer’s perspective.
These technologies, within the physical chemistry, microscopy and chemistry laboratories respectively, are just three examples of the highly sophisticated equipment that is now available to the food industry, but of course, such equipment is only as good as the experience and expertise of the scientists operating them.
Every food product is different, and so method development and validation is a key skill that is critical to ensuring that test results using any of the techniques mentioned above, and all others, are meaningful and useful. Indeed, it is only when a laboratory practises the discipline of ensuring methods are fit for purpose that it can claim any reputation for scientific excellence.
This observation applies to any of the analytical challenges that are relevant to NPD, from authenticating ingredients to assessing the stability and shelf-life of products. Both of these issues (and others) impinge on claim substantiation, verifying that what goes into the product is of the desired quality and provenance, but also that the product can legitimately claim to contain key ingredients, such as vitamins or antioxidants, at the end of shelf-life as well as at the point of manufacturing.
Whilst NPD is largely an exercise in formulation, with an element of trial and error always likely, the knowledge of external experts can do much to reduce the guesswork involved. Moreover, the support of fundamental science can help food producers to achieve better outcomes, whether that be in terms of improving product performance, reducing costs of production, enhancing flavours or boosting healthy ingredients or actually shortening the time to market.