Reformulating products

Reformulation is an ongoing development in the food industry. At the same time, the market is sometimes reticent about introducing products that have been reformulated. What will consumers respond to? What works well and what misfires?

Involve consumers earlier when reformulating products

The Restaurant of the Future provides producers with a real ‘lab’ where they can monitor reactions from consumers. Furthermore, it is a place where scientific and applied research work side-by-side.

The Restaurant of the Future, part of Wageningen UR Food & Biobased Research, is not immediately obvious on the campus. Although anyone wanting to lunch there is more than welcome, there is a big ‘but’: customers must agree to every second of their visit being recorded on camera. Science is watching you in the Restaurant of the Future. The restaurant offers researchers the perfect opportunity to study and analyse consumer behaviour in a controlled environment and real life. Companies from the food industry can also ask the restaurant labs to carry out sensory and physiological research on their behalf. This combination makes the Restaurant of the Future an interesting prospect for many clients. 

Conventional and new methods

Since it opened in 2007, Stefanie Kremer has been heading projects at the Restaurant of the Future. It is a place where two worlds meet, she says. “When studying sensory aspects, conventional sensory research and consumer research have always been kept entirely separate. For many years, there was a golden dogma stating that complex sensory research could only be carried out using trained panels. The main disadvantage of this approach is that you know what an expert panel will sense, whereas you do not know how real consumers will respond in the shops. If you are testing a complex product such as wine, it is good to have some kind of training in order to identify the sensory attributes you are tasting. But in the case of soup, most consumers could easily identify the various attributes without any kind of training. This allows us to acquire hedonistic and sensory insight in an efficient way, giving marketeers and product designers a head start.”

Reducing the salt content

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The reformulation of soya sauce as an ingredient was an interesting case in this respect. Soya sauce manufacturer Kikkoman wanted to know whether it would be possible to reduce the salt content of products without upsetting consumers. As it turned out, although consumers noticed the change in taste, it did not affect their enjoyment of the product. Or in other words: the product tasted different but just as nice. An encouraging conclusion at a time when the food industry is busily reformulating products on the one hand, but is cautious about introducing reformulated products onto the market on the other. Stefanie Kremer understands the dilemma currently facing the industry. “The question that arises when reformulating is this: should you apply the change to the existing product or should you offer a reformulated product with a different taste alongside it? The industry is very cautious, but I think that too many good concepts die a premature death because the taste is too different from the tried and tested standard.”

Introduction formula determines success

Is a different taste sensation such a bad thing if it also means that a product contains less salt, fat or sugar? That depends, says Marian Geluk, business development manager at Food & Biobased Research. “The industry is acutely aware of obstacles that may hamper the introduction of reformulated products. Understandably, in view of the cases where reformulated products are launched and immediately flop. Take, for example, a packet soup manufacturer who made huge claims about the reduced salt content on the new packaging of his soup. Sales dropped because consumers apparently thought: ‘That can´t be nice’. The manufacturer was able to salvage the product by simply stating ‘new’ on the packaging instead. Consumers who consciously buy branded products with a health connotation probably wouldn’t mind. A manufacturer that added a loaf with 40% less salt to its A-range had an immediate hit. This illustrates the fact that alongside the sensory properties of a product, the introduction formula can also have an impact on the rate of success. So studying the effect of communication in a semi-real life context is enormously important.”
Stefanie Kremer is convinced that the percentage of failed introductions for reformulated products would be reduced if producers were to carry out sensory and real life tests on their product concepts at an early stage. “The Restaurant of the Future is a ‘lab’ that is perfect for testing products: what do consumers respond to? Study consumers and consider their reactions at an earlier stage of the concept development.”

Reverse spiral

According to Stefanie Kremer, involving consumers at the start of a reformulation process would prevent producers investing energy in minor product changes that consumers consider totally uninteresting. “While aspects they consider important often fall by the wayside”. Marian Geluk continues: “A lot of market research goes into launches onto the market. Much of this research consists of on a one-off sensory test, the so-called Central Location Test. The sweetest or saltiest product usually wins. Results like this say little about normal consumer behaviour. What’s more, these tests do not really help the marketeers. Experience shows that if you only offer the sweetest and the saltiest products, consumers will get used to this and the health implications will be considerable. We need a reverse spiral. And this requires market research based on consumer choice and consumer perception.”

Stefanie Kremer predicts that real life research in the food industry is on the point of breaking though. “Product liking has so many facets that it cannot be determined with a single test. Increasingly more clients are realising this and want to be guided through the process by a partner that gives them valid research findings. Data that really say something about the sensory properties of products and about consumer behaviour. The tests we currently use do not provide this kind of information. Of course testing in real life settings is an expensive business. This is why the Food & Biobased Research consumer group is currently working on a range of tests that combine high external validity with an effective set-up. 

Background story in the Food & Biobased Research newsletter - February 2011