Friday, January 19, 2024

Prioritize Protein and Process in 2024


Nestlé is growing its Lindahls Pro+ protein yogurt range in the UK with a Strawberry Sundae flavor. The product offers 18 grams of protein per serving and features a 50:50 blend of whey and casein, which provides for immediate and long-term energy. The product is also low in sugar. This is just the type of processing that helps consumers get the daily nutrients the body requires.

Happy New Year! We are already half way through January, woo hoo! The days are getting longer and the weather…well, it will get better soon. 

Let’s kick off 2024 with what I believe will be the two best messages for dairy processors to focus on this year. They are protein and process, with the latter making reference to the insane amount of media attention “processed foods” are garnering these days. 

If you are unaware of NOVA—a name, not an acronym—read more HERE. But in a nutshell, NOVA is a food classification system that categorizes foods according to the extent and purpose of food processing, rather than in terms of nutrients. Make no mistake, processed foods are important for global food supplies and dietary patterns. This includes making foods with plant proteins and cellular agriculture. (Talk about ultra processing!) 

NOVA focuses on the specific types of processing that modify foods. Like converting milk into cheese, ice cream and yogurt. And because we all know that fluid milk consumption continues to decline, while we are “eating” more dairy, processed foods are not only important for feeding the world, they are also delicious and nutritious. 

NOVA classifies all foods and food products into four distinct groups. NOVA specifies the foods that belong in each group and provides precise definitions of the types of processing underlying each group. NOVA is now recognized as a valid tool for nutrition and public health research, policy and action, in reports from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the Pan American Health Organization. And this is why dairy processors need to be proactive and talk about process. 

Here’s a brief summary of NOVA’s four-tier classification system, and where dairy fits in. 

Group 1. Unprocessed or minimally processed foods
Unprocessed (or natural) foods are edible parts of plants (seeds, fruits, leaves, stems, roots) or of animals (muscle, offal, eggs, milk), and also fungi, algae and water, after separation from nature.
Minimally processed foods are natural foods altered by processes that include removal of inedible or unwanted parts, and drying, crushing, grinding, fractioning, filtering, roasting, boiling, non-alcoholic fermentation, pasteurization, refrigeration, chilling, freezing, placing in containers and vacuum-packaging. These processes are designed to preserve natural foods, to make them suitable for storage, or to make them safe or edible or more pleasant to consume. Many unprocessed or minimally processed foods are prepared and cooked at home or in restaurant kitchens in combination with processed culinary ingredients as dishes or meals.

Group 2. Processed culinary ingredients
Processed culinary ingredients, such as oils, butter, sugar and salt, are substances derived from Group 1 foods or from nature by processes that include pressing, refining, grinding, milling and drying. The purpose of such processes is to make durable products that are suitable for use in home and restaurant kitchens to prepare, season and cook Group 1 foods and to make with them varied and enjoyable hand-made dishes and meals, such as stews, soups and broths, salads, breads, preserves, drinks and desserts. They are not meant to be consumed by themselves, and are normally used in combination with Group 1 foods to make freshly prepared drinks, dishes and meals.

Group 3. Processed foods
Processed foods, such as bottled vegetables, canned fish, fruits in syrup, cheeses and freshly made breads, are made essentially by adding salt, oil, sugar or other substances from Group 2 to Group 1 foods. Processes include various preservation or cooking methods, and, in the case of breads and cheese, non-alcoholic fermentation. Most processed foods have two or three ingredients, and are recognizable as modified versions of Group 1 foods. They are edible by themselves or, more usually, in combination with other foods. The purpose of processing here is to increase the durability of Group 1 foods, or to modify or enhance their sensory qualities.

Group 4. Ultra-processed foods
Ultra-processed foods, such as soft drinks, sweet or savory packaged snacks, reconstituted meat products and pre-prepared frozen dishes, are not modified foods but formulations made mostly or entirely from substances derived from foods and additives, with little if any intact Group 1 food. Sweetened yogurt and flavored milk are in this category. Ingredients of these formulations usually include those also used in processed foods, such as sugars, oils, fats or salt. But ultra-processed products also include other sources of energy and nutrients not normally used in culinary preparations. Some of these are directly extracted from foods, such as casein, lactose, whey and gluten. And the list goes on with additives and manufacturing techniques. 

The International Food Information Council (IFIC) is active in the conversation regarding NOVA’s classification system and overall consumer perception of food processing. The organization hosted a webinar--The Processed Foods Paradox: Consumer Insights on Today's Most Controversial Foods—on Jan. 18, 2024, to explore consumer attitudes and behaviors about processed foods and their potential place in healthy dietary patterns. 

This conversation is important, according to Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak, president and CEO of IFIC, as all members of the food and nutrition industry need to decide what are the next steps now that NOVA is out there. 

The 2025-2030 U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee is considering this question: What is the relationship between the consumption of dietary patterns with varying amounts of ultra-processed foods and growth, body composition and risk of obesity?

The fact is that despite multiple efforts by the Dietary Guidelines—think Food Pyramid, MyPlate and all the other tools out there—Americans’ diet quality has not improved over the years. Four key nutrients—calcium, vitamin D, fiber and potassium--remain deficient in many diets. It is key to understand the role of processed foods in improving the diet.  

Question: Using your best judgement, do you consider the following dairy products to be “processed food?” Select yes, no or not sure.

“There is scientific evidence on the importance of diet quality, yet more insights are needed regarding how to help consumers effectively shift behaviors to achieve improved diet quality over time,” said Reinhardt Kapsak. “Further, amidst the emerging evidence, food policy discussions and headlines [about ultra-processed foods], something is missing and often excluded, and that is consumer perception.”

In other words, if a cup of sweetened yogurt enriched with prebiotic fiber is the preferred way to consume key nutrients, then so be it! If chocolate milk is what growing kids want to drink, then so be it! You get my drift. 

The IFIC recently conducted consumer research on this topic and it will be published later this month, according to Alyssa Pike, senior manager-nutrition communications at IFIC. She provided a sneak peek at this data and looped it back to insights from IFIC’s 2023 Food & Health Survey. 

Here are seven takeaways. 

1. More than eight in 10 consumers say that eating a healthy diet is important to them. 
2. Americans say eating more fruits and vegetables, followed by balance, variety and moderation are top actions they can take to eat healthier. 
3. More than three out of four (76%) consumers say they consider whether a food is processed before purchasing it; however 70% acknowledge they do not fully understand what’s a processed food. 
4. The ingredient list is the most common reference point for deciding whether a food is processed.
5. Most Americans consume processed foods. Slightly more than half believe processed foods can be part of a healthy diet.
6. Consumers purchase packaged foods for many reasons. Taste and price are top purchase drivers. 
7. High protein and mindful eating are the most common diets/eating patterns. 

And this is why dairy foods marketers need to focus on protein and “minimal” processing messages in 2024 and beyond. Happy New Year!

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