By Agatha Wong
In “The Asia Food Challenge 2021: Understanding the New Asian Consumer” report published by PwC, Rabobank, and Temasek, the “new sophisticated Asian consumer” is discerning about the food they eat, driven by “spending growing disposable income on more expensive, tastier food”. Likewise, they are also shifting to healthier consumption and lifestyle habits and emphasising on transparency as a purchasing factor. More crucially, the unexpected emergence of COVID-19 and subsequent string of political crises sending ripples down supply chains and food prices have also affect consumer demand in APAC.
With that in mind, how should food manufacturers create exciting products that appeal to these varied demands?
THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS
With growing concerns surrounding inflation and rising prices, consumers are looking towards alternatives that go easier on their wallet, while also not compromising on taste and texture. The “affordable premium” sector is thus gaining traction, signalling food and beverage manufacturers to bring indulgent treats and unique flavours to a lower price point. These can be seen in products such as sliced cheeses, chocolates made of emulsifiers, and premium flavours such as truffle or spice blends. Accordingly, low-cost but high-quality ingredient solutions are required in order for consumers to enjoy the same taste and sensorial experiences without breaking the bank.
Once such example would be AAK’s cocoa butter alternatives and filling fats, which extend shelf life and improve flavour release, taste, and sensory experience. The CEBES Choco 15 was highlighted in particular at Fi Asia Thailand 2023 for an emerging market looking for indulgent and premium selections at a time of increasing cost. With three times greater the cocoa butter tolerance compared to a regular CBS, CEBES Choco 15 allows manufacturers to enhance flavours while maintaining quality and cost-efficient processing. The end result is therefore a chocolate compound product that looks highly similar to their pricier counterparts, with little difference in taste and texture.
“We are striking the balance between premiumisation and affordability,” explained Nikesh Hindocha, regional director for AAK South East Asia. “We want to provide options to producers seeking to create more premium and better tasting products, especially in a region where we are also aware that affordability is an important factor.”
The emphasis on creating great flavour and appearance can also be seen in the development of plant-based products.
Acknowledging that the plant-based sector has undergone some challenges in the past year, Hindocha emphasised his confidence in its growth and role in bringing sustainable food to consumers. The continued growth of this market will be significant for the APAC region, where vegetarianism is familiar to most consumers through the form of soy and seitan products. To that end, plant-based products offer a true protein replacement in this existing diet.
The focus for plant-based products would thus be creating structure, flavour and colour, and appearance, as laid out by Guires Food Research Lab. When it comes to taste and texture, consumers are looking for a distinctive aroma, or perhaps a meaty taste similar to animal protein. To improve the visual aesthetics of plant-based meat items, AAK has a series of solutions that mimic the fat distribution of meat products such as pepperoni and salamis.
“We are bringing to the industry something that is even closer to real meat. We have solutions for whole cuts, where fat plays an important role on its visual and taste. Consumers want these products to have the familiar patterns of fat on pepperoni visually, and for them to taste great when they eat it.”
The experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic have left many conscious of their health and wellness. Besides ensuring that they have a strong immune system capable of fending off viruses and infections, consumers are also searching for long-term solutions that support other health factors, with joint health, cardiovascular health, and cosmeceuticals gaining prominence in this sector.
Likewise, consumers also want to give their children a head start when it to proper nutrition. While fish oil has always been popular for younger age groups when it comes to DHA supplementation, many children shun it for its taste and smell. AAK has thus formulated its Akonino ELIP portfolio to enable naturally sourced products containing phospholipids and long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LCPUFA) in the same molecule. The solution can be added to infant formula to provide a composition closer to mother’s milk with clinically supported benefits for the baby.
These nutritional solutions can also be implemented in other supplements for the older consumer, given that a rapidly ageing population has also resulted in a desire to “age gracefully”, ie keeping fit and eating healthy to prevent or reduce the onset of age-related health complications.
“ELIP works well in food applications as well, so consumers need not turn to tablet if they wish to consume added DHA in their diet,” said Hindocha. “The solution can be added in yoghurts, chocolates, or beverages without any fishy notes common with fish oil-derived DHA.”
In addition, regional governments have also undertaken measures to encourage healthy eating. Given the high prevalence of diabetes and chronic kidney diseases in the region, ASEAN countries such as Malaysia and Thailand have introduced sugar taxes to encourage consumers to switch to reduced sugar products. In Singapore, the prevalence of high blood pressure due to high sodium intake has also compelled the government to study regulatory measures to reduce sodium content and shift to healthier options.
These measures will no doubt call upon the food and beverage industry to set the tone for healthy eating.
“Manufacturers may face challenges when it comes to lowering sugar content, saturated fat content, etc. AAK can help producers mitigate some compromises that comes from reducing these contents, ensuring that products are still great tasting to consumers,” said Hindocha.
FOR THE LONG RUN
Besides an emphasis on nurturing health and wellness, consumers are also mindful of sustainable action – be it on the ingredients list or food packaging. On that vein, responsible sourcing and ethical labour, among other considerations, have come to be top-of-mind for consumers. This, too, is a view corroborated by Hindocha, who shared that AAK does “see more requests” for sustainable solutions.
As part of the company’s purpose of “Making Better Happen”, AAK has a business model which sees them engaging with their organisation, allowing them to prioritise their actions and meet their sustainability commitments. By supporting international sustainability frameworks, AAK promotes better sourcing, operations, and solutions.
“We support our customers firstly through raw materials which are sourced sustainably – protecting biodiversity and ecosystems, as well as reducing emissions in our factories. We also provide sustainable solutions and lipids that go into the creation of sustainable products like plant-based food. Sustainability is a trend that I think will continue to grow in the next few years; at AAK we are passionate about this topic, and we are delighted to help our customers drive this message.”
Rising costs, climate change, and supply chain disruptions have certainly posed challenges for producers; however, AAK addresses these issues by creating affordable solutions without compromising taste quality. As Asian consumers are moving towards more sophisticated products, food and beverage manufacturers can tap into these solutions and seize the myriad of opportunities that this region has to offer.
This article can be found in Food & Beverage Asia’s December/January 2024 issue.