Unilever debuts fat reduction protein in EU

Unilever’s innovative ice structuring protein (ISP) has finally made its EU debut, appearing in the reformulated Solero Exotic Explosion and Solero Berry Explosion handheld ice creams. The products are now on sale in several European markets, including the UK, the Netherlands and Spain, reports Innova.

The Solero products feature the following claims: “With delicious fruit pieces. Only 90 calories per bar. No artificial colors and flavors.” Clean-label style claims continue to dominate new product development strategies at Unilever.

An Innova Market Insights analysis of the top positioning categories for new EU tracked launches from the company (Jul 2010-Jul 2011), was led by “no additives/ preservatives” (28.5%) and “low fat” (9.5%).

ISP allows for the creation of ice cream and ice lollies which are lower in fat, sugar and calories and at the same time include more fruit. Ice creams and ice lollies containing the ingredient can also better hold their shape and are less messy to eat.

“Combining ISP with stabilizer technology allows us to make products that additionally don’t melt so easily – great for small children and for hot countries,” the company writes in its promotion. ISPs are widely found in nature and allow fish to survive in freezing arctic waters. The protein works by changing the shape of the ice crystals. Unilever’s ice cream scientists took this idea from nature (specifically the ocean pout, which lives in deep waters off the North East American coast) and have applied it to ice cream.

As sourcing ice structuring protein from a crop or a fish is not environmentally or economically sustainable, however, ISP is prepared with a genetically modified baker’s yeast using a fermentation process. To ensure that the ISP is as pure as possible the yeast cells are removed through several stages of fine filtration at the end of the process. It only takes tiny amounts of ISP to have the desired effect e.g. each single Solero only contains <0.003 grams of ISP.

ISP technology was submitted to the EU regulatory body for clearance for use as a novel food in 2006. After nearly three years of consultation, approval was given for the use of ISP in all EU member states in April 2009.

Low fat products and novelty “popsicle” products have been on sale in the US, Mexico, China, Philippines and Australia for several years. Innova Market Insights has tracked 67 products in the US containing this ingredient, with the Philippines featuring the second highest number of tracked launches (9).

The Philippines market recently saw the addition of a line of products under the Selecta brand. Introductions include Selecta Buco Salad (Coconut Salad), a hand-held ice cream with the nutty and creamy flavor of buco (young coconut) salad. In the US, the Breyers Light Double Churned ice cream bar range continues to be expanded, with recent introductions including Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Sandwiches “with only 4g fat and 160 calories per sandwich!.”

The fact that a genetically modified ingredient is used in the creation of ISP caused some stir in the EU, when Unilever made its initial application to EFSA for the ingredient’s approval back in 2006. To company has opted to clearly inform the consumer about the ingredient, with an explanation of the technology featured at a URL labeled on the packaging:

The launch of the Solero Explosion products comes as part of a large reformulation strategy at Unilever, where various ingredient and technology platforms are being analyzed for their potential in reducing fat, sugar and salt. The company has already significantly reduced salt levels across their portfolio globally, succeeding in reductions of up to 25% across the portfolio, while maintaining taste, to meet an interim target of 6 grams of salt per day by the end of 2010.

More challenging will be to continue this strategy with another 15 to 20% in gradual reductions, aiming for World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations of 5 grams of salt per day. The company envisages arriving at this target between 2015 and 2020 and is looking at various platforms.

For example, Dr Johanneke Busch, Sensation, Perception & Behavior expert at Unilever R&D in Vlaardingen recently noted that the company was assessing salt distribution throughout products, as an innovative means of reducing the sodium content of products. She pointed to a Goh et al. study (2010) which found that by using foam as an inert gaseous filler, the sodium concentration in an aqueous phase can be increased and saltiness perception is increased. The same results were found for sweetness. Unilever is assessing the commercial potential of this technology in finished products, with soups and sauces being an obvious application.

Another innovative recent launch to the UK and Irish markets is Flora Cuisine, which is promoted as a non-spitting healthier alternative to cooking oils and butter. “Made from a blend of rapeseed, linseed and sunflower oil, Flora Cuisine is high in essential Omega 3 and 6 and contains 45% less saturated fat than olive oil, making it perfect for keeping your family’s hearts healthy,” the company claims.

Source: Innova Market Insights Newsletter, August 2011