Unilever's mission is Vitality: to help people look good, feel good and get more out of life. Unilever wants to offer food products that offer nutritional value and taste great. The company has already reviewed the ingredients of 16,000 products in its foods portfolio as part of its Nutrition Enhancement Programme and, as a result, it has significantly reduced salt, sugar, trans fat and saturated fat levels across its product portfolio, without sacrificing taste. Nevertheless, its R&D experts are continuously exploring ways to deliver more goodness and great taste.
Unilever has increasingly adopted an ‘open innovation’ approach to its R&D and asked teams at The University of Nottingham’s Division of Food Sciences, the Sir Peter Mansfield Magnetic Resonance Centre (SPMMRC) and the Wolfson Digestive Diseases Centre to work together to assess the relationship between the brain and the gut, and ultimately discover how far taste drives consumption.
The project is still in its early stages, and research is currently focused on the perception of taste and how this can be measured by developing techniques to follow brain response and what happens to food structures in the gut when different substances are consumed.
Some interesting results have started to come out, in terms of taste and fat perception. When this is coupled with results from the brain detection side of the study, the team will publish a definitive set of findings.
With around 400 well-known brands across food and home and personal care categories, Unilever is a household name all over the world. So when they decided to undertake research into fat and sweetness perception, they turned to a partnership which dated back to the early 1990s.
“In many ways, our long-standing partnership with The University of Nottingham has been a template for the ‘open innovation’ approach Unilever has adopted in R&D.” says Tim Foster, Senior Scientist of Food Structural Design at Unilever. “Nottingham is world leading in this area and we’ve been working with Professor Andy Taylor from Food Sciences and Professor Robin Spiller from the SPMMRC for many years. Their experience and skills coupled with our own expertise means that it’s a partnership built on mutual respect and trust and is one that has really delivered. By joining forces we can both do a lot more than on our own. This so-called Open Innovation is a cornerstone of Unilever's innovation strategy.”
The first part of the project is underway, with Dr Joanne Hort from the Division of Food Sciences heading it up.
“Andy and Joanne’s work involves flavour perception – we want to try to understand how different tastes and textures are perceived, how different levels of fat and sugar affect taste and ultimately how this impacts on people’s desire for certain foods,” says Tim.
Testers are given a series of ‘emulsions’ to taste. These substances have a consistency similar to thick cream, and each has a different property – such as sweetness or fat – added to it.
“This project isn’t about replacing all the fats and sugars in our food,” stresses Tim. “It’s about nutritional balance. This does include reducing some of the less desirable nutrients, like saturated fats. Through this study, we may also learn rules that could be applied to the reduction of salt, which is clearly another very topical issue.”
The partnership is very much two way, with Unilever hosting researchers from the University, offering the use of their facilities and teaching them specific techniques.
The second phase of the project will be carried out at the SPMMRC, using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) technology to evaluate the brain’s perception to these substances and more conventional MRI to track the fate of food structures after consumption.
Tim adds: “The whole interaction we have with the University is extremely friendly. This isn’t contract research, it’s about respect, about working together and about giving the researchers the freedom to work – and through this freedom comes inspiration and innovation.”