Southeast Asia’s regulatory system is out of sync with industry practices, with some regulators sometimes uncertain of what constitutes a natural ingredient.
This, according to Paul Collins, managing director of fruit- and vegetable-based food colouring major GNT, pushes the need for companies to place a greater emphasis on spending time with the authorities to explain the nature of their ingredients.
Officials from the Asean bloc of southeast Asian nations are currently working on unified food and supplements codes, but the results of this lengthy process are not expected for some time.
“The regulations were written some years ago and current practices are post these regulations, so they are not synchronised,” Collins told FoodNavigator-Asia at the Fi Asia-Vietnam event this week in Saigon.
“Innovation is usually ahead of regulation, and then the regulations are modified to adjust. So it’s a question of regulations catching up with consumer trends in the food industry.”
Not on the list
As a natural colour developer, GNT uses food products as its raw materials. However, when food officials in the region are asked by companies like GNT to give approval, they will often scan the list of permitted additives only to find the fruit and vegetable concentrates used are not on the list.
Common sense would suggest that a commonplace ingredient like cherry juice would not need approval as it is a food, not an additive, but by querying an application like this, it seems that some authorities have less than a full understanding of this field of food science.
“If you talked to a competent authority in one of the Asean countries, I don’t think they would understand much about the topic of colouring foods that are the real natural colours,” said Collins.
“Simply by mentioning colour, [the regulator] would look through their list of permitted colours and readily conclude that it’s not on the list so therefore it’s not allowed. The permitted lists typically name additives, and our propositions are not additives so they are not going to appear on the list—and aren’t required to be on the list—because they are foods and not additives.
“They are food ingredients, and when you talk about food ingredients, there is no positive listing as they are all foods. Referring to lists of additives does not give you any clarity, so it is important, when you are in conversation with authorities, to explain yourself clearly so they know you’re not talking about colour in the sense of additives, but about food ingredients that impart their colour.
“As long as the foods are safe, and as long as the labelling is clear for the consumer so there is no misleading, it’s fundamentally a very sound proposition that requires understanding. And it is our obligation to explain that.”
Where Asia leads, Europe follows
The level of new ingredient development across Asia-Pacific is largely decried by food scientists, with many accusing the region’s companies of largely being imitators, not innovators. Collins does not agree.
“As a European, it is not unusual to look at Asia-Pacific as a source for innovation, and what we notice is products coming to market that would not traditionally contain vegetable, but then are positioned to contain vegetable and incorporate its goodness.
“An example would be a vegetable ice cream or a vegetable yoghurt. From a European perspective, consumers might initially say “yuck, no!”. Yoghurt should always be fruit-flavoured; ice cream should be fruit, mint, vanilla or any other traditional flavour, for example, but never vegetable. But why shouldn’t this be the case?
“The point is we are processing vegetables that can be incorporated into value-added products like ice creams, beverages and confectionery, and we are working on concepts that bring vegetable into a greater range of products to deliver vegetable goodness where it wouldn’t have been there before.”
According to Collins, such innovation is present in places like Japan and South Korea, and should be developed even further. On the other hand, it is not yet a vote winner in Europe and North America, but this might well be on the change.
Dairy vegetables at the cutting edge
Indeed, Collins is seeing a trend for the further development of the misplaced vegetable concept across Asia-Pacific, and also expects the concept to catch on across Europe.
“If you look for cutting-edge innovation, you would look towards Japan, and then other markets will take inspiration from this and copy the innovation or turn it in a different direction.”
Victor Foo, general manager of GNT’s Singapore operation, where the company has a customer support team, marketing department and application laboratory, believes Asia-Pacific as an imitator has had its day.
“Asia is slowly changing from being an imitator to an innovator. If you look at China, players there used to copy international launches,” Foo explained. “But if you see the market there this year, Chinese companies have been very innovative with some very interesting new products on the shelf.
“Japan is engaged in a market that many Southeast Asian countries look towards for innovation. You look at the new launches in Asia-Pacific—Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines—they look towards Japan’s market for new ideas.”
Looking to an innovation-based market like Japan for new ideas—rather than new copies—is an important direction for the ingredients industry to follow. It is hoped that the Asean nations will be able to innovate further once unified regulations are implemented so that everyone involved in the process has a full understanding of the ingredients being used.