Japanese food giant Ajinomoto has launched a global nutrition strategy dubbed ‘nutrition without compromise’. The company has broken this concept down into three pillars. In order to address public health challenges, Ajinomoto believes the international food industry needs to deliver nutritious foods without compromising taste, access or 'the local way of life'.
“Nutrition has always been a core value for us, but we have recently verbalized exactly what we mean and what we believe is nutritious food,” Manasi Pethkar, Global Communications Manager at the Japan-based conglomerate told FoodNavigator.
“When food tastes good, when it's easily accessible and if it respects local flavours and customs, we remove the barriers that stop people leading healthier lifestyles… That’s why these three pillars have come to life for us. The strategy is very much aligned with the direction of global public health goals, such as the UN and the SDGs.”
Healthy ageing and protein optimisation: ‘We have first mover advantage’
Ajinomoto has a long history of leveraging science-based research and insight, having been founded by Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda in 1908. “Science has been at the heart of Ajinomoto from the start… Our [foundation] is amino acid technology. It is pure science," Pethkar reflected.
Ajinomoto has designed its nutrition strategy to reflect its research strengths, the areas where it brings science-based innovation to the table. One such category, where the company believes it offers a distinct insight, is optimising protein intake for ageing populations.
“If you look at the WHO [World Health Organization] data, there's a widespread issue of insufficient dietary protein intake. People do not have access to high quality protein. High quality proteins have the right amino acid balance. Approximately 20% of the world's elderly populations are missing out on essential nutrients. Protein contributes to muscle mass and strength,” Pethkar elaborated.
“With our amino acids research we bring some really creative solutions on protein intake.”
Getting the right amino acid balance is not the only challenge facing food makers targeting older people. “When you start ageing there are so many changes that happen in your body. The first thing is your taste and sensory function goes down, then your muscle mass goes down, then elderly people sometimes cannot chew properly... For all of these challenges, we have solutions,” the Ajinomoto executive claimed.
Ajinomoto has a well-developed set of solutions in this area because it is a topic that has attracted interest in Japan - a country where more than 20% of the population is over 65 - for some time, Pethkar said. The rest of the world is now playing catch-up.
“Japan has the biggest elderly population of developed countries. The world is ageing. Being based in Japan gives us a kind of first mover advantage to develop new solutions for this population. And in turn, we can offer these solutions to the rest of the world,” Pethkar believes.
She described the healthy ageing sector as ‘very much a growth market’, not just in Japan but around the world. Indeed, in Europe the population of over 65s is expected to reach almost 150m by 2050. Innovation in this space is therefore ‘worth looking at’, she told us.
Salt reduction and re-thinking MSG
Ajinomoto’s second focus category in the nutrition space is ‘delicious salt reduction’. Here the company believes some of the benefits of MSG make it an ideal ingredient to accompany food makers on their salt reformulation journey. But Pethkar conceded the company still needs to overcome a degree of scepticism in markets like Europe and the US first.
“Scepticism is an issue that we have been dealing with for quite some time. But time and time again the safety of MSGs has been confirmed. MSG is safe beyond a doubt,” she told FoodNavigator.
Ajinomoto is keen to communicate not only the safety credentials of MSG, the company wants to guide the conversation towards the ingredient's positive credentials, Pethkar continued.
“We are engaging with key stakeholders to help people understand the safety of MSG – and not just the safety but the benefits. Because sodium reduction is really important not just for Ajinomoto but for the world. WHO has been recommending sodium reduction and, in many countries, the sodium intake is far exceeding what WHO recommends.
“We have invested in research, there are third party researchers that have found sometimes a 30% reduction in sodium is possible with the introduction of MSG. In some ready-packaged foods - like sausages, chips or snacks - sometimes up to 50%.
“There are clear benefits to MSG. It can bring salt reduction in an easier, simple, and cheaper way. And we can’t forget the cheaper part of the solution because to replace salt, you don't have to bring in some expensive solution. It has to be a simple, cheaper solution to remove something as cheap as salt.”
She observed that in recent years the ‘tone’ of the conversation around MSG is ‘definitely changing’ and moving in a ‘softer direction’. “It is not as harsh as it used to be so we are hoping for some better news eventually.”
Longer-term objectives: From sugar and veggies to personalisation
Ajinomoto is also working on a number of what Pethkar describes as ‘longer term’ positive nutrition objectives.
“For the long term, there are other focus areas. We are definitely trying to reduce sugar, to reduce the saturated fats, to encourage people to eat a variety of proteins, eat more vegetables and fruits. So that's a long-term goal. But right now the two major goals that we have set are salt reduction and the optimum protein intake,” she explained.
Innovation efforts in these areas include the development of seasoning options that can actually increase the amount of vegetables in people’s diets or product statements. "It's not just about negative nutrients, it's also about positive [reformulation]. Protein is a positive nutrient, [as are those found in] vegetables and fruits, whole grains, nuts [and] legumes."
Elsewhere, Ajinomoto believes it can leverage its expertise as a competitive advantage in the high-growth plant-based category.
“When it comes to plant-based proteins, there are so many challenges that these companies are struggling with. Start with taste, then texture, then amino acid balance. If you look at it, all these are Ajinomoto’s strengths… We definitely think we are in a good position to offer solutions in that area of the market.”
Ajinomoto’s knowhow in amino acids alongside its capacity in biofermentation is ‘very important’ for the company within plant-based, Pethkar continued.
“Our unique expertise in the global food market around amino acid research and biofermentation [provide a competitive edge]. Seventy-nine percent of our factories have already installed resource fermentation technology. It helps us contribute to secure food resources and ultimately protect the natural environment, which includes ecosystems.
“We all know animal protein is not sustainable, as the population grows, we cannot just entirely be dependent on animal protein. We also need to look at plant-based protein alternatives. This is where biofermentation comes in and we definitely already have some unique strengths and unique technologies to offer.”
These technologies are already being deployed with stakeholders in some markets, Pethkar added.
Ajinomoto is also actively innovating in projects that it expects to shape the future of nutrition. The work the company is doing on personalised nutrition, for instance, sits in this space.
“It is going to be very significant, personalisation in health, including personalised nutrition,” Pethkar said, stressing that the development work here is still in its infancy.
Ajinomoto's strategic planning sees the company working on short- and long-term strategic objectives in tandem, helping to solve the problems of today while also innovating for the future. “Personalisation, that's in future. Right now, we're focusing on what the problems are, the issues at hand."