Interview with an Innovator

Ulrick & Short’s Adrian Short: ‘Sugar replacements also need to reduce calories – shifting to other carbs is just playing games’

The clean label ingredients developer discusses its left field ideas, how consumers are becoming more uncompromising and why the vegan trend will lead to brand new eating experiences

6 March 2020
healthingredientsplant-basedsustainabilityvegan

Short on paper - CV

  • Having commenced a degree in landscape architecture, Short took a year out and got a job with a seasoning company which sent him to university on day release to study microbiology and food technology.
  • Prior to setting up Ulrick & Short, he worked for a Danish producer of animal proteins supplying the meat industry, and later joined the starch and glucose processing division of Associated British Foods.
  • Short set up clean label supplier Ulrick & Short with his business partner in 2000.

Ulrick & Short say they’re “the company that isn’t a household name but is in every household.” More technically speaking, they’re a clean label ingredients manufacturer and, celebrating their twentieth anniversary in 2020, they remain proudly independent. 

Their 20-strong UK team work from “a converted barn in a field” in north England and face tough competition from large international corporations. But, says co-founder Adrian Short: “When you’re small and quite nimble you can make a decision rather quickly. The customers we deal with value that.” 

From their test kitchen, Ulrick & Short’s food scientists create 100% natural ingredients made from crop and cereal-based products like tapioca, cereal, maise, pea and wheat. Their products might be sugar replacements or meat replacements or fat replacements which they sell to food manufacturers. 

“Some fast food launches have been incredibly successful,” Short says. But “umpteen NDAs” forbid him from revealing their clients. 

In this profile Short discusses the future of plant-based, the rise of proper, authentic sugar replacements that don’t just move calories elsewhere in the product, and the benefits of being a small independent company working with multinational supermarkets and producers. 

Twenty years ago... My business partner and I saw an opportunity to set up a company that focused on niche products that were clean label and additive-free. We felt there was a good opportunity growing in the marketplace and we had an idea how to produce these products, so we decided to take the leap of faith. 

At first, we focused purely on crop and cereal-based ingredients such as tapioca, cereal, maise, pea and wheat. We had good manufacturing partners around the world who would make the ingredients on our behalf. When we started the business we started in our spare bedrooms, so our development kitchens were our kitchens. It was originally all based around ingredients that were non-GMO: so no E numbers, no additives, no chemicals and a consumer-friendly declaration on the back of the packet.  

Ulrick & Short

We both had good knowledge of how cereal and crops were processed and fractionated. So we knew what was possible, and importantly how to apply that in a practical food manufacturing environment. Our customers are medium- to large-scale food manufacturers who are producing food for the big supermarkets or one of the big food providers. The company has snowballed as we’ve created a wider range of products. Sometimes we take great ideas on board but anything that doesn’t stick to our values, we resist if all the idea will do is make a lot of extra money.  

Our niche has slowly but surely become mainstream. We’ve developed the next range of products now that change the nutritional aspect of food to reduce calories and do other useful things, such as getting rid of halogens, for example. It’s still all clean label.  

Everything we sell is a white or brown or beige powder. The products look pretty boring, so with clients we tend to demonstrate our products in application in food. 

We’ve always been very quick to jump on changes in the market. In the last twelve to eighteen months we’ve seen a huge increase in vegan food. We’ve been very quick to adapt in the test kitchen to take on projects that involve solutions for vegan foods. Because of our quick turnaround time we have an advantage over our big competitors. We’re a good size now but our competitors tend to be big international companies. When you’re quite nimble you can make a decision rather quickly. The customers we deal with value that: if you can react quickly you get the opportunity because supermarkets want stuff the next day.  

We have an internal innovation group. They propose ideas that might be a bit left field, as well as put new products forward. Additionally, we subscribe to systems like Innova for insight into marketing trends from around the world. That approach is mixed with a bit of black art. I wish I could say something more scientific, but that’s how we predict new things. 

A lot of our work is gut feel. We couple that with real-life market intelligence and assessments of developments in the market. We also gather information from the sixty-odd meetings a month we have with customers. I wouldn’t like to say we’re a trend creator, that would be a bit pompous. But we can see a move in the food industry coming maybe a bit quicker than others. What we are good at is reacting rather rapidly when we see the opportunity. Our workforce takes an actual genuine interest in the customer’s business.  

In the past we could see the trend for fat replacement coming so we acted quickly. Now we’re looking at expanding our range to offer textures for sauces and breads, for instance. At the moment we’re searching for new crops; we might have some starches that will give stability to a sauce based on tapioca to give a new texture. 

We are keen and aware of sustainability. Crops like tapioca and rice are only grown in certain parts of the world, so we’ve got our hands tied, but, for example, we only work with European partners for wheat. In terms of sustainable development goals, we’re looking at beans and legumes which are British produced. We try to do our best but sometimes, like with tapioca, it’s not like we have an alternative locally. You need the inherent properties of the crop. 

The vegan ‘trend’ is definitely here to stay for a couple of reasons. Firstly, manufacturers have invested too much money in the products, so they’ll keep promoting them. Secondly, people are generally eating less meat. So there’s going to be a demand for vegan ingredients to make higher quantities of functional vegan food, but also vegan food that’s more nutritionally balanced.  

For example, people could find themselves low on certain amino acids if they cut out meat. We need to achieve vegan food that has the macro balance from fats and protein, and that is rich in amino acids. Not one plant or crop will give you the complete range you might need, so you’ll need different plants that will give you those things. People who have been vegan all the time are having a great time, they’re getting much more product innovation thrown their way. 

Ulrick & Short

I think we’ll start to see extracts from different plants, as well as extracts of vegetables and pulses being used. We all know lentils as a whole food and that you can get lentil flour, but we might start to look at fractionating the protein that’s inherent in lentils to try and refine it in a natural way and then texturise it, for instance. And with that you gain a whole new protein source. You can take something quite humble and make it quite sophisticated. This way, we’re not creating whole foods, we’re holding foods together and giving them texture. We’re contributing towards the nutritional profile positively. 

We’re currently working particularly hard on sugar reduction. There’s going to be another surge because of demands by supermarket customers. There was a panic to replace sugar, but the product isn’t necessarily healthier by doing that as you’ve still got a certain number of calories per portion - you’re shifting it from sugar to other carbohydrates, which isn’t better. So we’re working on a sugar replacement range which reduces the sugar and reduces the calories. Otherwise you’re playing games, shifting calories from one corner to another, which is misleading. Sugar is a sweetener but it also offers colour and texture and shelf life. 

It’s not about trying to match something, it’s about trying to be something different. I think there will be brand new eating experiences created because of veganism. If you’re going to go vegan, you want something that’s uniquely vegan that isn’t just classed as successful because it fools you into thinking you’re eating a meatball. I can see more development coming from extracts of fruits as well. We associate fruits with sweetness, but I think there are certain fibres and extracts of various fruits that might find their way into products you might not expect.  

If I give you an alternative to chicken, straight away subconsciously you see it as a compromise. So then you’re looking for differences rather than acceptance. Whereas if I present something to you as a brand-new concept, you’re going to take it at face value, and appraise it thinking, ‘Do I like this? Do I not like this?’ rather than comparing it to something. There’s a big market opening up for healthy and nutritional non-meat-replacement vegan products that get repeat sales.  

Consumers generally have become quite uncompromising. If you reduce fat content from something like a muffin, consumer research says you’d either purchase fewer or you’d not purchase again. In the past people would still eat the product for health reasons, but now they won’t eat it. So you have got to offer something that doesn’t compromise on eating experience.

In the future… We’re going to see a lot more clarity on the labels, simpler labels, people wanting to know the whole story of where their food comes from.

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