As with other food commodities, the cost of vegetable oils has sky-rocketed in the last year. This poses a particular problem for structured emulsion products, for which oils are an important component as they provide taste, texture and mouthfeel.
Carla Hilhorst, director of Unilever's Centre of Excellence Structured Emulsions in Vlaardingen, The Netherlands, told FoodNavigator.com that manufacturers have three choices when dealing with the impact of high commodity costs.
They can increase the price at retail; be smarter in building the cost of the product by using innovative ingredients; or introduce a lower calorie option.
The second and third options may mean there are some technological barriers to overcome, but this rationale means that manufacturers have an extra spur to reformulate their products along healthier lines.
They can produce them more cheaply, too.
Hilhorst gave the example of Unilever's Extra Light Hellmann's Mayonnaise, which is made with less oil than the original, Real Mayonnaise version but uses citrus fibres processed in a special way to provide the same texture.
It is the oil that, in the full-fat product, provides the texture.
Last week Unilever revealed that it has invested around €3m in its R&D capabilities for structured emulsions by carved out a special area dedicated to structured emulsions at its existing facilities in Vlaardingen, Dijon (France) and Englewood Cliffs (USA).
The centres will be see work in the areas of fat technology - modification and crystallisation - and emulsifier structuring, formulation and processing.
In terms of delivering healthier products that are still oil-based, Hilhorst said the Unilever can achieve that by "blending smartly the oils we have" - in particular those with a better nutritional profile.
In this way, it can reduce saturated fat and be virtually trans fat-free.
She added that there is a need to handle the oils carefully so as to keep the taste and nutritional properties.
"In general, the more unsaturated oils, the more unstable they are," she said. "We can stabilise precious nutritional oils."
In addition to conducting R&D on product formulation, the centre in Vlaardingen also houses the European packaging technology centre for pots, tubs and glass packaging.
Hilhorst said that this is a logical combination since these kinds of packaging materials are used most often for products like margarine, mayonnaise and dressings.
"We work jointly on innovation and cost saving," she said. "You cannot work in isolation, and need the packaging to ensure the product remains at high quality."
For instance, the packaging needs to provide the correct light barrier for the product, and the product must not be affected by the amount of space that is left at the top of the pack, once it has been filled and capped.
Unilever's three structured emulsion centres together employ some 225 R&D professionals.
Unilever is one of the world's largest consumer goods company. In full year 2007 it reported turnover of €40.19bn and net profit from continuing operations of €4.06bn.