SINGAPORE is known across the globe for its food, and often referred to as one of the top culinary capitals of the world. With such a solid reputation at stake, it is little wonder that food innovation in the country has been spiking and this is not just referring to chefs in restaurants.

Increasingly, more local food companies and local institutions have begun to take advantage of new market opportunities in the field of food manufacturing by driving innovation.

"As consumers are becoming more knowledgeable and independent in making decisions with regard to nutrition, there is a growing need for the food industry to suit consumers' changing needs and demands," said Loke Wai Mun, Nanyang Polytechnic lecturer and Principal Investigator, Centre for Functional Food & Human Nutrition (CFFHN).

Several small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) have started to invest in strengthening their research and development departments, while others have collaborated with educational institutions to keep up with the evolving palates of consumers.

Poli Medical and Freshen Group are two such SMEs that have focused on food innovation to take their companies to the next level.

"As a company with a longer history, there was definitely room for me to introduce new processes, productivity improvements and innovation for new customer segments," said Dylan Hu, director, Poli Medical and Founder, TruLife.

He noted that when he first joined Poli Medical a few years ago, he found that the company relied on manual bottling, which was a very labour intensive process. With the help of grants from Spring Singapore and International Enterprise Singapore, he embarked on a productivity drive, and started automating the processes.

Another example of food innovation is TruLife, a new brand launched by Poli Medical that offers effective combinations of herbal and natural remedies in convenient ready-to-drink bottles to suit the lifestyles of modern professionals.

"The roots of Poli Medical's origins lie in Eng Hong Medical Hall, which was set up by my grandfather in the 1950s. He was a traditional chinese medicine (TCM) physician, catering to the TCM needs of the local community," he explained.

"To meet the increasing demand from a growing pool of customers, my father who was then a young entrepreneur like myself, set up Poli Medical in 1971, and went into the business of manufacturing, wholesaling and distribution of traditional chinese medicine and formulations. Today, Poli Medical is a third-generation family business."

Souped up

As for Freshen Group, food innovation was the very foundation of its existence, according to founder Pamela Phua.

"I grew a love for soups during my childhood under my maternal grandmother's influence. When I started working, my grandmother would surprise me during late nights in the office with her homemade Cantonese soups," she says.

"This eventually sparked the idea of developing traditional soups that are convenient yet authentic in taste and quality, just as they have been brewed for hours at home. I wanted to bring the nourishing goodness of double-boiled soup to busy urbanites, without the hassle of peeling, skinning, slicing and dicing, and labouring over the stove for hours."

Despite having a background in communications, she took a leap of faith and ventured into food manufacturing.

Ms Phua pointed out that double-boiled Chinese soups have traditionally been enjoyed for their health-boosting properties in addition to their taste. However, she realised that a good bowl of Chinese soups takes time to prepare. She also noticed that the retail packaged soup market is dominated by western flavours and tended to be highly processed.

"I started developing the Freshen Food brand with a vision of bringing food that is convenient, healthy and true to tradition in terms of both taste and approach, to consumers. Our home-style soups are traditional soups that fit into our modern lifestyles, without sacrificing nutrition," she explained.

The Food Innovation Resource Centre (FIRC) in Singapore Polytechnic and the CFFHN by Nanyang Polytechnic are some of the available resources that SMEs have tapped and collaborated with to develop food innovation.

For Freshen Group, the result could not have been achieved without collaborating with FIRC.

"FIRC was in fact my first port-of-call before I decided to embark on this business venture. FIRC's partnership therefore formed the foundation on which Freshen Food Home-Style Soups are born," said Ms Phua.

She explained that almost two years ago, she met FIRC to explore the feasibility of product development.

"FIRC's R&D team was confident that the concept can be packaged in a retort pouch format, complete with freshly-cooked ingredients, while maintaining shelf-stability for over a year without preservatives - which was very important to me." She was very impressed by their openness, technical expertise and practical advice.

"We were able to determine the R&D goals very quickly, based on which FIRC scoped the R&D process to include packaging format, retort parameters and shelf-life evaluation. When we first commenced R&D, my grandmother cooked a round of soups in the lab as a demonstration for the FIRC team. From then on, my grandmother would come to the lab with me to taste many variations of the lab-created soups - some good, many bad. FIRC had to tweak its processes many times before we could pass my grandmother's standards," she said.

Merging TCM and R&D

Poli Medical is another SME that has collaborated with FIRC, even with an in-house R&D team.

"When I first started exploring innovative new products for TruLife, we were still in the midst of setting up an internal R&D team. However, I realised that there were resources and institutions available who could support SMEs like ourselves. I decided to approach Singapore Polytechnic's FIRC. With their support, I was able to accelerate the new product development cycle for TruLIfe, instead of waiting for the internal team to be fully-established," said Mr Hu.

Poli Medical now has an internal R&D team headed by Mr Hu's uncle, Foo Vin Wee, who has been with the family business for over 25 years and who is also a TCM practitioner.

Mr Hu added that after having their own team, he is looking at other possibilities for collaboration, such as the CFFHN.

SMEs in Singapore are constantly looking for ways to come up with innovative functional food products that cater to consumers, and ensuring that their products are safe and relevant in today's market, said Dr Loke from CFFHN.

"By providing the expertise required for functional food research, the CFFHN can assist food companies to develop innovative functional foods and to validate the functionality of their novel food products," he said.

Dr Loke added that the centre is working with several SMEs in validating the functional properties of their food products.

"There is a growing trend for the Singapore food industry to focus on functional foods, as its consumption is a cost-effective and consumer-acceptable way to improve health. This trend will become even more urgent as the population of Singaporeans aged 65 years and above increases in the next 10 years."

As the concept of functional foods is still relatively new to SMEs in Singapore, the investment required is usually quite substantial, said Dr Loke.

"Development fund and incentives, such as tax incentives, to ensure a profitable return on successful products would be required to encourage more SMEs to pursue functional food development in Singapore," he concluded.