Gluten-free Biscuit Producer and University Develop New Business Model

The business model of a free-from biscuit producer has been recognized as outstanding by Innovate UK (the operating name of the Technology Strategy Board), the UK’s innovation agency. The recognition came after North-East baker Northumbrian Fine Foods entered an industrial partnership that helped a free-from food manufacturer significantly boost its turnover.

Working alongside researchers from Brunel University London, Northumbrian Fine Foods (NFF) increased its energy efficiency, reduced its waste and improved its products’ nutritional value, ultimately helping the firm increase its revenue by over 80%.

Launched in 2014, the Innovate UK “Knowledge Transfer Partnership” (KTP) tasked Brunel with developing an innovative system for manufacturing high-quality free-from food products. The partnership with the bakery firm initially focused on improving sustainability in the manufacturing process of gluten-free goods, before the remit was opened to develop free-from products more generally.

Dr Valentina Stojceska, Brunel’s senior lecturer who led the research, said: “We agreed to develop a proposal that included the following elements – sustainability and innovations. In terms of sustainability, we have improved energy efficiency and reduced food processing waste in the production process. In terms of innovations, we worked on improving nutritional properties of the existing gluten-free products by lowering sugar and fats level and increasing dietary fiber. We have also developed new free-from products using novel ingredients that were intended for the UK and EU markets.”

Supported by five students from Brunel’s Mechanical Engineering postgraduate program, Dr Stojceska began by measuring the manufacturer’s energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions and utility costs. Following analysis, improvements were recommended in a number of areas, including the design of the factory’s lighting system, the operational hours of the cooling equipment, and staff training.

By taking the research and analysis on board, the firm was advised that they could reduce their energy consumption by 23%, unlocking significant savings and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

After making significant improvements to efficiency, the researchers turned their attention to refining the quality of free-from foods more generally, inviting members of Coeliac UK (who are adversely affected by the consumption of gluten) to offer feedback on sensorial and nutritional properties of the products, and quality of the packaging.

“The company successfully passed an audit undertaken by the Association of European Coeliac Societies (AOECS) and are now fully accredited for celiac supply to Europe,” said Dr Stojceska, who had previously completed three previous Innovate UK KTPs.

“There has since been an 80% increase in business, and turnover was over GBP20m at the end of 2017 – up from around GBP11m at the beginning of the project. NFF’s work with Brunel enhanced the business outputs significantly.”

Part of the research has now been published in the Journal of Cleaner Production, with another paper submitted, and five conference papers were presented internationally. Dr Stojceska was also asked to present her finding to experts at Oxford University and Campden BRI.

Professor Hamid Bahai, head of Brunel’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, said:

“Valentina and her team have done a fantastic job partnering with Northumbrian Fine Foods – the figures really do speak for themselves. To deliver increased turnover, greater energy efficiency, and an improved product is no mean feat, and I hope this demonstrates how valuable these partnerships can be, not only for institutions like Brunel, but also for industry.”

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