The never-ending quest for products which meet global tastes - and for those with significant growth potential in more local markets - is the bread-and-butter of most global food companies, none more so than the world's biggest, Nestlé .
The Swiss giant already makes a mind-boggling array of food products, from yoghurts to condiments, via bottled water, baby milk, chocolate and breakfast cereals, but it is always looking to add new variants or products to its portfolio.
This is why the group yesterday opened a new global centre for culinary research in the German town of Singen, where 150 employees from 16 different countries will carry out research into new condiments, soups, sauces, mayonnaise, pasta, pizzas, doughs, prepared dishes and baby food.
The Nestlé Product Technology Centre (PTC) at Singen cost the company €22 million to build, and was completed in record time - just 11 months. It is one of nine PTCs within the worldwide research and development network of the Nestlé group (in France, Germany, the UK, the US and Switzerland), each of them dedicated to a particular product group and each located close to a Nestlé production facility.
The need for a new PTC was driven by the sale of Nestlé's Maggi factory at Kemptthal in Switzerland to flavours group Givaudan in 2002, since that plant was one which had a PTC attached to it. Transferring the centre from Maggi's plant in Switzerland to another Maggi facility in Singen was the logical choice.
The activity of the former Nestlé R&D Centre in Weiding (Germany) - which focused on wet culinary products and baby food - has also been integrated into the new PTC Singen.
The aim of each PTC is to develop the basic food science carried out at the Nestlé Research Centre in Lausanne, Switzerland, into industrially manufacturable products. But while the products developed draw heavily on the basic food science elaborated at Lausanne, they must of course meet the needs of consumers at the same time.
Thus, research into the field of nutrition can be used to develop not only products which traditionally play heavily on the nutritional card - such as yoghurts or baby food - but also, increasingly, into more diverse areas such as ready meals and sauces.
Marcel Rubin, a spokesman for Nestlé, said that the PTC's played a vital role in the company's core strategy of "innovation and renovation" but that there were no specific goals set for each of the units.
"No one business unit is given greater importance than any other, all are treated equally," he told FoodandDrinkEurope.com. "And the important thing is not to produce as many new products as possible each year - the emphasis is on quality rather than quantity." Rubin declined to say precisely how many products were created each year by the PTC's, saying simply that it was "several tens".
The PTCs have a wide remit, Rubin said. "The packaging of a new product is just as important as its taste, and the PTCs play an important part in deciding what type of packaging is most appropriate for the products they create - it seems obvious that you wouldn't use the same packaging for soluble coffee and for a frozen ready meal, but deciding what packaging medium to use is far more complicated."
Among the product segments which have benefited recently from the work carried out at the PTCs are ice cream, where a number of new technological innovations have been introduced in terms of dispensing, and confectionery, where the company has rolled out a range of chocolate bars with a high cocoa content, Rubin said.
Nestlé has made it clear that it intends to increase its presence in the nutritional foods sector - one of the fastest growing segments of the global food industry - and has also recently made its first move into the functional confectionery market via a joint venture with toothpaste manufacturer Colgate - both areas where the PTC's are likely to play an increasingly important role in the future.