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Clean as a whistle

The hunger for natural ingredients and clean labels continues


Canadians are starving for information about the food and beverages they consume. So much so that anywhere from 75 per cent to 90 per cent of consumers now read ingredient labels to find out whether products meet their requirements for health and nutrition, or if they supply details on where and how those foods were produced.

But food labels can also be a source of confusion rather than information, with long lists of unpronounceable or artificial-sounding ingredients. Frustrated consumers are demanding more natural products with “clean” labels – in other words, short lists of natural, recognizable ingredients.

“This demand is the new normal as far as healthy food is concerned,” says Marion Chan, principal at Trendspotter Consulting. “Both consumers and retailers are driving it.” The data confirms this. For example, a 2011 U.S. Trend Study from Health Focus International revealed that 85 per cent of consumers cite clear, simple information about food products as an essential way for them to understand and trust what they consume. And in research from National Starch Food Innovation examining the effect of labels on consumer purchases in the U.S., the U.K. and other EU countries, two-thirds of respondents rated “no additives”/”no artificial ingredients” as a key factor. According to the same study, 76 per cent of consumers consider short, easy-to-understand ingredient lists to be important.

Joel Gregoire, food and beverage industry analyst at the NPD Group, sees similar trends at work. “Consumers are increasingly gravitating to foods with an all-natural callout on the package. In 2009, in meals where a special label was cited as being on the packaging, all-natural was included in six per cent of these purchases. In 2011, that number nearly tripled to 15 per cent. Consumers appear receptive as more food and beverage companies embark on all-natural positioning and clean-label initiatives.”

These initiatives are steadily gaining ground. Figures from Innova Market Insights indicate that the number of new products launched as clean label in North America rose from 4,149 in 2003 to 18,233 in 2010. In Western Europe the jump was even higher, from 1,455 new products in 2003 to 17,300 in 2010.

Disagreement on definition
A challenge for the industry in reformulating products is that there is no agreed-upon definition of natural or clean label, and no clear rules governing use of the terms, either in North America or in Europe. Instead, there are restrictive, sometimes conflicting, sets of guidelines.

In Canada, for example, the Canada Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) protects the use of the term “natural” under Section 4.7 of the 2003 Guide to Food Labelling and Advertising. The guideline states that foods and their ingredients cannot be described as natural if they have undergone any processing that significantly alters “their original physical, chemical or biological state.”

Under these guidelines, says regulatory specialist Gary Gnirss of Legal Suites Compliance Network, a natural food or ingredient could not contain an added vitamin, mineral nutrient or artificial flavouring agent, nor could it have undergone processes considered to have either a minimal effect such as heating, or a maximal effect such as hydrogenation. Thus, even an organic food with naturally derived ingredients might not meet the natural guidelines. Gnirss says the U.S. governs natural foods through a different set of guidelines. “While it’s more likely that a food would be considered natural under U.S. guidelines,” he notes, “it’s possible that a natural food in Canada would not be considered natural in the U.S.”

There is also no standard for defining “clean label.” Various industry bodies have offered their perspectives, but there is no legislation or regulation on the issue. Instead, it comes down to what consumers will accept as clean labelling. That usually means no ingredients with additives, or with names that sound artificial or imply high levels of processing.

To help food companies navigate the uncertainties and develop clean-label products with consumer appeal, Illinois-based Corn Products International (CPI)/National Starch Food Innovation launched www.cleanlabelinsights.com earlier this year. The site focuses on consumers’ clean-label needs and offers manufacturers access to research, culinary applications, regulatory and other information. Based on a review of the market, CPI/National Starch has also proposed its own three-point definition for clean label: additive-free, simple ingredient listings, and minimally processed food using traditional techniques consumers understand and won’t see as artificial.

In addition, the company has its own portfolio of clean-label products that enable manufacturers to replace ingredients without sacrificing taste, mouth feel, product stability or cost-control, says Marketing manager Leaslie Carr. “These products include our line of Novation functional native starches that provide the same shelf life and freeze-thaw stability as modified starches. They also include Homecraft functional flours, Enliten Reb A stevia sweetener, and Q-Naturale, an emulsifier and encapsulation ingredient for beverages that is organically sourced from the quillaja tree.”

Reformulating solutions
Prinova is another company offering clean-label solutions. A global distributor of natural and functional ingredients for food, beverage, flavours and fragrances, Prinova supplies Teawolf single-herb botanical extracts, along with PureCircle stevia extracts, geared to reducing the need for sugar and artificial sweeteners. As well, Prinova partners with PureCircle on OvaSweet 120, a technology for modifying natural sweet flavours. “OvaSweet 120 is considered a natural flavour for ingredient labelling purposes,” explains Stephanie Gorecki, R&D technologist at Prinova. “It’s designed to work with two high-purity stevia sweeteners, and with sugar and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) to enhance flavour, sweetness and taste while allowing consumers to cut back on sugar and calories.”

Not surprisingly, the clean-label trend creates new opportunities for whole foods. Blueberries are a prime example. “Blueberries are having an upsurge in popularity,” says Thomas Payne, industry consultant for the U. S. Highbush Blueberry Council. “This is partly due to all the good news about their health benefits, but also because of their lush taste, broad consumer popularity and clean label appeal. Having blueberries in the ingredient statement says ‘wholesome’ and ‘natural’ in a way consumers understand, and can also mean reductions in sugar, HFCS and other sweeteners.” What’s more, notes Payne, blueberries are available in multiple formats and can be paired with savoury and sweet ingredients in dairy, bakery and other formulations.

As consumers become increasingly informed about the foods they eat, Carr says it will become even more important to them to be able to access the products they want with ingredients they recognize and trust. Quite simply, she says, “Manufacturers will need to find ways to incorporate new ingredients that deliver on consumers’ desire for simplicity and transparency.”