Challenges and limitations remain as companies continue to clean up their labels. But does the focus need to be on changing consumer perceptions?
By Treena Hein
Going strong – that’s how many would describe the international “clean label” movement that began years ago. Both small firms and major players continue to take it very seriously. Kraft Heinz, for example, has moved to replace artificial yellow and orange colours in its flagship Macaroni & Cheese product with paprika, annatto and turmeric. Mega food industry companies General Mills, Nestlé USA and Kellogg have also removed artificial colours and flavours from many of their famous products. “It’s the direction the industry is still going in,” observes Baking Association of Canada president Paul Hetherington. “Everyone is trying to remove the unpronounceable ingredients and focus on natural ones.”
John Madden, head of ingredients at Euromonitor International, notes that colours were among the first ingredients to attract clean-label concerns among consumers, “so a lot of conversion to naturals has already taken place,” and they “now dominate overall demand from the global food and drinks industry.” Karen Proper, technical manager of product and process development at NSF-GFTC in Guelph, Ont., agrees. She sees natural colours such as beet and beta-carotene increasingly being considered as an alternative to synthetics such as allura red and tartrazine.
Rachel Rebry, associate director of regulatory affairs at Guelph-based Nutrasource Diagnostics, points to the strong clean label success of Hampton Creek, a food company based in Silicon Valley which uses fruit and vegetable juice to add colour to its famous Just Mayo brands.
On the clean label flavours front, Doris Valade says there’s been “a significant increase in demand from customers to boost flavours through the use of herbs and spices as well as dehydrated fruit and vegetables, in sweet and savoury blends.” Natural concentrates that provide complex flavour profiles are also on the rise, notes Valade, the president of Malabar Super Spice based in Burlington, Ont. Examples include beer extract, natural honey powders, and lime and lemon juice powders.
Valade also points to rising demand for natural Turkish and Moroccan seasonings. “Ground sumac is now being used to add a unique citrus flavour to seasonings,” she adds, “and gourmet smoked chilies and smoked paprika continue to grow in popularity. Roasted spices such as cumin and coriander also add a more robust flavour to our Middle Eastern seasonings.”
Beyond flavourings, Proper points to the rise of other clean label ingredients such as celery powder, a natural source of nitrites, and rosemary extract, used as a natural antioxidant and preservative in burgers and more in place of monosodium glutamate and sodium metabisulphite. In terms of emulsifiers, Madden notes that lethicin is benefiting from a “slightly better” image than most others, making it a popular clean label choice. He says it’s often nowadays listed as soy lecithin or sunflower lecithin, and that “this association with natural raw materials stands the ingredient in good stead amid a plethora of ingredients with very chemical names,” such as emulsifiers monoglycerides or diglycerides.
While consumers are looking for clean labels, Proper reminds us that “they also expect the appearance, texture, taste, quality and cost of the food to remain unchanged. This means product developers must find “clean” ingredients that possess the desired functionality in the final product, maintain product safety and shelf life expectations and target an acceptable price point.”
Those in the industry know just how difficult this can be, as natural flavours, colours and other ingredients are often more expensive and may need to be added at higher levels to achieve the same results. “Natural ingredients are also subject to natural crop variation and may not consistently deliver the desired product attributes,” Proper notes. In addition, “these natural ingredients may not withstand heat, light and acidic environments as well as synthetic.”
Rebry adds that some of the continuing challenges with reformulation are specific to regulatory categorization. “Many natural additives and/or their proposed uses may not currently be approved by Health Canada and thus, may require a regulatory amendment,” she explains. “For example, monk fruit extract is currently permitted for use in table-top sweeteners in Canada. To use monk fruit extract as a sweetening agent in (for example) beverages, cereals, or baking mixes, a pre-market food additive submission for ‘extension of use’ is required.” Rebry believes “Innovation combined with regulatory due diligence and investment in really knowing your product is key to identifying and solving challenges along the way.”
Let’s look at challenges associated with several specific clean-label ingredient classes: preservatives, thickeners and sweeteners. Natural humectant preservatives such as salt and sugar bind water, making it unavailable to support microbial growth. “Honey also naturally contains anti-microbial properties and works to extend the shelf life of food products,” Proper observes. “However, it is important to note that added levels of these ingredients must make sense from a sensory, processing and cost perspective to achieve a desirable end product…the use of natural preservatives, including raisin paste or purée may not be suitable for all food applications.”
Many clean label options exist when selecting ingredients to impart emulsification and thickening properties, Proper notes, but she explains that understanding the desired attributes of the final product aids in determining the most suitable option. “For example, soy lecithin…can help obtain a soft crumb and a tenderness in bakery products,” she says, “inhibit staling and extend shelf life.” Various natural gum options also now exist for thickening or for adding/enhancing textural properties, but Proper again advises that “understanding the functional characteristics of the gum and the sensory attributes of the final product will be key.”
Naturally sourced sweeteners are also among the foremost ingredients that major brands continue to investigate in their quest for cleaner labels. “Stevia is well positioned to continue to capitalize on the trend away from artificially sweetened products,” says Alan Rownan, ethical labels analyst at Euromonitor International. Proper adds that maltitol, erythritol and other natural sugar alcohols that provide sweetness with very few calories are also now widely used in the food industry, but may not be as well-recognized by consumers as more calorie-dense cane sugar, agave, maple syrup and honey. And while stevia and sucralose are both heat-stable and perform well across a wide range of pH conditions, Proper says, they (as well as sugar alcohols) lack the caramelizing and browning properties of sugary ingredients. “If a golden colour is desired in the end product, caramel colour may need to be added,” she notes.
Having it all?
Because clean label is still an undefined term based on consumer perceptions, it’s open to interpretation. While that can potentially be a dangerous thing, it can also be a plus for food-makers because consumer perceptions can shift as education occurs. To that end, Valade would like to see both industry stakeholders and consumers take a more common sense approach to clean label issues. “How clean label do we really want or need to go?” she asks. “Can food processors still achieve flavour and functionality with more natural ingredients or removal of ingredients and still offer the product for a reasonable price?”
Valade believes the answer is no. “You can’t have it all,” she says, in terms of delivering flavour functionality at a price consumers are willing to pay – but also in terms of full consumer acceptance and understanding of clean label at this point in time. “For example,” she says, “in a full declaration of ingredients for blueberries, there are many chemical-sounding compounds that if declared, would certainly confuse today’s consumer.” As someone with long experience providing ingredients for a wide variety of food products, Valade believes “so much of clean label issues are about educating both consumers and retailers.”