The term “clean label” is sometimes described as a food industry buzzword. But before food processors roll their eyes they might want to know that there is a consumer magazine named Clean Eating, with the tagline Improving Your Life, One Meal at a Time.
The magazine, which explores food issues and offers lots of recipes for healthy cooking, has more than 600,000 Facebook likes. Formulating processed foods for a clean label is an important topic for the industry, but the consumer is driving it.
“Natural has always been appealing to shoppers on labels,” says Julie Johnson, a senior project manager with HealthFocus International, St. Petersburg, Fla. “A majority of shoppers agree that a food or beverage is more likely to be natural if there are fewer ingredients on the label. Many also believe that recognizable ingredients make for a more natural product.”
Johnson says those attitudes were expressed in the results of the firm's 2013 HealthFocus study "The Consumer Definition of Natural."
Research from HealthFocus and from other sources indicates there are specific food ingredients consumers want to avoid. Meanwhile, a number of ingredient companies are busy developing new solutions (and repositioning others) that will help food formulators clean up the Nutrition Facts panel.
Finally, FDA is currently at work on revising the rules for Nutrition Facts (which have now been with us for 20 years), and one study shows consumers already are confused about the information on those panels pertaining to sugar content.
In his 2008 book "In Defense of Food," journalist/food maverick Michael Pollan first suggested several rules for eating, including this one: “Don’t eat anything with more than five ingredients, or ingredients you can't pronounce.”
The former Wall Street Journal reporter's suggestion that consumers look for products with five ingredients or less (and a related prohibition on stuff your grandmother wouldn't recognize) has helped create the legacy known as the clean label. Food formulators now routinely talk about shortening the ingredient deck and achieving clean label.
But what does that mean?
To some extent it means avoiding some of the same compounds that have alarmed consumers for decades (or have more recently set off alarms), but it also requires limits on things like fats, salts and sugars, which are common components of nearly all foods.
“For food manufacturers, clean label means simplifying the ingredient list, while removing ingredients that are not easily recognized or preferred by consumers,” says Agnes Jones, a technician with Ingredion Inc., Westchester, Ill. “It means taking out artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, et cetera.”
A 2013 study by the Hartman Group, Bellvue, Wash., demonstrates quite clearly what consumers are avoiding, and how those concerns looked in 2013 compared to 2007.
Sodium/salt and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) are the two components that caused the strongest repulsion in 2013, with both of them being described by 50 percent of the study's subjects as an ingredient to avoid. That is a significant shift from 2007 when 59 percent said they were staying away from sodium and just 41 percent were skipping HFCS.
Other top red flags were cholesterol (which registered with 58 percent in 2007, but dropped to 46 percent by last year); growth hormones (now avoided by 42 percent of respondents); and GMOs, which rose from 15 percent in 2007 to 33 percent in 2013.
“In general, when consumers seek high-quality foods, they are looking for short ingredient lists with recognizable, minimally processed ingredients that are locally grown,” says Blaine Becker, marketing director with Hartman Group.
Both cholesterol and saturated fats have become less of a concern, according to the study, while avoiding trans-fat has become increasingly important.
One approach to achieving a clean label involves an all-natural extension of a successful brand with a new, clean-label formula. Examples include Natural Jif Peanut Butter, which left behind the hydrogenated oils, and Haagen-Dazs Five, which involved a reformulation of some very basic ice cream flavors combined with a major marketing campaign. Lay's Classic potato chips and at least two major brands of cookies have been described by marketing teams in recent years as being made with just a “few simple ingredients.”
Another solution to the clean label puzzle is to select ingredients that provide multiple functions and ingredients that can be described in simple terminology, says Jones.
“There are several categories of ingredients that allow cleaner labels,” she says. “Consumers recognize and want to see natural and non-GMO ingredients on the label deck.”
One example from Ingredion is the Novation brand line of functional native starches. “These allow food manufacturers to remove modified food starch from the label and substitute it with functional native starches of various source including corn starch, rice starch, tapioca starch.”
Just this month, Tate & Lyle, Hoffman Estates, Ill., rolled out a new line of products under the Claria brand. These are described as functional clean-label starches. Three varieties in the line span different levels of process tolerance for low temperature, high temperature and ultra-high-temperature (UHT) processing. The company says the products replace modified food starches and can be labeled simply as starch or corn starch.