Clean labels, GMOs and natural sweeteners are IFT food-show hot buttons

The Food Processing staff spent part of last week at Chicago's McCormick Place, site of this year's annual meeting and Expo of the Institute of Food Technologists. IFT tends to present an idealized vision of the food industry and the products it produces for an appreciative public. Of course, if eating healthy was mainstream behavior, obesity wouldn't be a public health issue.

Still, IFT is a good event for gauging what's on the minds of food processors, and three terms stood out at this year's gathering: clean labels, non-GMO and stevia. Many processors are interested in amending their ingredient labels to exclude unpronounceable elements that sound like they came our of a test tube. Clean labels have been talked about for decades, but processors are concluding that people actually are reading those labels, hence heightened interest in compounds that add functionality and carry non-threatening names.

Non-GMO raw materials and ingredients also are top of mind. According to some attendees, certification of ingredients as non-GMO has surpassed organic certification, as food companies rush to head off any public backlash against Franken-food. California's Prop 37 may have gone down in flames, but similar ballot initiatives and state legislative proposals attest to the fact that GMO labeling is an issue that is not going away. Whole Foods announced in March that, by 2018, it will either verify that products on its shelves do not contain GMOs or require products containing GMOs to be clearly labeled as such.

Stevia sellers weren't the only vendors of nonnutritive sweeteners at the show; it just seemed that way. Since 2008, when FDA began granting GRAS status to stevia suppliers, thousands of new products and line extensions have launched. Major food companies are getting on board, often with formulations that blend stevia extract with sugar to get over the bitter-aftertaste problem. Coca-Cola already had introduced two dozen beverages with stevia when it replaced regular Sprite in the U.K. with a formulation that reduces calorie count by 30 percent. Although pricier than other high-intensity sweeteners, stevia's status as a natural sweetener with fewer calories was cited by Coke when it introduced the change in March. The new-Sprite launch was supported with ads touting Cooke's anti-obesity positioning.

"Now is the time for stevia," declared Carol May, president of Sweet Leaf, which introduced stevia to the U.S. market in 1982 and was the first product to gain GRAS status in March 2008. The firm initially sold the sweetener as a tea, and in 1994 it positioned stevia as a dietary supplement. Now the company must compete with firms like Cargill, but with the market exploding, there's room for lots of competitors. It's the latest example of the food industry accommodating entrepreneurs. During the show, I met Thom King, president of Steviva Brands, a Portland, Ore., firm too small to exhibit but gearing up for growth. I asked King, who started his firm in 1998, how he was able to sustain the business until FDA's GRAS decision. It was literally a garage operation in the first decade, he explained, and he worked full-time for a media company to keep a roof over the garage, plowing any extra revenue back into the business. "Interest is coming from people who want a clean label," says King, and he's upbeat about the future.