A Clean Label Challenge for Product Developers

March 10, 2015
Research chefs and R&D team leaders are tasked to balance product functionality with cleaner label statements.
Food industry trends come and go, especially in the flavor and nutrition areas. However, research chefs and culinary scientists are challenged to take on one trend that is here to stay: how to create products that are not only healthy but also contain ingredient statements that can be relayed in language consumers understand.

This is a double challenge, because there are many healthy ingredients out there in the food scientist’s toolkit the consumer does not perceive as healthy only because those ingredients are described in unfamiliar or vague terms.

Product developers must either find an alternative way to make products healthy or figure out how to relay the message so consumers can accept and believe what they are eating is indeed good for them.

Food products for retail and foodservice typically are developed by a company’s research and development team. This team, in turn, relies heavily on ingredient suppliers that provide both the simple and complex specialty components that make up food and beverage products.

Some of these ingredients, of course, are the food itself -- for example, beans, rice, fruit and animal proteins. But in order to make a frozen or shelf-stable packaged food product last, developers must use functional ingredients such as starches, flavors, preservatives, colors and hydrocolloids. These hold the product together and ensure that quality remains consistent for the duration of the shelf life.

From a cost standpoint, using modified starches, artificial flavors and chemical preservatives are most efficient. They work well and add only pennies to the total product cost. However, these are the ingredients that today’s “earthwise” consumers believe they want removed from food products.

“The most frequent request we receive from customers is for new sauces, dips and dressings with only natural flavors and colors -- nothing artificial,” says Ellen Powell, R&D director at Giraffe Food and Beverages Inc., Mississauga, Ontario. Giraffe makes customized sauces, dips and dressings for foodservice.

“The days of allowing a combination of N & A [natural and artificial] flavors are over; it’s only natural from here on out. After that, and it’s a very close second, is the request to remove any artificial preservatives, such as sodium benzoate or potassium sorbate, and replace them with either natural preservatives like cultured dextrose/sugar or to remove them completely.”

Companies like Giraffe are challenged by their foodservice customers to make these ingredient adjustments. Other companies are striving to meet the goals of the mainstream retail consumer.

“Our customers have been requesting healthy ingredients in their nutrition bars for a couple of years, and we use only natural ingredients, including natural flavors,” agrees Olivia Nahoum, food scientist at Creative Energy Foods Inc., an Oakland, Calif., nutritional energy bar manufacturer.

Unfortunately, replacing these ingredients comes at a price. Natural, organic and non-GMO ingredients are often in shorter supply and cost more money. Decisions like replacing corn-based syrups with fruit juice concentrates can double or even triple a finished product’s price. Natural flavors cost more per pound, and require higher usage levels to deliver what an artificial flavor could bring at a fraction of the price. However, to stay competitive and meet consumer requests, these replacements must take place.

Over at Park 100 Foods Inc., Tipton, Ind., executive chef Michael Joy explains his culinary take on ingredient replacement: “The removal of ingredients by consumer request has created the need to go back to our culinary roots and execute great flavor blending using natural flavor potentiators, like citrus juices, vinegars and soy sauce.” Joy notes that “being creative in the blending of the five tastes also is an imperative in creating clean foods that taste great.”

As further example, Joy contributes that, “Soy sauce is a great flavor enhancer -- and it’s not just for Asian cuisine anymore. There are also lots of dried and dehydrated vegetable powders, such as mushroom powders, that add a unique taste when added below the threshold level of identifiable flavor.”

Clean and clear labels

Ingredients often have names that are hard to pronounce and difficult to understand. Consumers often wrongfully conclude that natural ingredients with complicated-sounding names must be artificial or “bad for you.” It doesn’t help when uninformed food bloggers relay false information to the public, causing unnecessary concern.

For example, several food companies are trying to remove carrageenan, an FDA-approved hydrocolloid, because media has been portraying it in a negative way.

“We regularly identify a ‘hot list’ of ingredients that come up online and in litigations and then try to keep our formulas as ‘clean’ as possible,” says Taylor Rasmussen, senior food scientist for J. R. Simplot Co. , Boise, Idaho.

Rasmussen adds that, while all Simplot’s consumers are different, there is an overall preference for shorter ingredient statements, “ones that a mom could understand.”

Creative Energy’s Nahoum adds, “Clean label is a challenge, insofar as there is no defining regulation or legislation, and consumers all have a different interpretation of the concept.

“Some of the typical sweeteners we work with are brown rice syrup or honey, perceived as ‘cleaner’ than high-fructose corn syrup,” she continues. “However, substituting ingredients can alter texture, create formulation issues and alter shelf life of the finished product. Some of our customers have gone even further than wanting readable statements: They now are requesting labels that have a maximum of five ingredients.”

“We get many customer requests to clean up labels; the challenge is, there is no official FDA clean ingredient definition," agrees Joy. He points out that the leaders of the chain restaurant world are actually developing a definition of “clean,” and ingredient suppliers also are aware and doing what they can to provide cleaner and less-processed ingredient alternatives.

Powell notes how companies tend to deal with the quality risks involved in changing a product’s formulation. “In general, customers with successful products on the market are not reformulating those, but rather making the change to clean label for any new launches. Once they can gauge the success of the new launch with the cleaner label, they are more apt to re-evaluate existing formulations for any possible revisions.

Boosting nutrition

Developers also are being asked to make their products more healthful by such tactics as boosting protein, adding more fiber and increasing fruit and vegetable ingredients. “More and more customers are requesting more vegetables in their formulas so they can make a vegetable servings claim,” confirms Simplot’s Rasmussen. “Customers have protein minimums to meet their marketing needs, as well as sodium, fat and calorie maximums per serving.”

Giraffe’s Powell points to the challenges of Canadian consumer and regulatory expectations. “The next request is for reduced sodium to be in line with the Health Canada 2016 proposed guidelines of a 30 percent reduction in the RDI,” she explains. “Customers know that flavor and overall acceptability could suffer with the reduced sodium, yet they are willing to sacrifice that to reach the reduced sodium claim.”

“We’re seeing a rise in more vegetarian requests, and blending vegetables with grains is also on the rise,” adds Joy. He attributes the wide variety of vegetables available in IQF (individually quick frozen) and freeze-dried/dehydrated form that allow him to creatively incorporate more vegetables into Park 100’s soup products. “Park 100 aims to keep foods low in sodium but we also balance out the carbohydrates, fat and protein based on customer requests,” he adds.

"Veggie-loaded snack options continue to hit the market with pumpkin, kale and sweet potato giving way to emerging varieties that put carrot, parsnip, beet and seaweed in the spotlight," says Thomas Griffiths, senior executive chef and a vice president at Campbell Soup Co., Camden, N.J. "Chip, cracker and bar formats satisfy indulgent cravings, while veggie flavors offer up a fresh and healthy boost at snacktime."

Griffiths also takes note of "supergrains," sometimes referred to as "ancient grains": quinoa, amaranth, oats, spelt and farro. "Their powerhouse reputation is inspiring a myriad of dishes and products that promise a best-for-you nutritional experience," he says.

Labeling laws

In the past, nutritional labels were only required on grocery food items. But last year, this requirement was extended to restaurants and food sold at such outlets as 7-Elevens and vending machines. Depending on a food manufacturer's place in the supply chain, it might have to request this information from its ingredient/component suppliers or supply it themselves.

“I formulate to meet customers' nutritional requirements all the time,” shares Simplot’s Rasmussen. “Some customers want to have healthier options versus their full-fat and high-calorie meals or ingredients. We recently revamped several items to reduce sodium and use healthier fats.” Simplot lately has focused on removing trans fats and hydrogenated oils from all its food products, and already is ahead of the FDA’s impending ban.

Creative Energy’s Nahoum states that partially hydrogenated oils and trans fats are not an issue in the nutrition bar field. “The only major contributor for us resides in the coatings we use to enrobe the bars,” she explains. “The amount of trans fat in coatings is less than 0.5 percent and so may be labeled, per FDA rulings, as 0g trans fat on the nutritional panel.”

Nahoum further notes that many of Creative Energy’s customers still choose to enrobe their bars with real chocolate instead of compound, because real chocolate contains cocoa butter instead of palm kernel oil.

Dietary Guidelines

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans encourage Americans to focus on eating a healthful diet -- one that focuses on foods and beverages that help achieve and maintain a healthy weight, promote health and prevent disease. The new Dietary Guidelines for 2015 are scheduled to come out this fall.

Food companies have been considering how the dietary guidelines will affect the ingredient choices and processing conditions they choose. “Regulations and winds change at a similar rate,” says Rasmussen, “therefore it is important that formulators and food companies stay flexible and are able to move quickly to meet new guidelines and regulations.”

Giraffe’s Powell adds that she hopes the new dietary guidelines will clear up the confusion on serving sizes, too. “Consumers are confused by the wide variety of serving sizes found on Nutrition Fact Panels. Not all food companies base their serving sizes on the FDA’s Reference Amounts Customarily Consumed (RACC), and sometimes make their own decision about what is a serving size. This makes it difficult for the everyday shopper to compare products in similar categories.”

The new guidelines should clarify what a portion is for a particular type of food and all retail food products should follow those guidelines. “I expect the 2015 guidelines to emphasize the need to increase fiber intake through eating more fruits and vegetables,” says Nahoum. “I would expect them to emphasize a limited intake for trans fat and added sugars. Added sugars is one of the proposed changes to the Nutrition Facts Label, which highlights the importance of making it more visible to the consumer.”

Paying for what you get

Research chefs, food scientists and culinary scientists are working hard to meet the demands of consumer users of retail and food service products. Consumers want clearer and cleaner labels as well as more protein, fiber and vitamins. Marketers want to give their marketing departments more “claims for fame” opportunities.

Food developers in both retail and foodservice must rely heavily on their ingredient suppliers to provide them with cleaner sounding ingredients that match their customer requests. Developers must then creatively incorporate these new ingredients into existing products without impacting the final flavor and taste.

All this can be challenging, since many ingredients perceived as being “unclean” are highly functional, like modified food starch and artificial flavors. Consumers should expect cost increases to match their new requests. Clean ingredients can be limited in supply and manufacturers should source out and confirm materials needed as soon as possible.

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