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Not a 1:1 Switch—Formulating Clean Label Products

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by George Pontiakos -

Clean label is now an industry standard, not just a differentiation point. The new clean label initiatives of Kraft, Taco Bell and the like are proof. Originally, it was a concept promoted by small- and medium-size companies to differentiate themselves, but clean label has since been adopted by the major players of the food and beverage industry.

Although not legally defined, clean label typically means few, free-from and minimally processed ingredients, as well as natural alternatives to artificial colors, flavors and preservatives. For instance, Kraft replaced the food dyes Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 with annatto, paprika and turmeric to provide the signature color of its original macaroni and cheese. Taco Bell removed artificial colors from its menu, as well as artificial flavors, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and unsustainable palm oil. Clean label has marked a paradigm shift in how the industry manufactures and delivers foods and beverages, affecting companies in the entire supply chain.

Nearly 75 percent of consumers in the United States strongly agree it is important for food labels to contain mostly recognizable ingredients, and 91 percent believe food and beverage options with recognizable ingredients are healthier, according to Innova Market Insights. However, simplifying ingredient labels is more complex than consumers realize. Replacing artificial ingredients with natural alternatives is not a simple 1:1 replacement. Each artificial ingredient has a functional role in a finished product, whether it is adding color, improving structure or providing a nutrient. Artificial ingredients are effective and inexpensive, which is why they are more commonplace than their natural counterparts. For example, completely replacing sodium benzoate with a rosemary extract would not achieve the same degree of efficacy, or swapping out ascorbic acid with acerola powder would not reach the same level of vitamin C; acerola powder only contains a maximum of 6 percent naturally occurring vitamin C, much lower than a synthetically manufactured vitamin C powder.

When trying to simplify ingredients labels, formulators also should keep in mind the entire product might change, not just the functional role. Depending on the application, color, flavor, texture and shelf life can be negatively affected when natural ingredients are used instead of artificial counterparts. For example, transitioning from Red 40 to beet root will pose challenges: pH is a constraint when using natural red, pink and purple colors, and use levels will probably be higher, leading to flavor issues.

Flavor is the most important attribute. Despite the increased demand for simple, wholesome ingredient labels, taste continues to have the greatest impact on the decision to buy foods and beverages, with 84 percent of consumers citing taste as a factor, according to the International Food Information Council Foundation (IFIC). Consumers expect a certain amount of flavor impact and consistency when regularly purchasing an item. Fortunately, flavors are different  compared to other components like colors because natural flavors perform similarly as artificial flavors. In some cases, with a great flavorist and flavor system, the main differences in product might only be price and use level. Products reformulated with clean label ingredients typically take formulators months to perfect, ensuring consumers get the same product as before, but cleaner.

As clean label was transitioning into the mainstream, the industry not only was improving formulations toward a clean label positioning, but also processing and technologies.  A wide variety of ingredient manufacturers and food equipment manufacturers are creating consumer-friendly methods to address clean label challenges. New separation and processing technologies made with natural are easier to use; a great example is stevia as a natural high-intensity sweetener. In addition, new separation techniques and regulatory approvals have made natural blue and green colors available. Even new enzymes and natural plant extracts are being used as shelf life extenders and mold inhibitors to keep products safe for consumers.

 One of the biggest advances in terms of processing has been high-pressure pasteurization (HPP). It has especially been impactful in the fresh-pressed juice segment, which has helped spur a large rise in new product launches in a premium category.

However, reformulation and new processing and technologies come at a price, especially for small- and medium-size companies. Price always has been a challenge with clean label ingredients, and it will continue to be in the future. After taste, price has the greatest impact on the decision to buy foods and beverages (71 percent) followed by healthfulness (64 percent), according to IFIC. Until healthfulness surpasses price, finished product manufacturers without economies of scale need to convince consumers their clean label product is worth the premium price, just like the HPP segment has done. However, the future of clean label is very optimistic; in 2016, an additional 4 percent of consumers cited healthfulness as a factor impacting their decision to buy foods and beverages from the year before.

To take advantage of clean label’s optimistic future, manufacturers need to consider what clean label will mean in the future, not just today. Consumers not only will want to know what ingredients are in their product, but also where they come from. Several innovative companies are including the origin of each ingredient, down to the seed level. Once again, we are seeing small- and medium-size companies promoting this concept to differentiate themselves. Transparency is at the core of clean label, and it will become more of an emphasis in the future.

As president and CEO, George Pontiakos oversees all aspects of operations for BI Nutraceuticals’ west and east coast offices, and the Zuellig Group Nutrition and Ingredients, China. Pontiakos has held senior leadership positions at several leading consulting, medical services and technology companies. Pontiakos joined BI in 2006.

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