Clean label. The term has dominated the food and beverage landscape for the past several years. Consumers—concerned with the safety of long, chemical-sounding ingredient names—have made a huge push for companies to exclude artificial additives and increase simple, easy-to-recognize ingredients. Brand have made clean label a staple of the natural products industry in a relatively short amount of time.
An aspect of clean label that’s still being shaped and defined is natural preservatives. Main ingredients in many food and beverage CPGs may be simple and natural, but still use artificial preservatives. Brands can begin integrating a litany of natural ingredients into their ingredient decks with the same beneficial results as synthetic preservatives.
Consumers and companies have come to heavily rely on preservatives. Take a can of soup, for example. Consumers rely on preservatives to ensure the soup will last on the shelf and companies rely on preservatives to ensure the soup can lasts on shelves, thus increasing the total stock they can sell.
“Research has shown 70% of consumers check the expiration date on food and beverage labels, “stated Ingrid Damen, business manager of shelf life solutions at DSM citing the International Food Information Council Foundation’s 2016 Food & Health Survey. “This indicates that a longer shelf life is a key influencer of the consumer purchasing decision-making process. Food producers are therefore increasingly looking for new, innovative ways to develop healthier, more natural foods and beverages that stay fresh for longer and are moving away from using artificial preservatives toward more natural biopreservation solutions.”
This increased attentiveness to ingredient listings represents a global movement.
“Consumers are checking food labels more thoroughly today than ever before, and research shows the demand for additive-free, natural and clean label foods is growing daily as consumers become increasingly mindful of the ingredients that go into the foods they eat,” explained Kathy Sargent, strategic innovation director at Corbion.
“According to a recent report from Nielsen, 53% of consumers in the Middle East and Africa region rate ‘all natural’ as a very important attribute when purchasing foods, compared with the global average of 43%, Sargent said.”
Not only is shelf life a high priority for consumers and companies alike, but so is responsibility for waste. At their core, preservatives help combat an unfortunate byproduct of the global food and beverage cycle: food waste. “With roughly one-third—approximately 1.3 billion tons—of the food produced globally for human consumption is lost or wasted every year,1food producers are also under ever-increasing pressure to reduce food waste,” Damen said. “Food loss amounts to roughly US$680 billion in industrialized countries and $310 billion in developing countries, with spoilage being one of the main causes.”
Food spoilage can happen in three different ways:
- Physical—Bruising or the loss or gain of water.
- Chemical aka oxidation—Changes the sensory (taste, smell and color) properties of food.
- Microbial—The contamination of food through bacteria, mold or yeast.
A 2015 report by Wrap titled “Reducing food waste by extending product life” estimated an increase of just one extra day of shelf life may prevent up to 200,000 tons of household food waste in the U.K., potentially saving $US754 million annually. The report also noted how the addition of one extra day of shelf life would positively affect products with a normal shelf life of around three to 12 days more so than a product that could last an excess of 30 days. This would more than likely prove invaluable for organic products that are prone to quicker spoilage compared to artificially treated counterparts.
“With claims like ‘no additives or preservatives’ really resonating with the label-conscious consumer in recent years, natural preservative solutions facilitate this claim without creating food safety or food waste issues,” remarked Emma Cahill, senior strategic marketing manager of food protections and fermentation at Kerry. “The presence of preservatives is rising as an issue that negatively influences consumer opinions of a food or beverage product.”
The Usual Suspects
Companies still use numerous artificial preservatives in their products. Many of those preservatives have shown potentially harmful health effects. In a 2009 study published in the International Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences and Research, researchers set out to summarize the various negative side effects of popular synthetic preservatives.2 Some of the most popular chemical agents are:
- Antimicrobial—Nitrites, nitrates, benzoates and sulfur dioxide (sulfite)
- Antioxidants—Butylated hydroxy toluene (BHT), butylated hydroxy anisole (BHA) and propyl gallate
- Anti-enzymatic—Citric and erythorbic acids
The research pointed to a study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s’ Disease where researchers found a potential correlation between increased nitrate levels in food and increased deaths from Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and type 2 diabetes.3The researchers cited their interest in looking into nitrates after the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer released a 2006 report titled “Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans” that found proteins in the stomach can potentially react to nitrates, producing nitrosamines, a carcinogenic substance. Manufacturers add nitrates to processed meat like bacon, jerky, salami and sausages to give them color and prevent bacteria formation.
Another popular chemical preservative is sulfite, which is commonly used in fruits and beverages as an antioxidant to prevent the formation of bacteria. A 2012 study published in Gastroenterology and Hepatology from Bed to Bench found sulfite additives in food may be linked to episodic and acute symptoms of asthma and allergic reactions.4 Although the study noted these instances happen in people with sensitivity to sulfite, it’s difficult to know whether a person is sensitive to the chemical. Luckily, sulfite is slowly being phased out by manufacturers that previously included it in their products.
As consumer demand for clean label ingredients continues to trend, natural preservatives are coming into the spotlight. On top of that, natural preservatives can offer distinct flavor, color and scent profiles to foods and beverages.
Vinegar checks almost every box for consumers and companies alike. Vinegar was first speculated to have been discovered by accident thousands of years ago, when wine was fermented for too long. Both the Babylonians and ancient Egyptians made good use of it as an everyday item. The beauty of vinegar is in its utility. It has been used in pickling since pickling became popular in 2030 BC. Vinegar’s natural acidity creates an environment in which few bacteria can survive. Plus, vinegar has a unique ability to adapt to different flavor profiles depending on what item the vinegar originates from.
“Vinegar is very acidic and is perfect with the culinary trend of pickling and quick pickling,” said Juliet Greene, corporate chef at Mizkan. “Vinegar has a very distinct flavor, but the large variety of vinegars give manufacturers a wide range to select the best for their formulation and desired taste profile. For example, manufacturers can marry a rice vinegar to milder Asian-focused foods or the stronger flavor of white vinegar for pickling onions and other vegetables.”
Not only does vinegar affect the flavor profile of food, but also the color. As an example, white vinegar can turn red onions pink. On the other hand, a milder vinegar like apple cider vinegar can darken pickled items. Vinegar’s adaptability truly gives manufacturers the flexibility to incorporate it into products.
Although vinegar is a natural preservative hero, there’s still room for innovation. Corbion, a sustainable ingredient manufacturer that’s existed for over 80 years, recently released its own take on vinegar. Verdad MP100 is a combination of vinegar and natural flavor that matches the mold-inhibiting functionality and flavor neutrality of calcium propionate, an artificial solution that’s been relied on for years in the baking industry. There have previously been calcium propionate alternatives on the market, but it took multiple iterations for the product to not adversely affect flavor profile.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) has been a staple in herb gardens since time immemorial. Aside from serving as a natural pesticide and flavoring for foods, such as stuffing and roast meats, its extract has excellent functionality as a preservative. Rosemary extract is an antioxidant that slows down oxidation of organic materials.5 But manufacturers need to be aware that it has a powerful scent that impacts the food it contacts.
Until recently, European manufacturers faced issues on whether to label rosemary extract as a food flavoring or as an antioxidant food agent. Due to popular demand, the European Safety Authority (EFSA) performed its own testing on rosemary extract as a natural antioxidant in 2008. With the research help of Naturex, a natural ingredients company based out of France, EFSA officially gave rosemary extract the status of antioxidant. This allowed manufacturers to label it either food flavoring or a food preservative agent. Since then, its popularity in Europe has grown now that its status has been defined.
According to VGP’s website, a leading producer of natamycin, it was first isolated in 1955 and is a natural anti-fungal ingredient first used to treat fungal eye infections. Natamycin is produced by the controlled fermentation of Streptomyces natalensis, a bacterial species. Natamycin is popularly used to prevent fungal growth in dairy products. Dairy products are particularly susceptible to spoilage and have naturally short shelf lives.
“Today’s consumers are leading increasingly busy lives and are looking for food options—dairy applications in particular—for ‘on-the-go’ consumption,” Damen said. “When food products are used on-the-go, this often means that they are carried in lunchboxes or handbags at ambient temperatures, making them more prone to microbial spoilage.”
As with vinegar, natamycin is ripe for innovation. DSM produces DelvoCid natamycin, a natural, colorless, odorless and tasteless preservative suitable for applications in cheese, fermented milk, beverages and baking. One area that DSM’s DelvoCid has innovated over conventional natamycin is in efficacy. DelvoCid requires a small dosage to kill the many different molds and yeasts with the potential to spoil foods and endanger health.
Numerous natural preservatives can match up head-to-head with synthetic alternatives. Luckily, the natural food and beverage sector is taking greater strides to incorporate natural preservatives into its products and making it crystal clear to consumers that it is dedicated to transparency.
Natural Products Expo West, the world’s largest natural, organic and healthy products event, and Natural Products Expo East have been used as a barometer to gauge the natural food and beverage space since 1981. One area where trends can be clearly seen year-over-year is in preservatives. From 2016 to 2018, one can see a dramatic increase in products marketing a preservative-free claim.
Prevalence of Preservative-Free Claims in Foods and Supplements
It’s undeniable that consumers are looking for labels with natural ingredients and flavor, taste, texture and visual appeal. The world of natural preservatives is ripe for market innovation and growth.
- Anand SP and Sati N. “Artificial Preservatives and Their harmful Effects: Looking Toward Nature for Safer Alternatives.” International Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences and Research. 2013;4(7):2496-2501.
- Neusner A et al. “Epidemiological Trends Strongly Suggest Exposures as Etiologic Agents in the Pathogenesis of Sporadic Alzheimer's Disease, Diabetes Mellitus, and Non-Alcoholic Steatohepatitis.” Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. 2009;17(3):519-529.
- Vally H et al. “Adverse reactions to the sulphite additives.” Gastroenterology and Hepatology from Bed to Bench. 2012;5(1):16-23.
- Karpinska-Tymoszcyk M. “The effect of oil-soluble rosemary extract, sodium erythorbate, their mixture, and packaging method on the quality of Turkey meatballs.” Journal of Food Science and Technology. 2013;50(3):443-454.