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Laundering a label

The phrase "clean label" has been used in the food industry for quite some time. Designers are frequently required to clean up product labels and avoid label laundering.

Lynn A. Kuntz

October 1, 1994

17 Min Read
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"Oh, all those fat substitute things, they're just a bunch of chemicals." This comment from the mouth of my thirty something, college-educated and of course genetically intelligent sister reflects the attitude of many of today's consumers. That is, most processed foods contain a host of ingredients that are unnatural, unhealthy and not really in one's best interest to eat.

Who can blame them? They're bombarded with reports on the nightly news, in the daily paper and from neighbors that equate the term "food additive" with "bad for you." While the NLEA may have raised consumer awareness of the content of various food products, for the most part it hasn't furthered an understanding of the necessary role of many ingredients. Consequently, designers are frequently required to clean up product labels.

The food industry has used the phrase "clean label" for a number of years. As its use has grown, its meaning has blurred. Initially the term meant that a product was free of monosodium glutamate. Now it has almost as many meanings as there are food companies.

"Different segments of the industry actually use different terminology," relates Lewis Paine, president and CEO, Opta Foods, Bedford, MA. "The term that I use when talking to customers is 'consumer friendly.' "

Which ingredients are on the consumer's hit list? It varies by the individual. Some won't touch MSG or any additive (but not necessarily any ingredient) containing glutamate. Others steer away from salt and anything with sodium in the name. Most try to avoid cholesterol, and some actually realize there isn't any in vegetable oils. Some are looking to avoid allergens like peanuts, gluten or sulfites. And if the consumer doesn't know what an ingredient is or why it is added, the perception usually is negative.

"Consumers are turned off by names they can't pronounce and by huge ingredient lists, more than ten or twelve ingredients," observes Sharrann Simmons, commercial development manager, FMC Corp., Food Ingredients Div., Philadelphia.

Finding the 'dirt'

Depending on the marketing directive, clean labeling can encompass everything from modified starch to preservatives to the aforementioned monosodium glutamate. So what makes up a clean label? Here are some general categories to consider:

  • Less is better. A national manufacturer of ice cream has mounted an advertising campaign that shows its ingredient legend in juxtaposition to that of the theoretical competition. Approximately five or six common food ingredients stand in contrast to a label with about double that number, listing stabilizers, emulsifiers, artificial flavors and the like.

  • Anything publicized as unhealthy or promoting disease. Whether information comes from a massive study or some anecdotal experience, once an ingredient is perceived to cause problems, consumers question its presence in food products. People often do not see any further than the headline, so details like whether the study methodology was flawed or the ingredient just affects a certain segment of the population are often lost.

  • Statements tied into a negative NLEA claim. Many industry experts believe food processors might be hesitant to make the allowed positive label claims because then they also would be required to make the negative ones. For instance, a product labeled as low-fat also would have to disclose that it is high in sodium, if that is the case.

  • Ingredients that sound like a chemical. If something sounds like a chemical, people tend to be leery of consuming it. Using common names often will change the perception of an ingredient on a label. Cream of tartar, for example, sounds more acceptable than tartaric acid.   "Sodium acid pyrophosphate sounds frightening to the consumer," notes Ann Metzner, business industry manager, bakery, Quest International, Sarasota, FL. "If you could just put baking powder on the label it would be more acceptable. You can put it in parenthesis, but that chemical name still stands out."

  • "Natural." Artificial ingredients conjure images of a chemical laboratory. Natural ingredients have an aura of goodness. Never mind that rancidity, mold and food poisoning organisms are also natural. Any descriptors that can be added to reinforce the concept of natural - organic, stone ground, and the like - tend to increase the appeal of the label.

  • Listings with a functional descriptor. In an attempt to clarify the label, food processors often add descriptors to ingredient listings. While in theory this should educate the consumer, often it just reinforces the notion that the ingredient is a "chemical additive."   If the consumer is actually reading the label instead of counting the unpronounceable words, descriptors can help. For instance, using the term "vitamins" among the niacinamides and pyridoxine hydrochlorides turns these components from unknown chemicals into positive ingredients.

  • The type of product. Ingredients that are acceptable in one product category may not be acceptable in another. There is a lot more leeway in a snack cake or candy bar, items perceived by the consumer as "junk food," than in something considered a basic staple or health-oriented product. For instance, products positioned for the baby food market tend to subscribe to the clean label creed. While many consumers demand clean labels across the board, often an MSG-free snack chip or other clean label product will not sell as well as the product containing the suspect ingredient.

Making a clean sweep

The first step in cleaning a label is to specify which ingredients in the declaration are being targeted. Next, determine what their functions are and search for alternatives that fit into the concept of clean labeling as defined by the ones calling the shots - customers, marketing, legal or whoever.

"Most consumer product companies have their own internal definition of what constitutes natural or clean labeling," FMC's Simmons says. "They have their own internal approved ingredient listings."

From a product design point of view, the most difficult task is replacing the functionality; compromises often must be made. In replacing flavors such as salt, MSG or glutamate-containing compounds, the flavor may change in ways that are not acceptable. A substitute for a functional ingredient may not perform exactly the same. It may alter stability or shelf life, and often increase costs.

Several aspects can work to raise the cost: research issues, availability and climatic conditions, the low cost of many synthetic substrates and processes, and concentration of the active ingredient in the natural product.

"With a lot of the natural products, the ingredient costs will be more expensive because the usage rate is often higher," advises Howard Haley, product application manager, Kalsec, Inc., Kalamazoo, MI. "Still, expense is how you look at it. The clean label is certainly worth something."

Because the more natural substitutes often contain components that function differently or do not function at all, the results of the substitution can be difficult to predict. Anyone who has substituted the emulsifying properties of lecithin for other emulsifiers can attest to this.

A few alternatives

Ingredient suppliers realize that clean labeling can provide a market advantage, and they are developing ingredients accordingly.

Dough conditioners. The baking industry uses a number of compounds to make commercial operations practical and to give finished products the look and texture the consumer requires. However, many of these compounds have chemical sounding names or, as in the case of potassium bromate or sodium metabisulfate, are linked to health problems.

In particular, bromate has been getting a lot of attention recently. Potassium bromate is an oxidizing agent used to strengthen bread dough. For years it was assumed that bromate, a carcinogen, converted to bromide after baking. However, residues in the 50 to 300 ppb range have been found in bread, and replacement directives abound. Canada, in fact, has delisted the additive entirely. While the United States has not yet made such a ruling, potassium bromate is on California's Proposition 65 list.

One of the more popular replacements is azodicarbonamide (ADA). Functionally effective, this compound not only sounds unfriendly, there have been concerns raised about potential residues. The FDA has limited its use to 45 ppm.

So, bakers are looking at ascorbic acid and enzyme products as part of the solution. Ascorbic acid eliminates the chemical name and provides a benefit if the consumer recognizes it as vitamin C.

"A lot of bakers are hesitant to give up bromate," says Quest's Metzner. "First of all, the alternatives cost more. Plus you can't use the same replacer from product to product, process to process, or even plant to plant."

Other dough conditioners can look less-than-desirable on a label. Sodium metabisulfite, for example, has three strikes against it: It sounds like a chemical, it contains the word sodium, and it contributes sulfites.

While ingredients containing sodium, other than salt, generally have a minimal effect on the sodium content, they may signal a response in consumers who are looking to limit their intake. There is an allergy issue with sulfites, and when levels of 10 ppm or greater occur the product must be flagged as "contains sulfite." This, incidentally, may happen with other ingredients such as caramel color which, depending on the type, can contribute a labelsignificant level of sulfites.

Manufacturers wanting to replace sodium metabisulfite often turned to L-cysteine hydrochloride, but not only does it sound like a chemical, it has an additional problem.

"It's extracted from human hair," says Metzner, "and you know what most people would think about that in a food product."

To address such concerns, ingredient companies are offering more natural products that provide dough relaxing properties. One example is an autolyzed yeast high in glutathione. Because yeast is a fairly economical substrate, such ingredients can be cost-effective while being carried on the label as "autolyzed yeast." Another example is solubilized wheat gluten. Although wheat gluten normally strengthens doughs, it becomes water soluble and actually relaxes the dough following an enzymatic treatment.

Natural preservatives. Many consumers believe preservatives are better left uneaten. Chemical antioxidants such as BHA and BHT are often high on the list of preservatives to avoid.

"There was some negative press about the synthetics," explains Cheryl Megremis, product manager, Henkel Corporation, Fine Chemicals Div., LaGrange, IL. "BHA and BHT reportedly were implicated in stomach cancer in rats a few years ago. Although that's never been proved, the stigma remains, especially in Japan."

A number of alternatives to the synthetics have been promoted in recent years, including ascorbic acid, tocopherols, and herbs and spices with antioxidant properties. All of these contain compounds that delay the oxidation of fat or other destructive oxidative reactions such as browning. With the tocopherols and ascorbic acid products comes the added cachet of a vitamin ingredient. Tocopherols can appear on product labels as "natural tocopherols, a natural source of vitamin E, used to protect freshness."

Because these ingredients are part of a natural product, they may not be as effective on a pound-for-pound basis. But, unlike the synthetics, the FDA and other countries have not restricted their usage levels.

The effective level varies with the application. For tocopherols, for example, the optimal level often falls into the range of 0.01% to 0.20% of the fat in the finished product. They work more effectively in animal fats than vegetable fats because they occur naturally in vegetable oils.

"The higher the level of unsaturation in a lipid, the better they respond to antioxidants," one of Henkel's chemists adds.

Ascorbic acid alone has minimal antioxidant properties, but it acts as a synergist with other antioxidants, both natural and synthetic. A couple of explanations have been proposed.

The mechanism has been attributed to its chelating action, which blocks the metals that promote oil and fat oxidation. Another theory is that antioxidants capture the free radicals that initiate the auto-oxidation process.

Certain herbs, including rosemary, sage, thyme and mace, have been found to offer significant antioxidant properties. They are now being offered as ingredients in natural oxidation management blends and flavors. Like other products used to prevent oxidation, both natural and synthetic, these antioxidant herbs often need some custom blending to develop a product for a specific application. What works well in a soybean oil might not work as well in a peanut oil or in lard. Other ingredients may mute the effect or act in synergism with the compounds in the blend.

"We have seasoning blends in addition to our oxidation management blends," notes Kalsec's Haley. "These not only provide the oxidation protection, they also provide the typical flavor and maybe even the color as well. The interesting thing there is that in something containing a number of spices or extracts, how those spices and extracts are handled can have a big impact on the resulting stability. For example, chlorophyll may accelerate oxidation, so we might want to look at ingredients in which the chlorophyll has been removed or reduced."

Fats. Fats have become the most notorious food ingredients in recent history. First there is the amount consumed. Health authorities recommend levels no higher than 30% of the calories consumed. This gives products that list higher levels on their label a certain implication of unhealthiness in the consumer's eye.

Then there is the type of fat. Cholesterol consumption and its effect on coronary health made animal fats unwelcome on the ingredient legend. Then the so-called tropical oils were considered unacceptable due to high levels of saturated fatty acids. Now the big concern surrounds hydrogenated oils and the resulting trans fatty acids.

Partially hydrogenated fats were linked to an increased risk of heart disease in a study done at the Harvard School of Public Health earlier this year. According to several studies, the trans fatty acids increase the concentrations of low-density lipoproteins (the "bad" cholesterol) while decreasing the level of high density lipoproteins (the "good" stuff). Usually when fats are hydrogenated, it takes place in the trans rather than the cis configuration.

"In our industry, we often use the term 'minimally processed,' " says Robert Wainwright, director, research and development, Karlshamns, USA, Columbus, OH. "That term would encompass the processes that are used to extract the oil from the nut or the seed. Some people would put further inhibitions on that. For example, solvents are relatively widely used throughout the industry and there are some that go so far as to say that to qualify for a clean label or natural product, it can only mean cold-pressed or expelled. The other processes that qualify for natural are the subsequent refining steps required. Typically people do not consider partial hydrogenation to qualify for a natural label, although some do.

"This has been a niche market for us up to now," he continues. "In fact, there are some things that present more of an issue to people. For example, mono-and diglycerides don't usually seem to generate problems, but if you have things in the same category that have more of a chemical name, it can make a difference."

Natural stabilizers. Often food stabilizers fall into the consumer category of, "I don't know what this stuff is, ergo it is not food." They perceive gelatin and corn starch as food. Guar gum, carrageenan, mono and diglycerides, maybe. At least they can find comfort in the term natural. But ingredients such as methyl cellulose, (chemically) modified starch, and polysorbate 80 set off consumer warning bells.

"People are looking for all-natural stabilizers," notes John Breeden, technical manager, dairy products, Grindsted Products, Inc., Industrial Airport, KS. "You can do that with guar, locust bean and carrageenan. Even xanthan may be considered natural since it is microbially grown. It depends on whom you talk to. Most people don't consider mono and diglycerides as natural, even though they come from soy oil."

Most of the chemically modified stabilizers - emulsifiers, modified starches, some of the alginates and cellulosic gums - usually will not qualify as natural ingredients.

Some manufacturers shy away from anything that hints at "additive," naturally derived or not. To address this issue, suppliers are looking for ways to make natural stabilizers. One possible I method is to use physical | processing rather than chemical.

"Three or four years down the road, consumers are going to dislike chemically modified starches on their labels more than they do now," predicts Paine, of Opta Foods. "This trend is reinforced through the increased awareness of ingredients as a result of the NLEA."

All of the ingredients in a system help determine whether the system qualifies as natural. For instance, while cellulose gel is considered natural, it might be used in a gum system with other ingredients. The other ingredients might keep the entire system from being considered natural.

"Gums are one group of products where the term 'natural' is really open to interpretation," FMC's Simmons points out. "There are some gums that most people agree are processed and not considered natural, such as carboxymethylcellulose (CMC). Especially outside the United States, even though there are no legal restrictions, there is an aversion to using CMC when alternative natural ingredients can be substituted."

Clean flavors. The mother of all clean labeling issues, clean flavors, has been covered extensively in past issues of Food Product Design. Again, the problem stems from exactly what the term means. Is it a glutamate issue, or is it a natural-versus-artificial issue?

"The first preference is always all-natural; however, when the designer's back is up against the wall, natural and artificial or only artificial flavors are still fine to qualify as clean label," says Ken Tragash, product manager, Haarmann & Reimer Corporation, Springfield, NJ. "What we have found is that initially clean label meant no MSG, no nucleotides. But this has grown to include any consumer-sensitive ingredient. That usually means no HVP, no autolyzed yeast, but may also include no excessive sodium and fat. Some may even include wheat gluten or modified food starches."

Some of these flavors may not be an exact duplicate for the products that contain ingredients on the "clean" hit list. The food industry is beginning to realize that the goal should revolve around acceptance, not making an exact copy. Besides, the flavors have to take into account the changing tastes and attitudes of the consumer, as well as the products themselves. A flavor that works in a full-fat product, for example, probably won't work in a no-fat product.

"A number of market watches are telling us that the healthier trends seem to be dying out, but we don't see it that way," Tragash says. "We see it as a growing and changing arena, becoming more complex."

Much of the recent work in the flavor industry has centered around the development of naturals. Formerly, using a natural flavor often meant higher cost and poor stability. Evolving technology has enabled flavor companies to develop natural flavors with increasing versatility and stability.

Worldwide, different opportunities exist to use flavors with label appeal. "In Europe there is a class of flavors that duplicates what is provided by nature," explains Tragash. "The flavor is completely synthesized, but molecule-to-molecule it completely mimics what is available from nature."

Other options are available in ingredient substitution and in labeling requirements. Often ingredients used at low enough levels, usually as a part of another ingredient, do not have to be listed. These processing aids can range from propylene glycol, used as a flavor carrier, to sodium silica aluminate, used as an anti-caking agent in salt. In some instances (such as ammonium bicarbonate, a chemical leavener), the ingredient is cooked out, or it is otherwise destroyed during the process (as is the case with baking proteases used as dough conditions).

"With enzymes, our recommendation is that you don't need to list them," advises Metzner, of Quest. "They are no longer present in the finished product once it is processed and consumed. It's not like fat, where you add it and assay for it in the end and still get the same amount. They tend to be something that the bakers like to use because they can change the level to make the product machine properly, but it doesn't affect the label."

Metzner notes that Canadian regulations are different from U.S. regulations in this respect. The type of enzyme used in processing must appear on the label in Canada.

Clean labeling usually provides an entire new set of challenges to the food product designer. Most of the ingredients in food products are there for a reason: functionality, cost, shelf life, and so on. Often, there is no simple answer. While many in the food industry advocate consumer education as the answer, human nature being what it is, that only goes so far.

"One of the problems is that on the he surface, food seems so simple," observes Kalsec's Haley. "I don't go through all this when I cook at home, but there the food is not going to sit on the shelf for a long period of time. The challenge is to make the product like you've just made it at home. That's really what a lot of this is all about."

Meanwhile, clean labeling is an issue that won't be going away anytime in the foreseeable future. The industry seems committed to finding answers that will satisfy both consumers and food manufacturers.

Oh, and by the way, Mary (that's my sister), about that nice crunchy apple you're munching on, that whole wheat bread you're serving to your family... They're really just a bunch of chemicals.

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