On store shelves that are awash in label and package statements vying to attract the consumer’s eye and gain their loyalty, one phrase you won’t see in brightly colored letters is “clean label.” But in a time when manufacturers and retailers are rushing to meet booming consumer demand for healthier, more natural, organic, “free from” or sustainable products, it’s a phrase that is driving product development and marketing efforts as much as any other. Because in the relationship between marketers and consumers, the label is the main point where differentiation can occur and the sale can be won or lost.
In the seven or eight years since the industry first started actively pursuing cleaner labels, the one area of agreement on the topic is that there is no definition for a clean label—even though it’s been attempted numerous times. Descriptors associated with a clean label include: “natural,” “organic,” “simple,” “minimally processed,” “no additives,” “transparent,” “not chemical sounding,” “no E numbers,” “kitchen cupboard,” “healthy” and much more.
In reality, a clean label is all of these things. In the final analysis, it is the consumer who determines, by their subjective judgments, what a clean label is or isn’t—and manufacturers and marketers who respond to these subjective judgments with product development efforts. The clean label has been called a “marketing tool.” In the relationship between ingredient manufacturers and consumer product developers this is certainly the case. But when it comes to the consumer, the clean label movement is much more than a tool or a claim. It is a guiding philosophy for companies trying to offer healthier, safer, better quality products that consumers want to buy.
Historically, the clean label movement can trace its roots back to instances where commonly used ingredients were shown to have adverse health effects on consumers—dating back to the banning of cyclamates by FDA in 1970, and including well known reformulations of ingredients out of processed foods based on new health information, such as MSG, trans fats, food colorings and preservatives. As natural and organic foods became more mainstream heading into the 21st century, they transformed the concept of the clean label to one that looked at all food additives as potentially suspect and added the concepts of “minimal processing” and “recognizable ingredients” to the clean label agenda.
Several studies have shown that consumers make purchase decisions based on the label and ingredient list (ranging from 40% and higher). Based on consumer preferences, the term “natural” is the leading indicator of a cleaner label, with recent studies showing 67% of consumers preferring natural ingredients.1
Sixty percent of consumers say they are willing to pay more for natural foods, while 50% are willing to do the same for organic foods. 2
Table 1 shows a broad range of label declarations that can be considered “clean” and consumer willingness to pay more for them.3
The road toward a cleaner label can take many paths based on the specific product or market requirement. For some companies, it’s pretty straightforward. For example: Lay’s Classic Potato Chips now feature the claim “made with three simple ingredients in as little as 24 hours.” For the rest of the processed and prepared foods industries, life is more complicated. Like it or not, consumers make their food purchases based on taste and cost more than they do on health or nutrition. In addition to taste and cost, retailers have standards for shelf life and quality. It is in meeting these criteria that food labels most often become more complex.
One way of looking at the path toward a cleaner label can be addressed by the “List of Unacceptable Ingredients” referenced in Table 1. Whole Foods is one of a growing number of food retailing companies that have compiled a “no fly” list to guide suppliers. Table 2 shows a breakdown of the Whole Foods list by type of ingredient.
From looking at this list, it’s pretty clear that ingredients included to kill bacteria, yeast and fungi and to preserve shelf life are a good place to start the clean label journey.
Food preservation is as old as civilization and has always included additives, processing and storage techniques in its bag of tricks. Today, there is a “farm to kitchen table” view of the food quality and preservation that uses all these approaches to meet product and market goals.
Significant advances have been made in the processing and storage areas that have reduced the need for preservative additives—but not eliminated it. One part of the natural preservatives movement has been a re-examining of centuries-old preservative ingredients for their efficacy in the modern food-processing environment.
Naturally occurring substances such as citric and ascorbic acids from citrus juices, rosemary extract, hops, salt, sugar, vinegar and alcohol have shown up on the radar as “new” preservative methodologies, as have antioxidants like vitamin C and E from natural sources. At the same time, there are new concepts and ingredients that deliver preservation activity based on enzymatic treatment or synergistic combinations of natural substances. All of these options have a degree of efficacy and potential for use—depending on the food systems in question and the goals of the food developer. Considerations for which preservative ingredients to use include:
Taste, Taste, Taste: When introducing a new preservative ingredient to a food or natural product manufacturer, invariably the first hurdle is that it not detrimentally affect the taste profile of a product. Even when data show significant efficacy, it’s the taste panels of a food company that provide the initial screening for a new ingredient. Poor performance on these panels means the preservative ingredient is a non-starter.
Bacterial/Fungal Control: The second stop of a new preservative ingredient’s qualifying tour is in the microbiological lab. The goal of these labs is to make sure a food will be as free as possible from bacteria, fungi and other undesirable microbiological constituents when it is initially processed. This activity focuses both on the safety and the quality of the product in question. A high “initial kill’”rate is desirable in this situation (described as “log reduction”) at low levels of addition of the preservative ingredient. It is in this area that many traditional natural preservatives encounter problems—they can’t match their synthetic counterparts in efficacy.
Shelf-life Stability: This is the flip side of the preservative efficacy coin. The ability of preservative ingredients to prevent re-growth of microbiological constituents and maintain freshness, structural integrity and taste over a long period of time is essential to a food company’s ability to market its product. This functionality has been the province of both anti-microbials and antioxidants—often used together. Shelf-life stability is an important issue for companies that want to market natural products, which don’t or won’t feature synthetic preservatives. Because these products must be manufactured, shipped, purchased and consumed in a finite amount of time, low shelf-life stability can limit the geographic distribution of their products or cut them out of mass-market retailers entirely.
Labeling: When it comes to preservatives, there is no panacea for the “back” of the label. Every company would like to be able to say that there are no preservatives in their products. It just isn’t always realistic. Regardless of how innocuous or natural a preservative is, it often comes with a funny name. What can be hoped for in this situation is to be able to achieve a “front of pack” claim along the lines of “All Natural” or “Organic”—and there are preservative ingredients in the market that allow this.
Cost: Synthetic preservatives became ubiquitous in processed and prepared foods because they were effective and inexpensive to use. In formulating consumer food products, companies want to spend money on the front of label ingredients—not the preservatives. And while many consumers will spend more for an “All Natural” product—there is a limit to their largesse.
Absent standardized definitions from industry or regulatory agencies, the food and natural products industries move in fits and starts toward developing cleaner labeled, healthier products for a consuming public that has demonstrated the desire to purchase these—even at a price premium. In spite of the lack of guiding principles, like Adam Smith’s invisible hand, market forces aided by innovative ingredient suppliers and creative food developers are building a new food and natural products industry that has the potential to make us all healthier and happier in the years to come.
1 NMI 2010 Health & Wellness Trends Report
2 Clean Label Collaboration, Leatherhead Food Research, 2010
3 Clean Label Collaboration, Leatherhead Food Research, 2010
Asian food products company reaps the benefits of using natural preservatives.
For Paul Squicciarini, executive chef of Fuji Food Products, cleaning up labels is an activity that’s at the top of his list. “The industry is moving toward all-natural, clean label products whether we’re ready or not. At Fuji Foods, we’d rather be a leader in this trend.” In 2011, as a part of his responsibilities of developing new recipes and improving existing products, Mr. Squicciarini began working with GrowGreen Industries eatFresh natural anti-microbial as a replacement for some synthetic preservatives that prevented the company from marketing “all natural” products. eatFresh natural antimicrobial is a 5-part synergistic complex of organic, FDA-approved GRAS components designed to protect prepared/processed foods and beverages from bacteria, yeast and mold growth, and to enhance shelf-life through several different mechanisms.
As with most food product developers, the first test for eatFresh were the tasting panels that the company runs every day—within the company and at independent labs. “As a chef, the difference between eatFresh and chemical preservatives like potassium sorbate and sodium benzoate is like night and day. The constituents of eatFresh have the natural acids and salts occurring in foods and actually help release the flavors in the ingredients we include in our products,” he commented.
After verifying the microbiological efficacy of eatFresh at independent laboratories, the company turned its focus to shelf-life. Shelf-life is a make or break reality for Fuji Foods, who in addition to being the largest producer of packaged sushi in the USA (over 25 million pieces per day), markets salad kits, pre-mixed salads, appetizers and prepared entrees to more than 7000 retail outlets across the country. In an edamame salad product where eatFresh was used at a 0.75% level of dressing weight replacing potassium sorbate and sodium benzoate, according to Mr. Squicciarini, the product equaled its shelf-life goal of 30 days from manufacture. “We’re pretty sure we could have gotten longer shelf-life with the use of eatFresh but we want to make sure that our ingredients taste the best that they can,” he said. The result was the introduction of a new edamame salad product that carried, for the first time, an “all natural” label. Consumer response to this new product was so good that Fuji Foods’ customer requested a similar product with a 22% higher portion size—to increase sales in their stores.
“We’re looking at using eatFresh as a clean label, all-natural solution in a range of our product offerings, from Asian cole slaw and pickled vegetables to noodle salads and fish-based entrees. It’s a pretty versatile ingredient that meets our needs for safety and shelf-life at cost levels that make sense for us,” he said.