All other things being equal, which would you choose: product A with a list of 10 ingredients you can actually spell? Or product B, the otherwise identical food product with twice as many ingredients, some with names like 2,4,5-Trimethylpyrazine -3-Oxazoline, which sounds more like an alien hybrid experiment than an actual food?
In fact, that 14-syllable word is just a simple flavoring agent, but if your stomach just did a flip-flop, you're not alone.
Although the term 'natural' has become such a buzzword it has lost its meaning, what isn't meaningless to consumers is the desire to avoid additives, including artificial colors and preservatives, in their foods. Regulators at the FDA and USDA may not agree on what 'natural' means, but most people know in their viscera what it doesn't mean: long ingredient labels you can't even pronounce.
Thus the trend toward 'clean labels.'
According to Mintel's Global New Product Database, the percentage of new product launches globally containing natural claims (such as 'no artificial colors/ flavors/preservatives/additives') rose from just over 25 percent of new launches in 2005 to well over 35 percent in 2009.
In June, the topic of cleaning up labels spurred its own two-day conference in Amsterdam called Clean Label Europe. Clean labels were also a featured topic at the Research Chefs Association conference in Phoenix in March.
"The clean label market has been historically more developed in Europe, driven mostly by the UK, where the interest in clean label has become very strong, especially in the last 20 years," said Diana Briceno, marketing manager - wholesome ingredients, for National Starch Food Innovation. "The trend has picked up quickly in other European countries and is now becoming increasingly strong in the US. We are getting more requests from our customers that not only want to have a cleaner label, but also would like to carry the 'all-natural' claim on their front label."
Consumers may have a preference for what in the UK has been dubbed 'cupboard cooking' – processes they can easily understand like cooling, baking and milling – but for food manufacturers, this presents some challenges.
Such processing and preservation methods as oxidation, or the addition of enzymes, preservatives and irradiated ingredients, can be crucial to a product's manufacture. But it is precisely these techniques consumers most distrust, according to market research company, GfK, which conducted a representative consumer survey in Germany in 2009 (see Table 1).
For this reason, it is the world of flours and other natural starches that seems to be the cutting edge of the clean-label movement. Thanks to technical advances in milling technologies and specialized grains, it is now possible to avoid chemically modified starches.
In 2009, Kampffmeyer Food Innovation of Germany began offering a binding and thickening system that can replace chemically modified starches in many applications. Purafarin H 151 W is a physically refined waxy wheat with a stable and consistent viscosity profile and a reduced starch gelling point (which prevents, for example, the formation of skin on soups), as well as improved freeze/thaw properties and reduced syneresis.
The Purafarin range includes rice and corn flours, whole-grain flours and organic variants. Only physical processes, such as thermal or hydrothermal treatments, have been applied to the raw material, making them solidly 'clean label.'
In May, UK manufacturer and supplier Ulrick & Short Ltd launched a clean label fat replacer called Delyte7. The ingredient is a nonfat butter and oil replacement designed for savory sauces, such as carbonara and béchamel.
The company, founded in 2000, has always had clean-label ingredients as the core focus of its business. The creation of Delyte7, which can be identified as 'tapioca starch' on food labels, was in response to food formulators' need for reduced costs and fat content. Available in powder form, Delyte7 is added to other dry recipe ingredients.
"Traditionally, there have been difficulties in matching the multifunctional characteristics of fat with substitutions," explained Jacqui Symons, development technologist. "Ulrick & Short carried out exhaustive product trials developing Delyte7 to mimic fat over multiple cooking cycles and to be freeze-flash-thaw stable, while achieving creamier textures. This makes Delyte7 the ideal, easy-to-use fat replacement for a wide range of sauces."
Although predominantly marketed in the UK, four other ingredients make up the Delyte range – all of which are clean label and available in the U.S. They are used to replace butter and oils in cakes and bakery fillings, which allow food manufacturers to remove some butter content from products and still use the label 'all butter.' The ingredients contain no chemicals or artificial components and are GMO free.
"With more and more products being scrutinized for cleaner labels and healthier options, food manufacturers are being challenged to deliver products with natural ingredients, while retaining flavor and consistency," Symons said.
Looking to the future
"The clean label trend is here to stay," Briceno said. "Consumers are more aware about what they eat and are more educated about where their food comes from. There is more scrutiny now on particular ingredients than ever before (eg, sodium, trans fats, sugars, etc). I see manufacturers reducing ingredients on their labels and switching to recognizable ingredients that have positive consumer perception, while at the same time maintaining a healthy nutritional profile.
"I think most consumers know what a clean label is, but they might not verbalize it as such. They do like a shorter ingredient statement and ingredients that they would normally have in their cupboards."
Still, like all things that become a fad in the food industry, motivations do matter when it comes to the clean label movement, said Chris Kelly, director of technical services for Advanced Food Systems, at the Research Chefs Association conference in March. The New Jersey company is a manufacturer of custom ingredient systems.
"A lot of manufactures are going with clean label to make products healthier, with the notion that clean label is in reality healthier than something that sounds chemical, which I'm not really sure that it is," Kelly said. "But I do think it's a drive for healthier product – and I hope it's a drive toward healthier products for the sake of healthier products, and not just a marketing ploy."