Ask two UK manufacturers what their definition of clean label is, and you'd probably get two different answers. The much-touted term also has various connotations throughout Europe, and that's before you even consider the US and south east Asia.
So how can ingredient suppliers with a global remit meet the clean-label needs of manufacturers?
It's not an easy job, but Ingredion's director of global wholesome ingredients business Aaron Edwards says it can be done.
The firm which was previously Corn Products and rebranded this year, two years after it acquired National Starch has a portfolio of clean-label ingredients under the Novation brand.
These, functional, native starches, enable food and drink firms to create a desired texture in their products while positioning them in the clean- label marketplace.
Edwards, a UK-based American, says Ingredion is bringing new ingredients to the market all the time as it seeks to tap into new trends.
"We sell a broad range of applications in many regions and markets and they are used in everything from sauces to ready meals, to soups and dairy desserts and even some low-moisture foods such as baked goods," says Edwards.
In the UK, this has led to a recent focus on gluten-free goods: "New products seem to be quite high for gluten-free," he says, adding: "there remains a continued and expanded extension of clean-label offerings in general", despite the weak economy.
While finding specific ingredients and applications to suit a firm's needs remains a key objective, Edwards says Ingredion has more lofty ambitions.
"Our goal is to work closely with food and beverage customers to ensure we find the right solution. It's not always only about finding the right ingredient that will provide a consumer-preferred texture, although we are happy to do that, but very often it is helping them to create a recipe from scratch or reformulating an existing product so they can move it into the clean-label space."
This can also involve giving guidance on how to better position a clean-label product in a specific market, by delving into knowledge from "extensive" consumer research.
It is this insight and information that is as important as the ingredients Ingredion supplies, says Edwards, not least because there is not a published, industry-wide definition of clean label.
"It has slightly different meanings in different markets, says Edwards. "In 2010 we produced an article to try and define 'clean label' based on what consumers told us they expected. They expected simple labels and simple ingredients they could find in their kitchen cupboard.
"We also know the market wasn't asking specific consumers the right kind of questions. So we know now there are positive messages in some countries, which consumers in other areas react negatively too."
Add this lack of a definition to the varying interpretations and consumer expectations across the world, and it is clear that producing clean-label goods, especially on a continental or global level, can become a minefield.
That is why Ingredion is investing heavily in detailed, consumer insight and research at a local level, Edwards maintains.
"It is not a one size fits all approach. What is doing well in north east Asia right now, may not be doing quite so well in Mexico or the UK," says Edwards. "We have regional teams across the world to ensure we understand not only the trends for the region because that is where you can get into trouble but also the trends within the region at the country market level."
All of this means Ingredion has to continue to develop numerous portfolios of clean-label ingredients for a range of markets. As Edwards points out, in the UK and Europe consumers won't support any E-numbers in clean-label products, even if they are natural additives. In contrast, US consumers don't necessarily feel the same way, he adds, "because there is not an E-number system, so some ingredients are being used in the clean-label space that would never be accepted on this side of the Atlantic. Specifically, you see some hydrocolloids used over there because of a lack of an E number".
Cost and positioning
If the issue of definition was tricky enough to counter, especially for pan-continental and global food firms, there is also another fly in the clean- label ointment. And that's cost. To give Edwards his dues, it is not an issue he shies away from.
"There are cost implications of moving into the clean-label space and we never want to hide from that because, truth be told, the cost of clean-label ingredients is very often higher," he says.
The key issue for Edwards, therefore, is being able to show firms what opportunities and returns can be derived from moving into this sphere. To do this, he employs metrics to provide a quantifiable measurement of what can be expected in terms of sustained or improved market share, or higher profit delivery by positioning the product differently in terms of price due to its clean-label credentials.
Again, however, the returns will vary greatly depending on the market, he says. In the sluggish UK and European economies, the focus is very much on sustaining and protecting positions as consumers become increasingly ingredient-savvy while having less cash to spend.
"Firms that did not have clean-label offerings have often suffered when others came into that space with clean-label items," he argues. "It has happened a number of times in specific country markets."
On the other hand, in China, where the market is in double-digit growth "defending market share isn't necessarily an issue, but driving up sales is," he says.
Be it protecting market share, or enhancing sales, Edwards is convinced the main way Ingredion will enable companies to benefit from clean-label as well as increasing trade for his employer is by continuing to innovate, invest and bring new products to market.
He's cautious not to give much away, but says there will be a launch of new, clean-label starches that will enable "more products than ever before" to be classed as clean-label.
"Traditionally the food processing required to make these products was too rigorous for clean-label texturisers, but we are confident our patented technology and these ingredients will enable firms to use them in new applications," he says.
"We have new products coming out all the time in different markets, but this will be multi-regional and will be out in the UK and Europe by the end of the year."
He's talked it up, now let's wait and see if he delivers.