In the world of food marketing, perception is everything. Consumers, it seems, want foods that sound wholesome, friendly, and above all "natural" - although they are rarely able to articulate what this means.
"If your brand is projecting a natural and wholesome image," says Dragon Brands consultant Rebecca Wood, "but it contains a long list of ingredients consumers don't understand, they will feel let down." In the absence of any formal definition, therefore, 'cleaning up' your label could mean anything from avoiding the terms 'hydrogenated', 'artificial' or 'modified', to replacing anything that sounds like a chemical, or simply steering clear of any substance that has appeared on the front page of the Daily Mail.
As Pret a Manger explains: "Pret creates handmade natural food avoiding the obscure chemicals, additives and preservatives common to so much of the prepared and fast food on the market today." Indeed, such is the paranoid distrust of 'mass-produced' food and 'chemicals' that some schools and nurseries are now asking caterers to steer clear of a vast number of legally approved ingredients, says Brakes head of health and nutrition Eileen Steinbock.
"We've been asked to remove E-numbers, nitrites and nitrates, artificial sweeteners, colours, flavours and preservatives, MSG and even caramel colouring (E150c). "The official guidance is that these things are all OK, but the consumer perception is that they are not - which is hardly surprising as so many companies are making such a virtue of removing them."
One such is Asda, which claims to have stolen a march on rivals by being the "first retailer to remove all artificial colours, sweeteners, flavour enhancers and hydrogenated vegetable oil" from its own-label products. Whether there is actually anything wrong with the substances being removed is not the point, argues Asda company nutritionist Vanessa Hattersley: "If it's got an E-number then it's safe, but if the customer is unsure about something, we will try and take it out. Consumers want to see less and less on the label, and 'nothing hidden'."
She will not comment on the legal dispute with aspartame supplier Ajinomoto over Asda's use of the word 'nasty' to describe aspartame, but rejects the suggestion that such rhetoric demonises legal food additives and ingredients. "Internally," she claims, "we're moving away from using the word nasty." (Although Asda's website still includes the phrase 'No more nasties' in its healthy eating section.)
Tesco also accepts that the drive towards using more natural ingredients is not about food safety or health per se. Indeed, its decision to switch to using exclusively natural smoke flavours has even aroused criticism from some quarters for potentially compromising food safety by exposing consumers to carcinogens. The clean-label trend, says a spokeswoman, is simply about responding to consumer demand: "We have a list of additives that we do not wish suppliers to use. The list is based around what our customers want. Where the customer drives the clean-label debate it will always be evolving."
While the credit crunch has hit sales of organics and other premium categories, clean-label is one trend that probably won't go away, if for no other reason than retailers have made such firm commitments, predicts ingredients supplier Ulrick & Short. "Yes, it can cost more, but if you have already committed to changing your policy, you can't go back."
Indeed, while some nutritionists claim the obsession with removing E-numbers is a convenient side show to the more pressing issue of tackling spiralling obesity, there is no question that it is increasingly driving new product development (NPD). As the latest Mintel report into trends driving NPD reveals, 'natural' or 'no artificial ...' claims featured on almost a quarter (23%) of global food and drink launches in 2008.
Consequently, the 'nasty' list continues to grow, with The Co-operative Group now banning modified starch; genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and ingredients produced from GMOs; 21 colours; MSG and all other flavour enhancers; the sweeteners aspartame and cyclamate; the antioxidants BHA, BHT, propyl gallate, octyl gallate and dodecyl gallate and nine preservatives (including sodium benzoate). And as of this month, adds scientific advice and labelling standards manager Cathryn Higgs: "No new products will contain nature identical (NI) flavourings, and, after this date, as products are rebranded or reformulated, NI flavourings will be removed."
So how has all this affected suppliers? It all depends what you are trying to replace, says Interfood technical sales director Steve Overton. "Phosphate is a real challenge, especially at the value end of the sliced cooked meats market, where a tiny amount of phosphate (0.2%) can significantly increase yield, sliceability and succulence."
Carrageenan (E407), he says, would be a good alternative in many cases because it can absorb up to 20 times its own weight in water, disperses easily, remains in a fluid state while cooking but sets when the meat cools down. "But that's on the 'nasty' list as well because of some articles linking it to cancer years ago - even though they have since been discredited."
Other options include soya or milk proteins, but they are not as effective and come with a higher price tag, he notes. Clean-label starches, meanwhile, are "harder to get into muscle to make it look natural", he says. "Modified starches would be better, but they are on the hit list as well."
The irony is that while cleaning up a label may achieve the stated aim of reducing the total number of E-numbers listed, the end product might actually contain more phosphate than it did in the first place, says Overton: "You can get great effects using very tiny amounts of tri-, di- and poly-phosphate. But that's three E-numbers. Remove two of them and you've got to use more of the remaining one to achieve the same effect. Is the consumer better off after all this? Is it safer, or healthier? No."
In bakery, says British Bakels product development chief Dr Gary Gibb: "Customers are trying to avoid flour treatment agents, ascorbic acid and emulsifiers such as mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids (E471), which provide shelf-life, softness, volume and crumb structure. In other products it's more about avoiding artificial colours and flavours, modified starch, hydrogenated vegetable fat and mould inhibitors such as potassium sorbate (E202) and calcium propionate (E282)." In many cases, he says, enzymes can replace emulsifiers and as they are processing aids that affect the development of the dough but have no function in the final product, they do not have to be labelled.
Ascorbic acid (vitamin C), however, which is used as an improving agent in baked goods, is much harder to replace, especially in sliced white bread, says Gibbs. "It affects the development of the dough, which really makes it a processing aid, so you could dispute whether it should be labelled at all - but the convention is to label it."
In sauces and many prepared foods, says Adrian Short, co-founder of Ulrick & Short, the main ingredient his customers are trying to replace is modified starch, although they are also keen to avoid emulsifiers such as mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids and soy lecithin (E322), plus various gums and hydrocolloids, which are perceived as 'unnatural'. In many prepared foods, meanwhile, the big challenge is replacing salt and maintaining a clean label, says Heinz company nutritionist Tristan Robinson. "You can go up to a certain point just gradually reducing it, but after a certain point you have to look at alternatives. However, things like potassium chloride don't look great on a label. We also found it didn't give us the taste profile we wanted."
Big brands have probably struggled more than own-label players to achieve clean labels because even slight changes in terms of flavour, colour, texture or shelf-life post reformulation are not acceptable, claims Short. "It's easiest if you are starting from scratch, but if you've got an iconic brand that hasn't changed its recipe for 25 years, you will have problems. "We did some work recently to clean up a chocolate sauce that went with a sponge pudding, and we achieved a great match on texture, viscosity and mouthfeel, but the reformulated version was half a shade different to the original, and food developers can be scared to make this kind of leap."
The holy grail is developing clean-label 'natural' preservatives that can replace potassium sorbate in solid foods and sodium benzoate, which kills bacteria, yeast and fungi in acidic soft drinks and dressings, says Short. "This is definitely an area of opportunity. We're working on something at the moment but it probably won't be commercially available for another 12-18 months." While historically clean-label ingredients did not always match 'unclean' counterparts in performance terms, that is changing, adds Short: "Now they are much more robust."
Likewise, while rival National Starch Food Innovation accepts that clean-label does not necessarily mean 'healthy', some of its clean-label ingredients such as resistant starch Hi-Maize do offer genuine health benefits, claims market development manager, wholesome applications, Helmut Gronbach. And others actually offer superior functionality to their 'modified' counterparts, he claims: "While early launches such as Novation Prima functional native starch were developed specifically to create clean-label products that stood up to the freeze-thaw process, more recent launches such as Homecraft Gold a 'wholesome texturiser' also provide restaurant quality you can't get from a modified starch, combining the opportunity for fat replacement and optimum stabilising properties with a home-made, flour-like texture, adding an authentic or premium look and feel to processed foods such as soups, sauces and ready meals." The firm also rejects claims that cleaner labels are always more expensive. "This is not necessarily the case."
As for drinks, Coca-Cola is currently phasing out sodium benzoate where possible in the wake of the controversial University of Southampton study on hyperactivity. While critics point out that its design did not actually enable researchers to identify whether the preservative was actually implicated along with the artificial colours on trial, just the association has been enough to make manufacturers nervous.
A Coca-Cola spokeswoman says: "We're not saying it's unsafe, but we have to listen to consumers." Of course, finding a direct replacement for some preservatives is not necessarily the only option, says Greencore Grocery technical director David Miller. "You could reduce the shelf-life, change the storage instructions or try and reduce the pH such that the product becomes self-protecting. But these may not be acceptable alternatives." As to how sustainable the desire for all things natural is, the chickens have not yet come home to roost, says consultant Darren Staniforth.
If you want lemon juice on the label instead of citric acid, you need a lot of lemons, he points out. "How sustainable are some natural flavours when we only use 1-2% of the fruit and the rest is just waste?" While the desire to make it easier for consumers to navigate food labels is commendable, he says: "The obsession with avoiding 'chemicals' is quite baffling, we're all made of chemicals!"
While there is nothing wrong with trying to be transparent or to keep things as 'natural' as possible, the preoccupation with clean labels, particularly in children's foods, has also diverted attention, time and resource from addressing more substantive nutritional issues, claims Judy Buttriss, director general at the British Nutrition Foundation. "In my opinion, when it comes to prioritising the attributes of foods, their content of essential nutrients and whether they are high in nutrients that we need to cut down on such as saturates and sodium are far more relevant considerations than clean labels."
Blacklisted sweeteners such as aspartame can also play an important role in sugar reduction, she adds: "Appropriate use of sweeteners has the potential to help deal with obesity trends. It is not helpful if they are avoided out of hand. "Too great a focus on additives can detract from the major challenges in child nutrition: avoidance of overweight, achieving adequate intakes of the essential nutrients and avoidance of excessive intakes of fat (especially saturates), salt and sugars."
Ulrick & Short 01977 620011
National Starch 0161 4353264
British Bakels 01869 247098
Interfood Technology 01844 217681