Clean-label is big business in the UK. And it doesn’t mean warehouses full of people “washing fruit”, as one confused chap once defined the nebulous concept in a Leatherhead Food Research (LFR) survey.
Food and drink launches that feature a ‘natural’ claim, of which ‘no additive/preservative’ is the dominant subset, have soared in recent years. The number of such new UK products shot up by 46% between 2008 and 2012, bucking a static worldwide trend whereby products claiming to be ‘all natural’ declined by 3% (source: Mintel).
Nevertheless, the influence of slapping ‘natural’ on the label is waning. According to Mintel’s May Trend report, which covers the European food market, “natural as an added-value claim has lost some appeal for consumers”. While shoppers remain suspicious of what goes into their foods, “it is clear that the media coverage of the ‘evils’ of artificial additives has passed its peak,” said global food and drink analyst Chris Brockman. “The mushrooming consumer demand for overtly ‘natural’ products seen in the last decade has thus started to subside.”
The outcome is that naturalness is no longer a shortcut to premiumisation, but rather a standard that people expect. While In 2007, 43% of UK shoppers were prepared to pay a premium for foods without additives, this plummeted to 30% in 2012, as consumer fatigue around the issue and price sensitivity set in.
Consumer disconnect (Return to top)
What's more, there is a disconnect between how motivating the idea of naturalness is and the proportion of people seeking this out in store. “Around 70% of people claim they would prefer a product to be natural. But actually, only a third actively look for 'natural' when they're shopping,” says Luisa Robertson, a director at food market research company MMR. “The whole idea of clean-label becomes interesting then because if products can shout more about their natural credentials on pack in store, 'natural' works as a heuristic to shoppers, a shortcut to a product being good for them, something they'd be happy to give their children.”
Clean-label is not just a 'nice to have' marketing device though. The avoidance of ‘nasties’ and compliance with labelling regulations has been a powerful driver of reformulation. Since six food colours were castigated in 2008 for their potential side effects, eight in 10 of all food and drink launches that use colour have adopted natural colours. Just as noteworthy is the minority fifth that don't, with some brands prepared to stipulate the off-putting declaration: 'consumption may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children' on pack.
“We were inundated with [reformulation] projects [following the labelling decree],” recalls Rachel Wilson, principal technical adviser at LFR. “But natural colours aren’t as stable. You'd think that would be a label that nobody would want on their product. But actually, some of the big branded products, where colour is really important to their brand, do.”
While there is a broad, long-term trend to clean up labels, some brands will not switch, whether that is down to appearance or cost. “A clean label is not the Holy Grail – a product still has to deliver against brand expectations,” says MMR's Robertson.
Additives deemed dirty (Return to top)
But occasionally an issue will flare up and force manufacturers’ hands, where an additive is suddenly deemed dirty. “Often there’s not much science behind it,” says Wilson. “It could be somebody at Marks & Spencer or Tesco has read something about an ingredient, which causes a flurry of reformulation. That’s the power of consumer websites, which carry a huge amount of misinformation on additives and ingredients.”
Carrageenan – a thickener used in everything from chocolate milk to jellies – is a case in point. A study once linked it with stomach cancer in rats, though this was never carried through to human studies and the European Food Safety Authority, which regulates the industry, declared it safe to use. Nevertheless, its reputation as an ‘ideally not’ ingredient was cemented, prompting ingredients suppliers like Ingredion to develop alternatives. Its newly launched co-texturiser Indulge 2740 offers a clean-label starch to replace carrageenan in puddings and custard.
“Often, carrageenan is the last E-number on the label of these products. I can’t find a product that is 100% clean, with only ‘starch’ on the label,” says European marketing manager Mona Rademacher. “The key focus areas for this type of product are the UK, Germany, France and the Netherlands. We compared the total number of pudding and custard launches from 2010 to 2012 (in these countries), and they are increasing by 19%. However, those with carrageenan in the recipe decreased from 57% in 2010, to 47%. From our internal consumer research, people perceived carrageenan negatively.”
As the industry continues to replace ‘modified starches’ with ingredients they can simply label ‘starch’, the demand has been for more process-tolerant ingredients, such as Ingredion’s range, that can withstand the high temperatures and pressures of food processing – an area in which many clean-label starches have fallen short when replaced on a like-for-like basis.
“We still need to improve the functionality of clean-label starches and fibres to match the performance of their chemically modified predecessors,” says Adrian Short of ingredients supplier Ulrick & Short. “Where the learning curve is now is the synergistic effects between different clean-label ingredients. It's about gaining a deeper understanding of the way they interact with other clean-label ingredients to get over the ‘compromise’ of going clean. We might get a new function by combining two elements, where in the past there might have been one.”
Process tolerance (Return to top)
When it comes to process tolerance, smaller firms are investigating high-pressure processing (HPP) as a way of keeping new products clean. “This is especially true if they are in the organic, natural market,” says Colette Jermann, food scientist at Campden BRI. “HPP is being used for more and more heat-sensitive food and beverage products, while pulsed electric field is also emerging. Both of these technologies preserve the colour and quality attributes of fresh fruit and vegetable juices. Preservatives can be reduced or removed, allowing two or three weeks to months of shelf-life, depending on product.”
While the need for better technical solutions is driving one side of the market, the government push to reduce salt and sugar in food also has implications for the cleanliness of labels, as both ingredients are natural preservatives. “In the area of salt reduction, many firms avoid potassium chloride-based salt replacers and are searching for cleaner-label options such as yeast extract and seaweed-based products or technologies to create finer salt structures, enabling salt to dissolve into the saliva,” says Sarah Chapman, product development specialist at Campden BRI.
Companies are also turning to clean-label ingredients with the umami effect when reducing salt. For example, Scelta Mushrooms offers a mushroom derivative with a strong umami effect to enhance savoury notes, as does LycoRed, with a tomato-derived ingredient. Meanwhile, yeast extracts are increasingly stepping in as the building blocks of flavour, in place on ‘unnatural’ alternatives.
“In 2009 there was a big legislation change (EC No 1334/2008), stating that a Maillard reaction [a form of chemical reaction] between a protein source and reducing sugars was no longer considered natural,” says Joris Hermans, product manager for process flavours at DSM. “We developed the technology with which we create the same functionality as the traditional middle block taste ingredients (base block is savoury, middle block is beef, chicken, boiled, roasted, etc and top-note blocks are particular spices), with a simple declaration: ‘natural flavour’ or ‘yeast extract’. In other words, we are able to make a full range of natural middle blocks.
“We also do not need to add any (artificial) amino acids like L-Cysteine. So you get a very natural declaration, with the same functionality as the traditional and non-natural process flavours.” The yeast extract can be used in savoury applications, from ready meals to dressings and sauces, but also in chocolate.
New frontiers (Return to top)
Meanwhile, food technologists still have new clean-label frontiers to explore in the shape of the burgeoning free-from category. According to Mintel, special diet claims such as free-from gluten/lactose, as well as vegetarian, have been in faster growth than ‘natural’ across Europe, featuring on 19% of launches up to May this year, rising from 13% in 2009; this compares with 29% and 25% respectively for ‘natural’ claims.
“What we’re noticing is, for the consumer, clean-label is no longer just about E-numbers – we’re talking gluten-free and free-from," says Short. “There is a growth in people wanting very specific things from their food. The challenges of clean-label haven’t plateaued, because when you want to take nutritional elements out, it adds another hurdle in the developer’s programme.”
With many free-from foods having ingredients declarations as long as your arm, there should be plenty of work for clean-label food technologists – even if it’s not washing fruit.