What exactly is a clean-label product nowadays?

By Paul Gander

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Food

About 30%of new launches in the UK are labelled as 'additive-free'
About 30%of new launches in the UK are labelled as 'additive-free'
The subject of ‘clean-label’ ingredients has not gone away, but there are increasingly other priorities which may take precedence, Paul Gander discoversEn dash: –

Key points

Clean-label is not the first concept to be important but, at the same time, is difficult to define. Ingredients supplier Ingredion had a stab at doing just that on the basis of consumer feedback collected between 2007 and 2010. It concluded that the most significant consumer expectations were: the absence of chemical additives; a simple ingredients listing; and the use of foods processed using traditional techniques, or that were minimally processed.

For many in the food industry, a definition of this sort (starting with ‘chemical additives’) does not make the concept any clearer. But, whether the idea is communicated to consumers via ‘natural’ or ‘pure’ positionings, or negative declarations such as ‘no artificial additives’, brand owners still believe it carries weight with consumers.

Ingredion quotes Innova research which shows the UK launching the highest proportion of clean-label products in Europe (35%) during the period 2007–13.

At Mintel, innovation and insight director David Jago says: “About 30% of all new food and drink products launched in the UK are now labelled as containing ‘no additives/preservatives’. But that figure has barely changed over the last few years, as ‘additive-free’ claims have become the norm in many product categories in leading supermarkets.”

Fuzzy term (Return to top)

But if clean-label started life as a rather fuzzy term, those lines appear to be blurring even more as priorities evolve both among consumers and further up the supply chain.

For example, head of food innovation at Leatherhead Food Research (LFR) Wayne Morley says: “There’s been a lot of noise about sugar and calorie reduction. It’s been exercising a lot of brain power. If the sugar’s reduced, what’s it replaced with? If it’s stevia, that’s listed as steviol glycoside and has an E-number.”​ As a processed ingredient, it has also had its ‘natural’ credentials challenged. “You can argue either way whether it​s a clean-label ingredient or not.”

But it seems that stevia is a symptom, not a cause. Lauren Bandy, food research analyst at Euromonitor, says: “I think the furore surrounding sugar means that the clean-labelling debate just got blown wide open. Consumers look just as much, if not more, at the front-of-pack labelling as they do at the ingredients listings. Traffic light labelling and whether a product contains sugar, fat and salt is something that consumers can understand.”

Because of the importance attached to one or more of these ‘headline​ nutrients, consumers are showing more give-and-take with regard to other back-of-pack ingredients. The same is true of the weight given to potential triggers for allergy and intolerance, such as gluten-containing and dairy ingredients.

In the case of stevia, consumers may register the E-number, the rather ‘chemical’-sounding name in the ingredients list and its overall mixed reception as a sweetener, but may accept all that as a price worth paying for avoiding sugar.

LFR’s Morley serves up another example of consumer trade-offs. “Xanthan gum is often used as an agent in gluten-free baking. Generally speaking, consumers don’t recognise it or particularly like the ‘x’, but it’s widely used. Savvier consumers will recognise it as an important ingredient, safe to eat and with a clear role. In other words, when an ingredient is effective in a given allergen area, there may be increased acceptance of it.”

These different levels of acceptability are often part of a ‘negotiation’ carried out elsewhere, sometimes on specialist websites, in other consumer media, or the brand-owners’ own communications. But occasionally it is played out on-pack, too.

Aaron Edwards, Ingredion’s senior director for global wholesome and texture, explains: “What we have seen in some places around the world is food manufacturers using a spot on their packaging to carry out some consumer education, in order to make certain ingredients less ‘scary’.”

Consumers’ needs (Return to top)

“Consumers tend to have a hierarchy of needs, prioritising things depending on what they’re looking for,” he continues. “Gluten-free might be their first priority, then it might be sodium content, with clean-label at number three.”

There can be good, functionality reasons for using individual ingredients. When developing a new gluten-free fish batter system for the foodservice sector, Daymer Ingredients avoided any “funny gums or modified starches”, ​says sales director James Brace. “But we used unmodified starches and a couple of raising agents, including sodium bicarbonate.”

He concludes: “What it comes down to is that we removed everything that didn't have to be in there, such as artificial flavours and colours, MSG​ [monosodium glutamate] and so on.”

Even in a packaged retail product, he believes this approach would be appropriate for a gluten-free range. “With gluten-free, consumers are more aware of the food science and nutrition,”​ says Brace.

But again, he does not believe that difficulties in pinning down a definition of clean-label diminishes or devalues the concept. In the past, he claims, the term was viewed by the food industry with “quite a lot of cynicism”. “But it’s become more sophisticated and is now more positively received by food manufacturers.”

Neither is this view simply about trade-offs on the consumer side. Retailers may also be flexible in their clean-label requirements for manufacturers, depending on their own hierarchy of needs.

The avoidance of E-numbers was, as Brace explains, the defining characteristic of clean-label as it was interpreted by industry up to a few years ago. That wariness about E-numbers has not gone away, Edwards at Ingredion warns, despite the important role that they play as a regulatory tool. “For food products in the clean-label space, they’re still avoided if they can be avoided,”​ he points out.

Bakery additives, such as emulsifiers, oxidising agents and reducing agents. are not in any way ‘synthetic’, chair of the British Society of Baking Sara Autton points out. “They just happen to have E-numbers.”

She adds: “It’s all a question of negotiation between the baker and the supermarket in question. That is, provided the baker can give sufficiently detailed information about the source (which seems to involve more detail every year), so the retailer can be satisfied it’s a legitimate ingredient which the product cannot do without.”

Difficulties (Return to top)

One example, says Autton, would be an emulsifier in a bread such as a ciabatta, where it might be extremely difficult to reformulate while maintaining all the same attributes. “If the emulsifier is based on palm oil, the retailer will, more often than not, want to see that the oil is from a sustainable source,”​ she says.

Daymer takes up this idea of more complex perspectives in the supply chain. “Today, clean-label fits into a broader structure of ethical sourcing,”​ argues Brace. And one aspect of this structure may ‘trump’ another. “The confectionery sector may opt to use modified starches as an alternative to gelatine, to open up vegetarian, vegan or religious markets,” ​he explains. “From one perspective, this is less of a clean-label ingredient. But it opens up new markets, and there are massive cost benefits.”

In other cases, clean-label and ethical considerations may complement each other. In Daymer’s view, the biggest, least-negotiable clean-label issues hinge on artificial colours and flavours. But even here, there are cases where relatively unstable natural colours have been deemed too much of a liability for given brands.

Clean-label is, it seems, an important but increasingly moveable feast, with growing numbers of dishes served up – and more of a buffet than a set menu.

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