Clean-labels: a dirty game?

By Lynda Searby

- Last updated on GMT

Consumers are more trusting of store cupboard ingredients
Consumers are more trusting of store cupboard ingredients

Related tags Flour

The industry's drive to make food and drink labels easier for consumers to read has been attacked in a recently published book. Lynda Searby finds out how the sector has responded to the latest criticism

Key points

Investigative journalist and author Joanna Blythman has ruffled a few feathers with her latest book: ‘Swallow this: serving up the food industry’s darkest secrets’.

Products whose labels have been ‘cleaned up’ come off particularly badly, with Blythman accusing manufacturers of duping consumers with benign-sounding substitutes that are as highly processed and opaque in their formulation as the ‘nasties’ they are replacing.

“We all eat prepared foods made using state-of-the-art technology, mostly unwittingly, either because the ingredients don’t have to be listed on the label, or because ‘weasel’ words such as ‘flour’ and ‘protein’, peppered with liberal use of the adjective ‘natural’, disguise their production method,”​ she writes.

Blythman describes clean-labelling as “a superficial tidy-up, with the most embarrassing mess stuffed in the cupboard behind a firmly shut door where, hopefully, no one will notice”.

The bakery industry has been at the forefront of clean-label, with developers working to eliminate emulsifiers and hydrogenated fats from recipes. For this sector, remarks like this are an affront.

“I work with developers who take pride in balancing how to provide the best quality, healthiest and most affordable products for the consumer,” ​says an incensed Greg Woodhead, product development manager at bakery ingredients firm British Bakels. “An implication that the consumer is being intentionally misled is unfair on the people who work hard to develop products people want to eat and balance the competing demands of the age we live in.”

One of the ways in which Blythman believes consumers are being misled is the labelling of functional native starches and flours. These ingredients do not require an E number and can be declared as ‘starch’ or ‘flour’ on packaging, making the processing methods effectively invisible to consumers who might think they are store cupboard ingredients. She says that, like modified starches, functional native starches are “based on highly processed, altered starch designed to withstand high-pressure manufacturing”,​ but does not acknowledge that functional native starches are physically, rather than chemically modified – hence the distinction in labelling law.

Adrian Short, director at Ulrick & Short, one of the trail blazers of clean-label ingredient development, confirms that the white powder consumers know as ‘corn flour’ is not exactly the same as the ‘corn flour’ his company supplies to food firms, but argues that there is nothing sinister or opaque about this.

“Extracting the endosperm part of the corn kernel through wet milling, then drying and milling it, produces the store cupboard ingredient home bakers know as corn flour,”​ he says.

“If the extracted flour or starch is processed in different ways, say using only thermal and mechanical methods without the use of chemicals or additives to give the manufacturing robustness required to obtain the right crumb structure and soft eating properties, it is still corn flour – just produced in a different way.

One ingredient can be processed in many ways to achieve different formulations,”​ he says.

“We are very transparent about the way our ‘functional’ flours and starches are processed and don’t use chemicals.”

Under fire (Return to top)

Another group of bakery ingredients that comes under fire is enzymes, which Blythman says “are used to make bread stay softer​ [for] longer, injected into low-value livestock before slaughter, and used in fruit juice processing to create a cloudier, more natural appearance”.

Woodhead agrees enzymes are used for these reasons, but says “it is not because we wish to mislead people, but because consumers like to eat soft bread, eat tender meat, and drink cloudy fruit juice.”

The main reason enzymes are now being used in bread manufacturing is as a replacement for emulsifiers, which served as bread improvers until they were decried as “nasty”​ by the clean-label lobby.

But still the food industry can’t do right, with the inference that enzymes which don’t need to be declared on the label because they are classified as ‘processing aids’ are another attempt to hoodwink consumers.

Dr Lutz Popper, head of research and development at flour treatment firm Mühlenchemie, says: “People feel cheated, because they do not understand the difference between an enzyme – which is just a catalyst – and an additive.”

“With an enzyme, after the effect has been triggered, the molecule remains unchanged. The nutritive value of the food remains the same, whereas with an emulsifier the composition of lipids is altered. It is difficult to explain to people who are afraid of ‘strange’ ingredients.”

As long as consumers don’t understand enzymes, Popper believes that they are best left off labels, for fear that they will cause more confusion than clarification, and because there isn’t enough space on a label to provide an explanation.

“My suggestion is manufacturers print quick response codes on labels and use these to provide fuller explanations of ingredients and processes for those consumers who want to drill down and access that detail,”​ he says. “I think and hope we are going that way.”

As these examples demonstrate, the root of many of the criticisms levelled at the manufacturing community stems from a consumer knowledge gap. So, does the answer to bridging this gap lie in the regulatory arena, and does the law need tightening up to better inform consumers?

Lawyer Dr Ina Gerstberger, who is director of law firm Wragge, Lawrence, Graham & Co’s food and drink team, believes that it should be left to individual food companies to decide whether they want to use the more ‘consumer friendly’ customary name of the ingredient or a descriptive name that contains more information.

Sufficient regulations (Return to top)

She is also of the opinion that there are already sufficient regulations to prevent any deceptive communications on the nature of a product or ingredient.

“Nonetheless, the application of these rules depends on the consumer, their intelligence and how informed they are. However, in this age of ready access to information via the internet and other sources, we should trust more in our consumers,”​ she says.

Blythman makes a number of references to the quest by the food industry to cut costs replacing or reducing expensive ingredients.

It is worth pointing out that cleaning up a label generally adds, rather than cuts, cost – sometimes to the point where the clean-label alternative is not commercially viable, industry experts claim.

Take the example of ascorbic acid, which Blythman describes as "man-made vitamin C, [which is] usually synthesised from the fermentation of genetically modified corn".

A lot more cost (Return to top)

Popper explains that in bakery, chemically or biochemically produced ascorbic acid can be replaced with orange juice. However, the downside is the orange flavour.

Another alternative, he says, is dried acerola fruit juice. However, the downside with this clean-label replacer is that you need five times as much dried acerola as you would ascorbic acid, and acerola is 10 times more expensive than ascorbic acid.

“This means it can cost 50 times as much to use acerola juice. And when you are only talking about minuscule doses of between 10 and 20 parts per million, it seems ridiculous that the presence of ascorbic acid is even an issue in the first place,” ​he says.

The irony of Blythman’s ‘exposé’ is that the requirement for these ‘state-of-the-art’ clean-label ingredients stems from consumer demand for food that is cheap and convenient, and ultimately, consumers do have a choice.

As Woodhead puts it: “Consumers can purchase bread made using store cupboard ingredients from their local baker. The difference is that a 400g sour dough loaf costs £3.99, whereas Sainsbury’s own-label 800g is on sale for 55p ​[at the time of writing] … most consumers can’t afford £3.99 and are more than happy with their 800g purchase for 55p.”

His belief is that too much air-time is being given to clean-label and that food manufacturers should instead be focusing on the reduction of the real villains: salt, fat and sugar.

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