Clean-label: clean to the extreme

By Lynda Searby

- Last updated on GMT

Ingredion report: Clean-label products shouldn’t come at the expense of taste or texture
Ingredion report: Clean-label products shouldn’t come at the expense of taste or texture

Related tags: Starch

Clean-label is more than a fad, but there's a risk of going too far.

Key points

According to a recent consumer study commissioned by Ingredion, clean-label is rapidly becoming mainstream in the dairy and bakery categories, with 30% of consumers actively seeking products with some sort of clean-label claim.

Yet, at the same time, the Cracking the clean-label code​ report warns that “while consumers perceive clean-label products to be healthier, this could not be achieved at the expense of taste or texture”​.

In the clamour for clean-label, it is a point of view that some manufacturers might have overlooked.

The whole premise of clean-labelling is to make products more appealing to consumers. But when taken to the extreme, there’s a danger it could have the opposite effect.

Ingredients makers concur that the risk of turning consumers off with a compromised product is far greater with an existing product than when developing a new one.

“You can’t move too far from a successful product without losing volume, as people will recognise subtle changes – whereas with a completely new product, the consumer has nothing to compare it with,”​ says Adrian Short, director at Ulrick & Short.

Flavour implications (return to top)

“The things you have to watch are flavour – particularly if removing sugar or fat – and texture, because clean and natural versions of ingredients may not be as robust, so you may not get the required thickness and body,”​ he adds.

With ultra-high temperature-processed custard, for example, Short says removing modified starch would likely not be welcomed by consumers.

“Because of the severe processing and high temperatures that this product has to tolerate, you would struggle to replace the modified starch with a functional native starch and still get a velvety smooth mouthfeel,”​ he explains.

Short also cites the example of French-style salad dressings, which use gums to enhance mouthfeel and control water activity.

“Gums are very effective and difficult to replace. I know cases of people trying to substitute gums with pectin – an ingredient consumers are comfortable with because of its association with jam making. The problem is that you end up with a ‘jammy’ texture,”​ he says.

Hydrocolloids and emulsifiers (return to top)

Hydrocolloids and emulsifiers are also notoriously difficult to replace, due to the specific functions they perform. So, if their removal from the label is going to compromise the overall eating experience, there is a strong case for leaving them in.

But taking a clean-label approach doesn’t automatically mean compromising on taste and texture, as Mona Schmitz-Hübsch, European marketing manager at Ingredion, points out.

“Some clean-label products taste better than the original,”​ she says. “For example, Novation Indulge 3920 is a clean-label co-texturiser that can be used as a fat replacer in dairy puddings and sauces. This improves the texture rather than having a negative impact, and can be labelled simply as ‘starch’.”

Beneo is another manufacturer that claims to have come up with a clean-label alternative that enhances the taste and texture of the end product. Its new rice flour and rice starch combination for pizzas is said to create “the perfect gluten-free, yeast-raised pizza dough while significantly reducing the complexity of the ingredients’ list”​.

The fine particle size of the rice granules is also said to improve mouthfeel, texture and crispiness as well as the short bite and palatability of the crust.

“The trade-off when using functional native rice starches is minimal in terms of taste, texture and performance. Beneo’s rice ingredients have a neutral taste that does not affect the end product’s flavour,”​ says Rudy Wouters, vice president of Beneo-Technology Center.

“Also, due to its unique ratio of amylose and amylopectin, rice starch delivers a positive contribution to a recipe’s texture and stability.”

High stability starches (return to top)

He adds that within Beneo’s rice starch portfolio there are ingredients that demonstrate high stability under demanding processing conditions, such as low pH, high temperature and high shear, and have been proven to offer similar performance to chemically-modified starches.

Beneo’s Remyline AX-DR rice starch, meanwhile, has been shown to improve yield when used in poultry impregnation, enabling producers to replace carrageenan.

Preservatives such as butylated hydroxyanisole (BHT), sodium benzoate and sodium erythorbate is another group of ingredients that are invaluable from a manufacturing perspective, but undesirable in the eyes of consumers.

For this reason, the drive towards clean-labels has proved particularly difficult for the meat industry – a major user of preservatives.

The growing clean-label trend and consumer demand for healthier solutions has brought meat processors some very specific challenges, says David Charest, vice president for meat at Corbion.

In particular, choice is relatively limited when it comes to antimicrobial ingredients. Many available solutions also require significant adjustments to formulations to maintain the quality and safety of the final product.

Plant fibres and extracts (return to top)

When traditional or synthetic ingredients like polyphosphates, nitrite, erythorbate and diacetate are removed, Charest says they are often replaced with plant fibres and extracts and fermented ingredients such as lactic acid and vinegar.

However, as these clean-label items are more complex and much less refined, they carry other natural compounds into the food system, which can limit inclusion levels.

“When rosemary extract is blended down to an appropriate inclusion level, for example, it will contain a small part of actives but a larger part of the plant matter, which can cause bitter off-flavours and aromas,” Charest claims.

“The net result may be a shorter shelf-life due to the clean-label ingredients not being able to be added at higher levels to have the same result as synthetics.”

This illustrates the trade-offs that formulators have to make for a clean-label on meat products.

Another complication is that natural solutions cannot match the functionality of their synthetic counterparts, which is why formulators often use a combination of clean ingredients.

There isn’t necessarily a one-to-one substitute when replacing standard synthetic ingredients with natural or clean alternatives, says Charest.

“In most cases, less desirable ingredients are replaced with an option that provides similar functionality, but may have some trade-offs for the consumer sensory experience or the manufacturer, including yield loss, purge, higher ingredient costs, etc.

“Rosemary or green tea, for example, can be used as an alternative to BHT, while sodium erythorbate can be replaced with cherry powder – both acting as a cure accelerator,”​ he suggests.

Corbion has developed several clean-label solutions designed to mitigate these trade-offs. Its label-friendly vinegar solutions are said to offer a viable alternative to synthetic microbials for controlling listeria and enhancing the flavour profile of cooked products.

According to Ingredion, consumer demand for clean-label products isn’t showing any sign of abating. Yet, for the foreseeable future, there will be ‘undesirable’ ingredients for which no clean-label alternative exists.

Ingredient innovation will go some way to bridging these gaps, as will ‘clear labelling’ – a more transparent approach to ingredient declaration.

“Clean-labelling is here to stay, but we will see more transparency,”​ says Schmitz-Hübsch.

“Consumers want to understand where ingredients come from and how they are produced. This will mean more quick-response codes on pack, and more info online.”

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