Natural preservatives: how to boost your clean-label claims

By Michelle Knott

- Last updated on GMT

Shelf-preservation: the natural preservatives market remains largely untapped
Shelf-preservation: the natural preservatives market remains largely untapped

Related tags Antioxidant

Cleaning up food labels is big business. But while some areas of the label are pretty much a done deal, in others, there remains much more opportunity for development.

Key points

For instance, Euromonitor International suggests that as far back as 2015, 96% of colours used in food and drink applications were already natural product colours. Synthetic product colours accounted for just 3%, with the remaining 1% classified as titanium dioxide or ‘other’ colours.

Contrast that with preservation, where there’s much more room for manoeuvre. In 2015, just 2% of applications used rosemary extract, 1% used ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and 6% used ‘others’.

This left the vast majority to be divided up between a variety of chemical-sounding compounds, including calcium propionate (41%) and nitrites/nitrates (10%), potassium sorbate (19%) and benzoic acid/benzoates (13%).

Put simply, this translates into an enormous opportunity to create clean-label products by using more natural preservatives.

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The ongoing shelf-life challenge (return to top)

“Shelf-life continues to be fairly challenging and has traditionally been solved by ingredients with a more chemical-sounding nature,”​ explains Stefaan Van Dyck, president of Kemin Food Technologies for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Kemin’s portfolio of natural plant extracts combines elements of rosemary, green tea, spearmint, tocopherols and acerola with antioxidant properties within its En-Fort, NaturFort, Fortra and Fortium product ranges. These chiefly aim to prevent various forms of oxidative damage.

The company also markets BactoCease NV, which uses a technology based on clean-label buffered vinegar to safeguard meat, poultry, fish and deli salads from spoilage bacteria.

“Preservatives are micro-ingredients and they’re not always obvious to consumers. They’ve received less attention than, say, colours but that is changing,”​ Van Dyck says.

The growing demand for convenient processed foods with a longer shelf-life means that the overall market for preservatives is buoyant, according to Antony Kunjachan, executive director of India-based Arjuna Natural Extracts.

“Hectic lifestyles of people, especially in the developed regions, make them opt for convenience foods,”​ he suggests. “However, health conscious people nowadays are demanding food products that have natural additives.”

Arjuna recently introduced a range of herbal extract-based preservatives under the X-Tend brand. Meat, baked goods, frying oil, mayonnaise and fruit juice are among the targeted products.

While X-Tend formulations are based on rosemary, they also incorporate a wide range of other natural extracts, promising anti-microbial protection options as well as the antioxidant functions most often associated with herbal extracts.

Herbs and spices offer antimicrobial benefits (return to top)

Herbs and spices historically used to add flavour and fragrance to foods are also known for their antimicrobial qualities, Kunjachan says.

“The active antimicrobial ingredients are mostly essential oils, most of which are classified as Generally Recommended As Safe [by the US Food and Drug Administration].

“In particular, phenolic compounds occurring naturally have been reported to have excellent antimicrobial properties as food preservatives,”​ he adds.

Kunjachan says polyphenols, in the form of flavonoids, phenolic acids, tannins, stilbenes and lignans, fit this bill. Meanwhile, he claims other classes of plant-derived compounds such as polyamines, glucosinolates and glucosides have been assessed for their antimicrobial properties, and glucosinolates in particular demonstrate antifungal and antibacterial properties.

“Our process involves extraction of bioactive compounds from plant source, testing of extract for antimicrobial activity, and the study of synergies with other natural antimicrobials,”​ Kunjachan explains.

Arjuna sources herbs from across the world to meet region-specific customer requirements.

“Our vast herbal library contains a huge list of traditional herbs that have potential use in antimicrobial activity, either individually or in combination,”​ Kunjachan adds.

Why co-operation and testing are important (return to top)

If that all sounds rather bespoke, suppliers generally agree that co-operation and testing are the best way to optimise solutions for any given application.

“There are certainly families of solutions, but in the end, every product needs to be tailored,”​ says Van Dyck.

“The breakdown mechanisms are very diverse, depending on the molecules affected and the type of food matrix. Sometimes, it’s just the dose that needs to be fine-tuned.

“We might know a solution will work at 1,000 parts per million [ppm] but 900ppm may be fine – a 10% saving.”

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He also says that the different oxidation pathways can demand different solutions, sometimes even within the same product.

“Take the example of a lemon cake. You want to preserve the lemon flavour but there’s also butter in there and you want to stop the development of undesired flavours [ie rancidity].

“Then, there’s colour, which is another oxidative pathway. The chemistry needed to prevent the different forms of oxidation is completely different.”

The development process is a partnership, says Vince Martin, Kalsec business development manager.

Kalsec previously carried out most of its development work in the US, but it has just opened a lab in the UK.

Its clean-label antioxidant extracts fall into two camps – rosemary-based Herbalox and Duralox, which includes extracts such as green tea and acerola.

“There’s a lot of synergy between different extracts, so when we start mixing the products we get more than the sum and it’s very application-specific,”​ Martin says.

“All these applications have different needs, so we partner and work on measuring the oxidative damage that’s going on and then look at solutions and show how we’re reducing it.”

The higher usage costs of going natural (return to top)

The consensus is that effectively optimised natural solutions can reliably perform as well as synthetic alternatives in terms of extending shelf-life. However, suppliers admit that the cost-in-use of natural alternatives is often higher.

“Synthetics have been optimised for cost over a long time,”​ says Van Dyck.

“The holy grail is to say natural ones can be cheaper than synthetics, but a good target is to reach the same cost-in-use, which is possible in some cases but not others. But it’s all relative, because these are ingredients that are being used at ppm levels.”

Therefore, in most cases, switching to a natural solution will add less than a few pence to the cost of a product, he adds.

With cost becoming less of an issue, and with the clean-label trend at an all-time high, it appears demand for natural preservatives is only going to increase.

Texture’s role in shelf-life quality


Texture is a crucial parameter in product quality and shelf-life – especially in bakery.

An improved texture throughout the shelf-life of baked products is just one of the benefits of a new range of clean-label bakery ingredients from Limagrain Céréales Ingrédients (LCI), which can all be labelled as “wheat flour”.

Called LCI Touch, the range includes Soft Egg, which is claimed by the company to deliver a softer, fresher texture and produce a finer crumb while reducing the amount of eggs in a recipe by up to 20%.

Soft texture control of pastries

Texture is also a key consideration for the range’s Cakesoft, which makes it possible to control the soft texture of long shelf-life pastries, without the addition of extra water.

On the other hand, Hydra 0.2% actually increases the level of dough hydration as a way of reducing the recipe costs for bread.

The other member of the LCI Touch range is StopSalt, which can reduce the amount of salt added to recipes by up to 25%.

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