Clean-label: Adding more to the mix

By Lynda Searby

- Last updated on GMT

Mona Schmitz-Hübsch: ‘The emphasis has shifted from what has been removed from products to what is going into them’
Mona Schmitz-Hübsch: ‘The emphasis has shifted from what has been removed from products to what is going into them’
The concept of clean-label has moved beyond the removal of certain ‘nasties’ in products to the insertion of ingredients that enhance health... and even the way a product is produced.

Rewind five years, and the clean-label drive was all about banishing E-numbers, monosodium glutamate, the ‘Southampton six’ colours, and preservatives such as butylated hydroxyanisole and sodium benzoate. Polyphosphates, nitrites, modified starches and other synthetic ingredients were also high on the agenda.

Today, removing alien-sounding ingredients from labels continues to be a priority for many manufacturers, but the remit of the clean-label movement has broadened beyond the sole objective of outlawing nasties.

“It’s no longer a unique selling-point if a product contains no preservatives, artificial flavours and colours,”​ explains Robert Lambert, executive assistant at Ulrick & Short. “Instead, the consumer is demanding more free-from (in particular gluten-free) products – and dairy-free and vegan products are also becoming more prominent on the supermarket shelves.”

Manufacturers are also creating differentiation by enhancing the nutritional profile of their products, Lambert adds. “The clean-label space captures so much more now, and means different things to different people.”

So, it seems ‘clean labels’ are giving way to ‘clean profiles’ as the movement stretches beyond ingredients lists to encompass processing techniques, trending claims and brand values. But what implications does this have for manufacturers?

“Food labels are more important than ever to today’s health-conscious and ingredient-savvy shoppers, but the emphasis has shifted from what has been removed, from products to what is going into them,”​ says Mona Schmitz-Hübsch, European senior marketing manager for wholesome, sweetness and nutrition at Ingredion.

This shift may seem subtle, but manufacturers need to take it into consideration, Schmitz-Hübsch believes. “There is a need to satisfy an ever-diverse range of diets, trends and lifestyle choices while assuring consumers that ingredients are simple and recognisable,”​ she adds.

Aligned with industry trends

Andrew Ashby, managing director at ingredients sourcing and supply service Brusco, agrees: “One of the ways in which companies are trying to differentiate themselves is to offer something that is not only clean-label, but is also aligned with as many industry trends as possible,”​ Ashby says.

“For instance, a ready meal could be ‘clean-label’, or it could be ‘clean-label, gluten-free, vegan and low-calorie’.”

As consumers seek out products that combine an uncomplicated ingredients list with claims such as ‘raw’, ‘vegan’ and ‘gluten-free’, this is driving demand for certain ingredients. Brusco reports a “massive trend”​ towards vegan proteins that are not derived from soy or whey. “We are looking at many clean-label ingredients for vegan protein enrichment of foods,”​ says Ashby.

These include flours derived from beans and pulses, which the firm’s commercial director, Steph Skellern, claims will allay taste concerns about pulse-derived proteins. “Pea protein has a reputation for not having a great flavour, which may have tainted perceptions about proteins from pulses. We have some great, neutral-tasting flours in our portfolio,​” she says.

Brusco has also launched spinach leaf and barley leaf powders – a good reflection of how the emphasis of the clean-label drive is shifting from what ‘bad’ ingredients need to be removed to what ‘good’ ingredients can be added.

“We recognised a need for healthy, natural, clean ingredients to be used in manufacturing. Sports nutrition firms like the products as they are a good way to get spinach into smoothies without having to store and process lots of fresh spinach, while pasta companies like spinach powder as an alternative to using food colouring to make green pasta,”​ says Ashby.

The way in which products are sweetened continues to be a major factor in establishing a clean-label item. While stevia is widely accepted as a clean-label sweetener, Verity Clifton, applications technologist at ingredients company Thew Arnott, believes the addition of sweeteners – even naturally sourced high-intensity sweeteners – goes against the clean-label philosophy.

She notes the use of unrefined sugars is gathering pace, but says “as people realise the body uses all sugars in the same way, this trend may fall away”.

Sugar reduction

Clifton predicts the next move in sugar reduction may be a “stealth approach, where sugar is reduced in increments over time, without the use of high-intensity sweeteners”.

“However, if this becomes the norm, we will need greater acceptance of hydrocolloids and fibres to restore the body of the product,”​ she adds.

There are a few “magic ingredients” on the market that are not only clean-label, but also allow for the removal of less desirable conventional ingredients, according to Skellern at Brusco. One of these, in the sweetening space, is “chicory root fibre, which has been gaining popularity recently”​, she says. “It is dairy-free and allergen-free and it can lower the sugar content of a product without having to carry an E-number.”​ 

While the focus of the clean-label drive so far has been firmly on ingredients, this one-dimensional approach might not be enough to satisfy consumers in future. Instead, a clean-label approach will most likely encompass other aspects, such as processing methods and ethical credentials.

Thew Arnott says it has observed “a movement for clean-label to extend to the carbon footprint of a food manufacturer and the measures it is taking to reduce this”.

This extension of the clean-label remit has also been observed by market analysts. “For some consumers, clean-label may mean free of artificial ingredients, while others may seek out products from ethical and environmentally friendly brands,” ​says Stephanie Mattucci, associate director for global food science at Mintel.

“Next-generation clean-label products will need to look beyond the ingredient statement to make sure all aspects about a product, such as processing, packaging, or ingredient sourcing, align with its clean-label positioning.”

Heat treatment techniques

Heat treatment techniques, such as UHT (ultra-high temperature processing), do not sit comfortably with this more holistic approach to clean-label products, as they potentially compromise a product’s nutritional integrity and ‘natural’ credentials. But what alternatives do food manufacturers have?

Clifton says the use of pasteurisation techniques and their effect on micronutrient levels is progressing and that these alternative techniques are valid for specific applications.

“New technologies to replace standard pasteurisation include HPP (high pressure processing) and PEF (pulse electric field) using ozone and electricity to denature bacterium, although these are still in their infancy and are more expensive,” ​she says.

Ulrick & Short, meanwhile, reports that it is seeing greater use of clean preserving techniques, such as hyperbaric chambers – where oxygen is applied at high pressure. “These types of technology are being used to remove preservatives,”​ says Lambert.

For applications that don’t lend themselves to these new processing technologies, Clifton predicts we may see HTST (high temperature, short time) techniques used in conjunction with the addition of micronutrient blends to reduce or negate the effect of heat treatment.

“Going forwards, we will see less removal of ingredients and a greater focus on maintaining native micro-nutrients through alternative processing measures,”​ she adds.

Brusco’s Ashby believes HPP has great potential for preserving certain products. “Overheating products can be detrimental to the micronutrient content of previously healthy ingredients,”​ he says. “HPP helps slow the growth of micro-organisms that cause spoilage without the need for heat or steam.”

As clean ingredient labels become the expectation, not the exception, manufacturers will need to look at more than just the ingredients list to engender consumer trust. The term ‘clean-label’ will probably fall out of use, with manufacturers instead working towards a multi-faceted and more rounded ‘clean product profile’.

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