There’s no clean-label aisle in the supermarket … yet. But the buzz created by consumer thought leaders about food additives seems to be increasing. With more people asking what’s in their food, more processors are trying to limit their companies’ exposure by taking out ingredients involved with performance in the industrial setting. This trend has come to be known as “clean label.”
Is clean label a fad or a trend? Perspectives differ, but popular opinion is forcing change at the formulating level. It’s even prompting change about what the concept of clean label means.
“Twenty years ago, the concern was about anything artificial,” said Terri Volpe, PhD, principal, Quest Diagnostics, Kinnelon, NJ. “But during the past few years, clean label acquired a somewhat different meaning.”
Consumers have long disliked chemical-sounding words on food labels, and they show particular sensitivity to the word “artificial.” But discussion now centers on additives, preservatives, improvers, colors, emulsifiers and similar materials, especially the ones described by parenthetical comments in the ingredient legends.
People don’t like parentheses in labels, according to Kantha Shelke, PhD, principal, Corvus Blue LLC, Chicago, IL. “Especially the yoga moms,” she told the American Society of Bakers at its 2011 BakingTech meeting. “These are the women who write about your food and call it nasty. They don’t like anything inside brackets, so the less fabricated ingredients you have, the better.”
When it comes to the ingredient legend on food packages, “consumers don’t like the long-winded definitions,” observed Tony Oszlanyi, a baking consultant for The Wright Group, Crowley, LA.
Where does that leave the baker? The snack food manufacturer? Or any food processor? Answer: in a formulating quandary.
“By using more familiar ingredients, the label becomes easier for the consumer to understand and more familiar,” said GuoHua Feng, PhD, manager, bakery ingredients, for Caravan Ingredients’ bakery ingredients innovation center at Lenexa, KS.
In the matter of ingredient choice, consumers frame the discussion in terms of natural foods, made without additives. Their preferences can encompass organic and non-genetically modified (GM) ingredients as well. Formulators, however, focus on removing chemicals.
“As a technical person, I consider clean label to mean elimination of artificial ingredients,” Dr. Volpe said.
Just as there is no regulatory definition of natural, there is also none for clean label, other than the court of public opinion. The situation plays out “bakery by bakery, product by product,” Dr.
When removing additive ingredients to achieve a cleaner label for baked foods, most formulators look first at eliminating emulsifiers and the oxidant azodicarbonamide (ADA). “One has to limit the chemicals,” Dr. Feng explained, citing emulsifiers such as diacetyl tartaric acid ester of monoglycerides (DATEM) and dough conditioners like sodium stearoyl lactylate (SSL).
“A second reason is to make the label shorter, and typically, enzymes replace multiple ingredients,” he continued. “Yet you still must be concerned with optimizing dough handling and reducing dough stickiness.”
ADA, an oxidant that improves the performance of flour, has come under close scrutiny of late. This material, long regarded by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to be Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) when used in flour, has an upper limit of 45 ppm. Because a limit exists and because ADA is not approved by European and Australian food regulators, some critics now question its continued use in American baked foods.
Remove ADA and emulsifiers and replace them with ascorbic acid and enzymes, recommended Mr. Oszlanyi. “You want to stay with a simple formulating approach,” he added.
Another way to stay within the framework of natural, according to Dr. Volpe, is to reexamine color additive choices. She is currently working with several biscuit and cracker clients to remove FD&C certified colors. “The artificial colors are ones people are hesitant about,” she noted, “and there are many more options in natural colors such as annatto, paprika and so forth.”
The ideal clean-label product, according to Dr. Shelke, uses multifunctional wholesome ingredients, includes zero or few parentheses and avoids fabricated ingredients and synthetics. Its ingredients comply with regulations and offer scientifically proven safety. The formula should have minimal deviation from the original. The finished product should offer comparable cost to similar items, and it should be nutrient-dense, rather than containing what consumers view as empty calories.
Some foods make better candidates for clean-label formulating than others. “Yeast-raised products lend themselves more to clean-label approaches than chemically leavened products,” Mr. Oszlanyi said. Most current work with clean label involves breads and buns, but some progress is being made with cakes and similar products.
Some bread styles require less dough conditioners and crumb strengtheners than others. Varieties that carry added fiber and other such components are more challenging to produce without these additives, according to Dr. Feng.
Caravan Ingredients developed its Pristine line of mixes to allow production of cleaner-label products. “The Pristine platform allows bakers to continue making their products but to make them all-natural,” Dr. Feng explained. Its applications include artisan breads, hearth breads, buns and bagels. Tortillas represent another use, although not yet commercialized.
Recently, a baker wanted to convert its line of breads to the Pristine platform. Most of the products made a smooth transition to clean label, according to Dr. Feng, but a double-fiber whole-wheat item proved difficult. “We had to adjust a number of things,” he said. The formula was very lean, without much fat or emulsifiers, yet included several additives. After removing those additives and adjusting the pH, the baker rebalanced the formula with enzymes to replace multiple ingredients.
The Wright Group developed its Wright Dough No. 43 as an all-purpose dough conditioner that contains no bromate, emulsifiers or ADA. The powdered ingredient functionally replaces DATEM, SSL and similar additives at a low usage level of 0.25% (flour weight basis). Ingredient labeling is “wheat flour, ascorbic acid, enzymes,” thus giving it clean-label appeal.
As the company worked with this product, researchers found that it could also replace vital wheat gluten (VWG). To test this theory, the lab used pastry flour and added enough VWG, up to 5%, to make bread. (Pastry flour is much lower in protein than bread flour and doesn’t make good bread, so bread became a demanding test model.) The lab then reduced the gluten component in 1% increments. “We learned that 1% VWG plus 4 oz of our product made a decent loaf of pan bread with good structure and sidewalls,” Mr. Oszlanyi said.
Some snacks and crackers will be able to adopt clean-label criteria, according to Dr. Volpe. “But it’s difficult with cookies because you must have chemical leavening,” she said. “Corn snacks, especially the fried snacks, don’t generally use chemical ingredients or artificial colors, except in toppings.”
Recently introduced lipase enzymes have been able to functionally replace emulsifiers in cake systems and other chemically leavened products. (Editor’s note: For more on enzymes, see “Clean Sweep” in the April 2011 issue of Baking & Snack
, available online at www.bakingbusiness.com
.) Additionally, calcium-based leavening acids that can support a “good source” claim for calcium have helped give consumers a new perspective on chemical leavening.
“Do the bench work,” Dr. Volpe advised. “Dissect the current formula first.”
By looking at current ingredient levels, at the kind of flour and its treatment, at the sweeteners and starches, the formulator will learn which determine the key attributes of the product in question. “Which ingredients represent the opportunity to transition without sacrificing quality of product,” Dr. Volpe asked. “Then you can move to ingredients with more natural-sounding names.”
Of course, cost and quality implications of these changes must also be considered.
Dr. Shelke described how her first boss figured out how to cut costs for a popular pizza item. He found that because flour quality changed with each harvest, over the years the simple pizza crust formula evolved into a complex mixture containing not just one sodium-bearing material but two and not one cysteine-containing ingredient but three. Every change put something else into the formula, usually an additive. “All he had to do was take some out and just bring it back to basics,” she said. “Not only did he save money, but the rest of the lab thought he could walk on water.”
Some items will be easier to convert than others. “With white bread, you can do a drop-in solution,” Dr. Feng said. “Take out the chemicals, and make some small adjustments in mixing time and absorption. But with multigrain and whole grain, it’s best to share with the formulation with your supplier and let the technical people work for you.”
Clean label, as a formulating strategy, has advantages for smaller producers whose methods are less automated. But plenty of medium to large wholesale bakers are adapting this approach to their products, according to Mr. Oszlanyi. Dr. Feng described clean label as accelerating, with several major customers requesting this solution.
Consumers are in the driver’s seat, having been placed there by marketing to this perceived need. “There are marketers making a lot of noise about being all-natural or preservative-free,” Dr. Volpe observed. “That establishes expectations. People say they won’t buy foods made with artificial ingredients, but they still buy what they like. They buy their favorites, artificial ingredients or no.”
Popular media also contributes to this trend. “Keep in mind that many of the clean-label strategies are largely driven, if not by the authors of books and people who don’t know much about the food industry, but also by retailers because they’re trying to bring certain [consumers] into their [stores],” Dr. Shelke said.
“It is very possible in the coming days that the food value index — what’s in a food, what it contains, what it doesn’t contain — might be taking precedence and become, and actually surpass, brand equity if we don’t control and educate our audience,” Dr. Shelke said. “Just having a clean label will not be good enough.”
And as Dr. Volpe said, “The jury is still out.”