The clean label alternative

by Charlotte Atchley
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Wenner bakery
Wenner Bakery found it easy to remove artificial preservatives from its bread formulations because the fermentation process acted as a natural preservative.

SPRINGDALE, ARK. — Short label and clean label may often go hand in hand, but they aren’t necessarily the same. While clean label is an ingredient list the average consumer can understand with words they recognize, short label is exactly what it sounds like: favoring a list of fewer ingredients. While many bakers and snack producers are pursuing a cleaner label, shortening the ingredient list can be a part of that.

“Bakers have started pursuing shorter ingredient lists in response to consumer demand for less processed foods and more transparency around what’s in them,” said Jonathan Davis, senior vice-president of R.&D., La Brea Bakery, San Leandro, Calif.

Demand for less-processed foods and more transparency ties shorter ingredient lists to the clean label trend. 

“In the face of increasing resistance from consumers regarding ingredients they believe to be less than desirable from a health and well-being standpoint, commercial bakers are either removing those ingredients from their products entirely or replacing them with less invasive substitutes,” said Toby Moore, baking professional, AIB International.

Adjacent to the trend of clean label, short label refers to the reduction of the length of ingredient lists.

Dawn Foods’ consumer research found a top trend among consumers to be the demand for simple and pure foods, a trend defined by people wanting to lead healthier lives. 

“They crave a no-fuss approach to eating with pragmatic principles: Eat real food made with familiar, wholesome ingredients,” said Jenny LaPaugh, senior director, Global Market Research & Insights at Dawn Foods, Jackson, Mich. “Consumers believe real food is closer to nature, and as such, it naturally has less of the ‘bad stuff’ like artificial flavors and colors.” 

Dawn Foods has seen 18% growth for clean label-related new product development over the last four years, Ms. LaPaugh explained.

A shorter label, in conjunction with a cleaner label, meets consumer demand and can help bakers catch consumers’ dollars. The longer the list, the more consumers expect to find undesirable ingredients. 

“All things being equal, shorter is better,” said Gunther Brinkman, vice-president, contract manufacturing, Ideal Snacks Corp., Liberty, N.Y.

Shortening the ingredient list can very easily happen just by cleaning up the label. Removing artificial preservatives, flavors or colors or generally unpronounceable ingredients can have a major impact in that way. 

“You can see ingredient statements before and after we clean them up, and sometimes it’s just 25% of what it used to be after we removed all the unnecessary ingredients,” said Nelly Margolin, director of R.&D., Wenner Bakery, Europastry, Ronkonkoma, N.Y.

A word to the wise, however: When reformulating for cleaner, shorter ingredient lists, every prototype must be tested against the original for sensory characteristics, shelf life and processing. These three aspects are critical to determining if replacement ingredients will truly work.

When pursuing a shorter ingredient list, bakers and snack producers must be aware of any changes that may occur in the processability of the product.

Low-hanging fruit
When looking to shorten an ingredient list, there are few good places bakers can start. 

“Since most R.&D. formulators are under pressure to produce prototypes on a tight deadline, one of the favored approaches is to study the formula for ‘low-hanging fruit’ and pick that first,” Mr. Moore explained.

These low-hanging fruits include a diverse range of ingredients that vary depending on the product. For example, potato chips have short ingredient lists to begin with: potatoes, oil and salt plus any seasoning. For these and other snack foods, the flavor or seasoning is a good place to start, as that is usually where an ingredient list gets long. 

“That’s often where you will find the MSG, high-fructose corn syrup or preservatives that better-for-you brands are trying to eliminate,” Mr. Brinkman said.

Artificial preservatives are another good starting point, thanks to the variety of natural options out there. That worked well for Wenner Bakery, which started cleaning up, and therefore shortening, its ingredient lists seven years ago. 

“For us it was very easy to get out all the preservatives because of the process we have here,” Ms. Margolin said. “The fermentation itself can be a really good, natural preservative.” 

For the rest of its formulations, the bakery’s R.&D. team started with major things like removing trans fat and replacing bleached flour with unbleached; then it worked its way down until entire formulations were cleaned and shortened.

Another good place to start is checking for unnecessary ingredients and trimming the fat, so to speak. 

“Consider first those ingredients that are used at a very low level or may have been grandfathered in over the years,” Mr. Moore suggested. “It’s not uncommon for formulas to creep off center over time.” 

This can happen by adjusting formulas to accommodate tough wheat crops one year, and then the formula is never changed back when the adjustment is no longer needed. Formulators may not even realize there are ingredients in a formula they may not need.
 
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