Clean label: Fad, trend or here to stay?
June 1, 2015
by Theresa Cogswell
I remember driving with my sister from Oregon. Ruth had a business degree and wasn’t sure what to think about the course of study I was pursuing at Kansas State University. “What are you going to do with a degree in milling science?” she asked. As I tried to answer her, we passed the Paniplus Co. in Olathe, KS. I could work in a business like Paniplus, I pointed out. “What do they make?” was her first question. I answered, “They make everything on the bread bag you don’t know what it is.” Oh, how true that statement became.
Fast-forward a few years, and there I was, working as a research baker for Paniplus, then a division of ITT Continental Baking Co. I learned so much from so many talented baking industry professionals while in that position. One of the most important areas of learning in that position, as well as all positions to follow, was that of ingredient functionality. Whether formulating a new bakery product or troubleshooting problems in the plant, you have to understand ingredient functionality and the options for different functional needs.
Because of the chemical-sounding names of many functional ingredients, consumers are now calling them out and questioning their use. Sodium chloride and acetic acid both sound like chemicals, but when translated into ingredients in your pantry, they’re just salt and vinegar. OK, there are sodium stearoly lactylate and mono- and glycerides on labels, too, and most people would need to Google them to know what they are or why they are being used in their bakery items. But everything in nature is made up of chemicals.
Over the years, we have seen a move out of certain ingredients. Potassium bromate was removed from the toolbox of many bakers when, in January 1990, California deemed its use required a warning label, based on its addition to the state’s Proposition 65 list of substances considered carcinogens. Michael Jacobson, PhD, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), also got into the act to push for its removal.
In 2013, multiple network television news programs featured a popular Web blogger, Vani Hari, a.k.a. the Food Babe, taking a bite out of a yoga mat. The yoga mat contained azodicarbonamide (ADA), a material used to stabilize the foam structure of the mat. In sensational fashion, she made the leap to ADA’s use in bread, asking how could it be good for you to eat if it is found in yoga mats?
This created a reformulation tsunami for the entire baking industry. Bakers and ingredient companies scrambled to find functional, economical replacements for the ingredient that also helped to stabilize the bubble structure in the bread matrix.
As I wrote this column, USA Today reported, “Panera to post a ‘No-No List’ ” of ingredients it is removing. That May 5 news also ran on www.bakingbusiness.com and Page 16 of this issue. Panera will dump more than 150 artificial additives by the end of 2016. The driver, according to Panera, is the rapid evolution in consumer concern over “artificial anything” in food and beverages.
In the USA Today article, Marion Nestle, PhD, a nutritionist from New York University, commented, “Panera is setting the bar high. These are all ingredients used in highly processed foods to make them look, taste and hold together better — for the most part, cosmetics.”
But the article also offers a voice of reason from an unlikely source: CSPI consumer advocate Dr. Jacobson. He said, “I applaud Panera for replacing dyes and certain other questionable additives in its food. But eliminating many of the ingredients with unfamiliar chemical names like calcium propionate and sodium erythorbate is done solely for PR purposes and not to make safer, more healthful food.” Nice to have a critic chime in with actual knowledge.
Call me a bit surprised — or not, maybe I just let out a groan — when I went to the Food Babe’s website, only to find her taking credit for moving Panera to action. Wow, is she a powerful woman! This next section is quoted directly from her website:
I owe a huge thanks to my Mom for inspiring me to investigate Panera Bread back in April of 2012. Every single one of my investigations into certain food products and restaurant chains has been personal or inspired by one of my close friends or relatives.
When I see the people I love eating questionable additives that have no business being in our food, I can’t help but want to educate them to what’s happening in the food supply. That’s exactly why I started this blog — to help as many people as I can get healthy and break free from the toxins in our food.
As soon as my Mom heard the news that Panera was removing 150 additives from their food, she called me and said “The fruits of your labor have paid off, I am proud of you and the Food Babe Army.”
Like it or not, the Food Babe has great influence, with so many people today getting food and health information and education on blogs and social media. Ms. Hari is a computer programmer who may make you believe she has an education in nutrition, but she doesn’t.
A website offering a counterpoint to the Food Babe is that of Minnesota Farm Living, www.mnfarmliving.com. The site posted “10 Things I Wish the Food Babe Knew.” This well-written article earned excellent reader comments, and I want to share one from the wife of a dairy farmer: “Her [the Food Babe] fear-mongering arguments and ideas and her attitude together with the lack of scientific accuracy is downright disgusting. All for profit! The same profit she is so quick to judge evil when someone else is making the money.”
While I liked the article and the comments, it likely will not receive the same traffic as that of the Food Babe.
Like it or not, whether it is the Food Babe, Dr. Oz or the next self-styled food expert, these media-driven sources of information are now a part of our culture, our lives and our businesses. It means we have to pay attention. Bad publicity, truthful or not, can harm our brands and our business. Many food companies now have full-time staffers who ensure self-proclaimed experts with a social media outlet and audience are not tarnishing company brands and business integrity.
In reading food blogs and opinions and following the debate, you need to ask whether these attitudes are a fad or a trend or are they here to stay? Many in the industry hope this is a fad that fades fast, but others look at it and say we must get on board.
In April, Flowers Foods announced its Nature’s Own brand bread would soon have a cleaner label. When the company launched Nature’s Own in 1977, it decided not to use artificial preservatives, colors or flavors. In its latest move, Flowers stated it would cut the number of ingredients on the label from 26 to 14 — nearly a 50% cut.
This is the first long-time branded bread in the grocery store bread aisle to make this dramatic a change and to announce it publicly. This is likely an excellent strategic move, especially when marketing to millennials, the next large group of consumers who will be purchasing your products. Millennials, roughly one-third of today’s US population, are already acting on their desires for simple, more natural and wholesome foods — characterized as “clean label” by the food industry.
It is one thing to keep your brand up to date and vital with innovation via new product development. It is another to try to enhance its place by slashing ingredient count by half. As a person who has spent her entire career in the area of product development and innovation, it would be easier to start from scratch to develop a new product than to take an existing one with millions of dollars in sales and reduce the ingredient count by 12.
When my R&D team worked on extending the shelf life of Wonder Bread many years ago, it was a huge challenge. At the end of the day, we had to make sure the Wonder Bread consumer would be able to purchase the same quality loaf as before. The formulation had to be transparent to the consumer. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent — through focus groups and consumer research — to ensure that the consumer didn’t know the bread included new technology, and that their purchase and eating experience were the same.
Much like we did with Wonder Bread, the Nature’s Own R&D team is scrambling to ensure that the quality of their valuable brand and the profit that goes with it are not influenced negatively by the ingredient changes.
Gone are the days of telling my sister I make all of the things on the bread bag that she could not identify. In my opinion, clean label is not a fad. Clean label is a trend that is here to stay.
Consumers want options. Nature’s Own is taking the step to give their consumers and customers options for cleaner label product. Congratulations on making this public decision to move to cleaner labels. Good luck with the product development, regulatory and bakery execution of this project. It’s one that sounds so simple but will require a great deal of resources to complete.
May your consumer bless you with increased sales, and may you look back in the coming years and know you made the right decision.