The clean conundrum

by Ryan Atkinson
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The movement is rather obvious. Seemingly everyone is on board with being better: better-for-you foods, better-for-the-environment foods, better ingredients leading to better health.

As stated in a report from The Hartman Group, consumers are merging their expanding ideas about food with other aspects of culture. Health and wellness is no longer relegated to a corner of the local health-food store. Instead, it’s everywhere, and it pushes the idea of staying fit, strong and well in the broadest sense.

It all converges into the discussion over clean labels. Surely, the thinking goes, if a food can offer a simple ingredient list, it can help one down the road to health and wellness. Everyone wants a clean label — squeaky clean, for the matter — but does everyone really agree on what exactly it entails? And what about the areas of gray, where consumers can mistake common natural ingredients for something sounding more sinister? And how do you go about creating a desirable product that tastes good and offers a fair shelf life while keeping the list of ingredients as minimal as possible?

While the words “clean label” themselves may be more of an industry term, customers are making it clear that they want simple ingredient lists with things that they can find in their own kitchens.

It all adds up to a set of challenges that bakers must face and the sooner, the better.

“I think this is a trend that’s been around for a little while, and I think will be here for quite some time,” said Lee Sanders, senior vice-president, government relations and public affairs, American Bakers Association, Washington, DC. “It is a trend that definitely has staying power.”

Differing definitions

Perhaps the simplest way to look at the clean-label movement is to consider it a clear, concise declaration of food. But there isn’t necessarily a set definition of the term.

“I believe that shoppers will define it with their dollars,” said Theresa Cogswell, principal, BakerCogs, Inc., Overland Park, KS, while speaking at the American Society of Baking’s BakingTech 2014. “Ultimately, it’s going to be defined by your customer, whether that’s Wal-Mart or Harris Teeter, and the consumer that shops in the store.”

For the most part, what consumers want are ingredient lists they understand and that are filled with things that are, in their minds, less processed.

“When you talk about clean label, it’s the consumer’s perception of clean label,” Ms. Sanders said. “Those are recognizable ingredients and shorter ingredient lists. I think that’s what consumers are seeking these days. Besides looking for locally sourced products, they’re also looking for what is less processed in their minds. I think in the consumers’ minds, fewer ingredients means less processed.”

For Marty Neumann, director of sales for Gaslamp Popcorn division of Rudolph Foods, Lima, OH, a clean label is a bit more specific.

“In our aspect of it, it means no MSG, no preservatives, no artificial colorings and so on and so forth,” he said. “For our Kettle Corn and our Seat Salt & Olive Oil, everything is verified non-GMO. Sugar is sugar, but we’re verified that the sugar we use is non-GMO and the oil we use is non-GMO. I think it’s that stuff that leads to what is a clean label.”

Julie Johnson, senior project manager, HealthFocus International, St. Petersburg, FL, pointed out that in the organization’s Clean and Green Study, clean label is “defined by a number of factors, but primarily it is a lack of artificial ingredients, minimal processing and avoiding ingredients that sound like chemicals. In short, shoppers want transparency and authenticity.”

The Hartmann Group’s report “Organic Trend: The Clean Manifesto” said consumers are seeking a combination of symbolic and objective attributes in the food they purchase. Symbolic attributes include terms like clean, whole and real. Objective attributes could be claims like “no pesticides” or “no artificial colors.”

Clean challenges

So, despite some differences in language, it’s safe to say consumers who resonate to this call want to avoid anything fake, or at least what they perceive as fake. Fair enough. It’s hard to look down at someone for not wanting to put anything into their bodies that is closer to a laboratory product than a farmer’s market find. And as the train of thought goes, consumers are trying to steer away from ingredient lists that contain hard-to-read words.

But therein lies one of the big perception problems with the clean label trend.

“There are natural things that are hard to pronounce, too,” Ms. Sanders said. “That poses a big challenge. A lot of folks don’t read labels, but then as they start to read labels, there is certainly a learning curve. Wherever we can educate on natural sources — and sometimes natural sources don’t have easy-to-pronounce, recognizable names — that’s an opportunity for us.”

The industry’s challenge to clean up ingredient lists earned headlines last year when blogger Vani Hari called out the use of azodicarbonamide in bread. Then Kraft, Northfield, IL, announced it was removing artificial preservatives from processed cheese. More recently, Kraft said it was dropping artificial ingredients from its famed Macaroni & Cheese. Most recently, Flowers Foods, Inc., Thomasville, GA, said it was cutting the number of ingredients in its Nature’s Own bread from 26 to 14, as Ms. Cogswell points out in her column on page 99.

“We are looking at a cleaner label initiative,” said R. Steve Kinsey, Flowers’ executive vice-president and CFO. “We continue to see better-for-you as a trend, not so much of a focus any longer on caloric intake or carbs.”

The shift to fewer ingredients, however, can lead to more challenges, as Ms. Cogswell mentioned in her BakingTech presentation. She noted a clean-label ingredient list for a bread product might include only whole wheat flour, water, honey, soybean oil, salt, yeast and enzymes.

All well and good, until that stripped-down list of ingredients needs to produce bread at the same rapid pace the industry calls for.

“I can make all the bread you want at 30 loaves a minute, clean label. But when you add 100 to that, or 200 to that number, it’s a whole different ballgame,” Ms. Cogswell said.

The same can be said for the challenge of creating a clean product that the consumer can purchase and then leave in the cupboard for a few days before using. That’s not always an easy task to accomplish, Ms. Sanders noted.

“While people want short ingredient lists, at the same time they want to have shelf stability in their products,” she said. “They want to be able to have those products in their home for more than a couple of days. There has to be a balance. There are certain ingredients you need to add to the shelf life of a product, particularly in baked goods. That’s a challenge, educating folks about that. Actually, that’s probably the hardest challenge.”

Batter Up, LLC is a Jackson, NJ-based company that owns The Piping Gourmets, makers of all-­natural and gluten-free whoopie pies. Carolyn Broome Shulevitz, a Culinary Institute of America graduate and co-founder of Batter Up, detailed the challenges of creating a clean-label dessert snack that appeals to a larger market with its taste.

“We feel like we have a crossover product that’s not only for someone looking for gluten-free or a clean label, yet when we approach our mainstream buyer, the thought that it was gluten-free had a built-in negative impact. It’s the thought that gluten-free or clean products taste terrible,” Ms. Shulevitz said. “Gluten-free or clean label has really grown and improved as a category and improved its profile, but it’s a very big negative connotation. You have to get people to realize you’re a tasty, scrumptious product that also happens to be gluten-free and vegan and with a clean profile.”

An all-ages trend

As with many trends in the baking and snack food worlds, millennials are playing a big part in the clean-label movement. According to HealthFocus’ study, “clean foods and beverages or clean label” isn’t necessarily a common term to shoppers on average. Just more than a quarter of shoppers have heard of the term. But when you look at the youngest group of shoppers — a group that is 78 million strong — that number jumps up to 44%.

“I’ve done many, many demos across the board in different stores. The millennials, I would say, are focused more on the labels,” Mr. Neumann said. “Gen-Xers and baby boomers are focused on the labels as well. Your boomers are looking at the salt content and seeing how it compares with other products. But millennials look across the board to see if it’s non-GMO or if it’s Non-GMO Project Verified. Is it clean across the board?”

Ms. Sanders said parents are doing their part in driving the trend — moms and dads wanting to provide the most nutritious meals possible for their children.

“They’re the ones who are looking more closely at the labels,” she said. “But I also think you have highly educated folks who have been looking at labels for a long time, and they’re scrutinizing them more than they have in the past. They’re asking questions and using social media as a forum for their discussions.”

One sure sign of the trend’s impact in the younger generations, Ms. Shulevitz said, is to go into the convenience stores and food marts near high schools and college campuses.

“You’re not going to find the same products you would have five years ago,” she said. “You’re finding healthier protein bars and healthier snacks. They’re not binging on the same foods.”

Staying power

That illustration could provide a clue as to whether or not the clean-label trend is something lasting or something that will be replaced by a newer train of thought in a few years. For the most part, signs point to the former.

Specialty Food Association, in its report “The Clean Movement: Trends, Guidelines for the Product Claim of the Year,” claimed that clean is shaping up to be a movement rather than a trend, noting nutritionist Cynthia Sass’ assertion that consumers are looking for cleaner products in every category.

With the Food and Drug Administration’s yet-to-be-finalized updates to the Nutrition Facts Panel, the amount of attention focused on the ingredient list will rise sharply. Anything from the way the panel looks to its footnotes to the definition of fiber as a dietary supplement could change, and Ms. Sanders said that as long as these aspects are in flux, interest will only grow.

“I do think this trend has staying power,” she said. “When you factor in the demographics, the role of social media and the fact that they’re getting ready to make revisions to the Nutrition Facts Panel, it all adds up. That’s going to spur people to look at their labels and reassess those things. I think it’s going to be here for a while.”        

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