It's not easy being clean

by Theresa Cogswell
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Today, people want to know where their food comes from and what is in it. They want total transparency. No longer are chemical-sounding names acceptable. Consumers want the ingredient legend on their food to read like the list of ingredients in their pantry.

That’s what makes clean label a common topic in the trade press and the daily news. But accomplishing this task as a food producer or the team responsible for product development or product improvement is not easy.

Developing a new product to meet the clean-label definition of your consumer is simpler than eliminating ingredients from your iconic product. There are no previous expectations to meet. The taste, flavor, texture and eating experience developed in the new product must meet your consumers’ desires, needs and demographic, but there is no history or previous expectations to be met.

If the product is an existing, branded legacy item that you are moving to clean label, then the task will be quite difficult to accomplish.

Over the years, legacy products have seen a lot of changes. If it is a loaf of white or wheat bread that has been around for more than 30 years, it has already seen a plethora of new ingredient technology, new production equipment, new packaging and, typically, faster running times.

Among the many recent ingredient changes, a couple of dough conditioners or processing aids come to mind. Potassium bromate, a slow, steady and extremely functional and economical dough conditioner, was likely removed from your formulations back in the 1990s. This happened because bromate was put on California Proposition 65 list of ingredients requiring a warning label on the package if used. Most recently, azodicarbonamide (ADA) was replaced. That happened because Vani Hari, the Food Babe blogger, made the assumption that if an ingredient is used in a yoga mat then it cannot be healthy for you and should not be used in our food. And she was very vocal about her opinion. Bakers and ingredient suppliers alike scrambled to find ingredients to replace the functionality of both bromate and ADA.

You see, once a processed food product is developed, its ingredient list very rarely stays static. Technological advances provide new ingredients to do the same job. The new technology may be more economical, easier to use or allow bakers to remove several other ingredients from the ingredient legend. There are plenty of functional, economical or marketing reasons to make changes.

Oh, yes, marketing and R&D work tirelessly to ensure that any ingredient change will not affect the consumer’s experience. Focus groups, taste panels, analytical testing — all are part of the process to make sure the consumer still receives the same iconic product they know and love.

In my personal experience, the biggest challenge is when changes are made that have not been communicated to all departments in the company or to your suppliers. Often, the law of unintended consequences occurred, and changes that seemed almost too good to be true were actually too good to be true.

Which brings me to the base and foundation of all our products in the grain-based foods industry: the flour. As you work to achieve clean-label status, make no assumptions, particularly about flour. Will the flour you are currently using be the best flour for the new clean-label product?

It’s possible that the item being adapted may have been over-engineered over the years you’ve been making it. What do I mean by “over-engineered?” Over time, its formula and process may have been tweaked so it runs the same, day in and day out, with limited cripples. It runs the same with operators who are experienced or those who are in training, with equipment that is worn or is perfectly tuned, with fluctuating water or yeast supplies, with old crop flour or new.

Remembering that flour is the foundation of your product may save you time and money as you take the new clean-label formulation to the bakery for production tests.

Here’s what can happen if you overlook flour and the people who supply it. The reformulated product worked well in the lab and pilot plant, but out in the bakery, it failed. The first reaction is always, “It must be the flour.” Something is different: the flour’s stability, its protein or maybe its ash. And the call is made to the miller. You may even unload the flour from your silo and send it back. Lots of time and money can be spent finding out what was different at the mill. The wheat sourcing was the same. The protein level and stability were in spec. No changes were made to mill settings. Now, your flour miller is scratching his or her head working to find solutions, too.

But through conversation, communication and exchange of information, it comes out: The bakery had moved to clean label. Gone is the tried, tweaked and over-engineered formulation that worked day in and day out in a multitude of situations. The new formulation relies on new technology and new ingredients that have yet to pass the test of time.

Don’t get me wrong, the new technology is awesome and works great in the lab and pilot plant, but the bakery can be a different animal. It has so many moving parts, with production deadlines to meet, with fast line speeds, with different mixers and equipment other than what performed the test in the pilot plant.

Maybe, just maybe, the flour supplier should have been part of your early clean-label discussions. Should the flour spec change to add more protein and/or stability? If your company typically buys flour on price and then figures out how to make it work in the bakery, then you are at risk. That new clean-label formulation is, well, new. It has not yet been engineered or optimized for processing, and the helper ingredients — the chemical-sounding dough conditioners and processing aids — are gone. The flour has a bigger job to do. Enhancing your flour spec may help you save time and money as you introduce your new clean-label product.

Spending money to make money is not a new concept.
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