When less is more

by Keith Nunes
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The term "clean label" has become a misnomer in the food industry. While it implies less verbiage on a food product’s ingredients panel, it often means more verbiage or symbols have been added to product packaging as food processors tout their efforts to remove an ingredient and make a product more "natural."

"Consumers have always preferred shorter ingredients statements; they don’t like long lists of chemicals on the label," said Joe Lombardi, business manager for wholesome ingredients for National Starch Food Innovation, Bridgewater, N.J. "For us the clean label concept is addressing that consumer interest by taking out or removing ingredients that have chemical sounding names.

"Consumers like to see ingredients they are familiar with. When they go to make gravy at home they look for flour and not modified food starches. That has been born out through many, many studies."

The types of ingredients that have caused consumer concern recently include trans fatty acids, high-fructose corn syrup (H.F.C.S.), additives and colors. Very often, consumer perception of an ingredient is directly related to the current news cycle, where a spate of stories on a topic may drive some shoppers to seek products without a certain ingredient.

Regardless of the reason, however, phrases such as "trans-fat-free," "additive-free," "high-fructose corn syrup-free," and "all natural" have become common on product labels.

Datamonitor, the London-based market research firm, for example, recently noted 146 food and beverages labeled as not containing H.F.C.S. have been launched globally so far this year. This compares with 54 products that were labeled as H.F.C.S.-free in 2006, and 53 products that made the claim in 2005. The growth in new food and beverages claming to be free of H.F.C.S. has been recent and dramatic. In 2003, only six new beverages made label claims that they were free of H.F.C.S.

"Until recently, a handful of small companies said their products were free of high-fructose corn syrup," said Tom Vierhile, director of Datamonitor’s Productscan Online database of new products. "What’s new today is that some of the larger packaged food and beverage companies are removing high-fructose corn syrup from their products, including Kraft Foods, Dannon and Del Monte Foods."

Additives, colors and hyperactivity

Across the Atlantic Ocean, in Great Britain, certain food additives and colors are currently the focus of negative news reports. Research recently published by The Lancet’s web site, an on-line version of the British medical journal, has reignited debate over the presence of some additives and preservatives in foods. While still a regional event, trend watchers in the U.S. believe the issue may spillover to the U.S.

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Southampton, was funded by a grant from the United Kingdom’s Food Standards Agency. It involved studying the levels of hyperactivity in 153 3-year-old children and 144 eight-year-olds living in Southampton.

The children’s families were asked to put them on a diet free from the specified additives used in the study. Over a six-week period the children were then given a drink each day that either contained one of two mixtures of food colors and benzoate preservative, or just fruit juice. All of the drinks looked and tasted identical.

The additives and colors identified in the study included sodium benzoate, sunset yellow, quinoline yellow, carmoisine, allura red, tartrazine and ponceau 4R.

The researchers used a combination of reports on the children’s behavior from teachers and parents, together with recordings of the children’s behavior in the classroom made by an observer, and other observations to determine if there was any affect on the children.

"We now have clear evidence that mixtures of certain food colors and benzoate preservative can adversely influence the behavior of children," said Jim Stevenson, a professor of psychology at Southampton and the study’s lead researcher. "There is some previous evidence that some children with behavioral disorders could benefit from the removal of certain food colors from their diet. We have now shown that for a large group of children in the general population, consumption of certain mixtures of artificial food colors and benzoate preservative can influence their hyperactive behavior."

Publication of the research’s findings has led to a vigorous debate throughout Great Britain and even garnered the attention of Gordon Brown, Britain’s prime minister. In the aftermath, the F.S.A. consulted with the country’s Committee on Toxicity, a separate agency, and recommended that if a "child shows signs of hyperactivity or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, then eliminating the colors used in the Southampton study from their diet might have some beneficial effects," said Dr. Andrew Wadge, the F.S.A.’s chief scientist.

"It is a very different market in the U.K. than the U.S.," said Lynn Dornblaser, director of the custom solutions group for Mintel International, Chicago. "In the U.K., in general, consumers and businesses tend to run ahead of the U.S. on issues like organic, all natural or environmental responsibility."

Ms. Dornblaser predicted the U.K.’s additive research and the following debate will reach the U.S. shortly.

"The research only recently was published, and it has not had an impact here," she said. "In the next 12 to 24 months we will see consumers asking more questions about what is in what they are eating. We are seeing a little of it, with regard to additives, preservative and high-fructose corn syrup, and I think we will see more in the future."

In reviewing the most recent data from Mintel’s Global New Products Database regarding which food industry segments are the most active in labeling their products as additive- and preservative-free, Ms. Dornblaser noted there are several categories very active.

"The first category on the list is beverages," she said. "That doesn’t surprise me, because many products may carry the no additive or preservative claim even though they have always been made without them.

"The second area is bakery. With the whole grain movement and all of the movement we see in the premium, upscale end of the market, it does not surprise me consumers would pay more for these products if they thought they were getting an added benefit."

Sauces and seasonings round out the top three, according to Ms. Dornblaser, and, much like bakery, she believes it is due to a focus on premium, high quality products, including organic varieties.

Mr. Lombardi said food industry focus on the natural and organic market segments are a driver for the clean label trend.

"It’s an undeniable area of growth," he said of organics. "The market is growing very fast, but it is still only 3% and 5% of the overall food marketplace. But it is a huge business, a huge value. If it grows to 10% of the overall market you are talking about doubling its size with a consumer base willing to pay a premium.

"Manufacturers are at that point where the organic market is large enough for them to go after it, and the growth looks like it is there. Before the market was too small and the negatives far outweighed the benefits."

The challenge for food processors interested in cleaning up their labels is maintaining shelf life. The removal of preservatives often means a reduction in the life span of a product.

Mr. Lombardi agreed shelf life is a challenge, but also noted there is plenty of room in the food marketplace for products with a shorter or longer shelf life.

"The future of the food market is not all clean label," he said. "Not all consumers care whether a product is natural, organic or fresh."

Looking ahead, Mr. Lombardi is intrigued by the debut of Tesco P.L.C.’s new Fresh & Easy markets in the Southwest U.S.

"Europe is ahead of the U.S. when it comes to clean labels," he said. "In the U.K. it’s like a frenzy; they may be the most sensitive consumers on the planet.

"That’s why I think Tesco coming here is interesting. What they are selling in Britain is fresh and natural. It will be interesting to see what they bring over here, because I think there is a sizable population hungry for what they offer."

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, October 2, 2007, starting on Page 34. Click here to search that archive.

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