The complexity of 'clean' label

by Allison Gibeson
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With consumers over-loaded with information, demand for simple, easy-to-understand labels on food and beverage products continues to rise, said Barbara Katz, president of HealthFocus International, St. Petersburg, Fla. In addition, consumers want to be in control of what they are eating.

“You have a consumer who thinks they need to be at the helm of the ship in regards to health and nutrition coupled with more information than they could possibly process,” Ms. Katz said.
According to a HealthFocus International survey, 57% of shoppers were interested in foods comprised mainly of ingredients they recognize and would use at home.

Dinah Diaz, market development manager for beverages and encapsulation with National Starch Food Innovation, Bridgewater, N.J., said consumers view such products as safer, better-for-you, more authentic, eco-friendly and sustainable.

Leaslie Carr, marketing manager for wholesome with National Starch Food Inno-vation, and Ms. Katz agree there is an increasing connection between the simple label trend and health.

Ms. Katz said shoppers often define a simple label as having no additives, preservatives, artificial flavors and colors, but depending on the perceived health benefits of a category, there is more leeway involved. For example, she said more consumers perceive fish as more natural than chicken, whole grain bread as more natural than white bread, fresh vegetables as more natural than frozen vegetables, organic yogurt as more natural than yogurt and organic milk as more natural than whole milk. Also, she said about one-third of shoppers said adding sodium to food makes it less natural.

The power of perception
Even if an ingredient comes from nature, if consumers do not understand what it is, they will not perceive it as “clean.” For example, Kantha Shelke, principal with Corvus Blue, said if a consumer does not know what acai is, they might perceive that to be a processed ingredient. She also said there were issues when stevia came on the market because the name “rebaudioside A” sounds too much like a chemical. As a result, the name rebiana was adopted.

Ms. Shelke said product shape and size plays a role in perceptions of processed. If a product is completely uniform in shape and size, it is seen as more processed because it doesn’t resemble homemade products. She said when she used to work at Ben & Jerry’s they would intentionally program inconsistency into products to achieve a more homemade perception.

“The key strategic priority is therefore to define ‘clean label’ and communicate this to consumers,” Leatherhead Food Research said in a report on the topic. “This is perhaps an action best taken forward at industry level to ensure a consistent and common consumer message. Other key priorities include increasing the scope of supply chain collaboration, i.e. ingredients suppliers, food and drinks manufacturers and grocery retailers working together to address ‘clean labeling’ as well as investment. Investment targeted at developing existing and emerging natural ingredients as well as investment to increase economies of scale (and therefore lower the costs of production) will enable the industry to respond more quickly to the clean label trend.”

Ms. Shelke believes the trend also is being driven by the industry. Twenty to 25 years ago she said the word “ingredient” was mainly just used in recipes. It became fashionable in the industry when companies began to understand that what their products contain might give them a competitive edge.
“However, today that which made ingredient companies very successful is changing the rule, and the very same companies are looking for ways to provide ingredients that look better on the label,” Ms. Shelke said.
So what is changing?

Despite the trend, Ms. Katz said there is not going to be a dramatic shift away from basic grocery items based on consumer desire for simpler, easy-to-understand labels. But both Ms. Katz and Ms. Shelke said simple label will remain very important in the future.

“Food and beverage manufacturers are no longer content to put an ingredient in their formula in order to achieve longer shelf life or produce a desired performance,” Ms. Diaz said. “It is equally, if not more, important to also have an ingredient that consumers recognize, has a nutritional benefit or is natural and clean label.”
American consumers want it all, Ms. Diaz said. She said consumers want something in the state Mother Nature made it, and they want to eat what they want exactly when they want it and for it to taste delicious all at the same time. Consumers want to have wholesome, value and natural simultaneously. The question then becomes how this may be accomplished.

“What we have seen in the last decade is the emergence of the research chef,” Ms. Shelke said. “Research chefs are filling a gap that was a big void in the food industry. Food used to be formulated by food scientists, but now increasingly it is being formulated by research chefs who not only understand the food science aspect of it but also the food aspect of it and the consumer aspect of it. So the products that are coming out are increasingly more and more like a ‘natural’ food, and the ingredients are being pushed to do more and more what ingredients should be doing.”
While Ms. Katz said the younger generation is driving the trend, Ms. Diaz noted the concept is also important to baby boomers and Hispanic and Asian consumers.

Simple labels raise ingredient functionality and product safety concerns

In trying to create simple, easy-to-understand labels, it’s like product developers are being asked to swim and win a race with their hands and feet tied behind their backs, said Kantha Shelke, principal with Corvus Blue.

“This drive for clean labels is forcing food industry R.&D. and food product developers to rethink what kinds of ingredients they will put or list on their product,” Ms. Shelke said.

This inevitably leads to concerns about cost and availability. As a result, companies are opening themselves up to innovation in areas such as biotechnology, enzyme technology, fermentation and nanotechnology.

Creating acceptable texture, mouthfeel and shelf life is also difficult. As a result, potato starch and tapioca starch are being looked at as options.

Dinah Diaz, market development manager for beverages and encapsulation with National Starch Food Innovation, said beverages are one of the most difficult areas for simple label development as large brands are risk averse, and achieving the right opacity or clarity, stability and delivery of oil-soluble flavors and taste is challenging.

Barbara Katz, president of HealthFocus International, said many consumers do not understand safety issues behind products straight from the source, such as raw milk.

“Consumers are equating natural and untouched by human hands as the gold standard,” Ms. Katz said.
Ms. Shelke said manufacturers that do not have the right connections with ingredient companies are going to lose brand equity. At the same time, she said many ingredient companies often don’t know how to position their ingredient or solution in the right manner. Ultimately, the true “winners” may not be the companies with the best products. She said how companies balance the science and art of functionality and communication will be essential to success.
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