Changing perceptions: From Big Food to good food

by Keith Nunes
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The Institute of Food Technologists’ annual meeting and food exposition, which was held July 11-14 in Chicago, provides an excellent forum for stepping back to assess trends driving food and beverage product development. In past years, such interrelated trends as health and wellness, functional ingredients, and reduction, whether it is less calories, sugar, sodium, gluten or innumerable other flash-point ingredients, have competed for the attention of visitors. This year there was no such competition. Clean label, in all of its formats and definitions, dominated the event.

With leading food, beverage and food service companies rapidly jumping on board, the amount of money invested in researching ingredient options and reformulating products for a more wholesome, transparent label may be unprecedented. Transparency and clean label were key discussion points in many of the I.F.T.’s education sessions, and it was clearly a focal point for suppliers exhibiting during the exposition.

As one attendee pointed out after the show, “It struck me that ingredient suppliers were armed and loaded with solutions for major challenges facing food companies,” he said. “There have been years in the past in which I’ve listened to presentations about solutions seemingly in search of a problem. The problems addressed this year were very real.”

The market research firm Innova Market Insights, Arnhem, The Netherlands, declared that clean label is now much more than a trend and is to be regarded as a standard. To bolster its contention Innova noted that over 20% of the new products introduced in the United States in 2014 featured a clean label positioning, up from 17% in 2013.

As a result, Innova added that the movement has increased interest in such ingredients perceived as “clean” as stevia, monk fruit, spirulina, elderberry and beetroot. The expo floor at this year’s show enhanced that list as suppliers promoted the clean label benefits of fruit and vegetable extracts, algae and legumes.

These are challenging times for food and beverage manufacturers, particularly those competing in the center of the store of supermarkets and other retail outlets. It is heartening to see such a comprehensive response from the supplier community, but it should also be noted challenges remain.

For starters, much like the term natural there is no definition for what constitutes a clean label product. The attitude among marketers seems to be that consumers will know it when they see it.

Compounding the problem is many of the companies that have embraced and propelled the trend forward are unclear about how they make decisions when determining which ingredients they will not allow in some of their products. Over the years such companies as Whole Foods, Kroger, Panera Bread and others have designated some ingredients as not for use. Yet the decision-making process is not transparent.

It is this point that leaves food and beverage marketers vulnerable. After all, most if not all the ingredients being shunned are safe and effective formulation options. Resistance to their use is simply the perception that a product made with ingredients perceived as natural is better than a product that may contain ingredients that are perceived as processed or synthetic.

There is no arbiter to determine if an ingredient is “clean” or processed. How an ingredient is perceived is determined by marketing efforts and whether consumers may be appropriately frightened into demanding a specific ingredient no longer be used.

Innova’s contention that the clean label phenomenon has evolved from a trend to a standard is appropriate, but it also may be argued that if the shift is to be sustained and orderly, some sort of a framework that defines the concept will be necessary. Such a standard does not exist and without it many product developers will remain challenged as they try to develop food and beverage products their customers and, most importantly, consumers perceive to be wholesome and “clean.”

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