KANSAS CITY — Working in the food and beverage business sometimes makes it difficult to appreciate the rapid advances taking place in ingredient technologies and product development. Advancement and improvement are day-to-day goals required to manage a profitable business.
Yet to the population at large these changes may be unknown and, if misinformed, perceived in a negative light. We are seeing this play out in a variety of ways, most notably around the benefits and safety of bioengineered ingredients, sweeteners, and, in some cases, functional foods.
The most notable trend identified on the show floor of the Institute of Food Technologists’ annual meeting and exposition in New Orleans this past week was the continued strength of the clean label phenomenon. There is a lot of talk about sugar and sodium reduction as well as the protein and gluten-free trends, but the concept of clean label is in a category by itself. Nearly every supplier visited at the I.F.T. offered some form of a clean label solution, and it was noticeable that such solutions were required to improve product acceptance from customers.
Clean label has been called a form of transparency, but in reality it is a trend of omission. Segments of the population become concerned about an ingredient and manufacturers race to identify a solution for removing the ingredient.
The reasons why consumers become concerned about the safety of specific ingredients are numerous, and may range from research promoted via social and traditional media, marketing efforts by competitors, or product development guidelines established by retail and food service operators.
One cannot discount the impact Whole Foods’ unacceptable ingredients for food list has had on the clean label trend and food and beverage product development, in general. Whole Foods’ idea is the driver behind Kroger’s Simple Truth and Simple Truth Organic product lines, which are made without the use of 101 ingredients the retailer has identified as ingredients of concern to consumers. Kroger has said the line is rapidly approaching $1 billion in sales.
The idea behind the clean label trend is simple: If consumers are concerned about an ingredient — remove it. But research conducted by Wansink, et al. of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University indicates there may be another way.
The study “Ingredient-based food fears and avoidance: Antecedents and antidotes” and published in the journal Food Quality and Preference sought to identify what consumers may be most prone to what the researchers defined as “food fears,” and what may be done to overcome those fears. A phone survey of 1,008 U.S. mothers was conducted to learn what they thought of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). When comparing those who avoided HFCS with those who did not, three findings emerged: Avoiders were more likely to receive their information from the Internet rather than television; they desired to have their food choices known by their friends; and they were not willing to pay more for foods that instead contained regular table sugar.
The researchers also found that giving consumers more information about an ingredient, such as its history, may be an effective way to reduce food fears. To arrive at this conclusion they asked participants to rate the healthfulness of stevia.
“Half of the participants were given historical and contextual information to read about the product and the remaining participants were not given anything to read,” Mr. Wansink said, in a summarization of the study’s results, on his web site. “Those who received information about an ingredient’s history rated the product as healthier than those who did not.”
This is an interesting insight, because it plays into the concept of transparency, which is often defined as openness about how an ingredient or product is made. It would seem there is an opportunity to connect with consumers and potentially mollify some fears by communicating the history behind an ingredient’s discovery and use.As this year’s I.F.T. exposition showed, there is much discovery taking place in the food and beverage category. To ensure such efforts reach their full potential may require manufacturers to communicate those discoveries and their benefits to consumers in an effort to mitigate potential concern.