Pine River cheese
Pine River offers a range of spreads made with no preservative sorbic acid, artificial colors or artificial flavors.

Building a clean label product

Family-owned and operated Pine River Pre-Pack Inc., Newton, Wis., a manufacturer of spreadable cheese, has started offering several clean label options to keep its products going into shoppers’ baskets.

“We tell customers that our cold pack cheese spread is like natural cheddar, crafted to be in a convenient spreadable form,” said Phil Lindemann, president and chief executive officer. “We blend Wisconsin Grade A aged cheddar with the best dairy ingredients to complement the natural flavor. To meet the needs of today’s consumers, we offer a range of spreads where we have removed the preservative sorbic acid and artificial colors and flavors.”

In doing so, the company added a heat-free kill step to its manufacturing process. It keeps the product safe and has minimal effect on texture and flavor.

Pine River cheese spreads
Pine River's clean label varieties look a little different than the traditional line.

“This added step adds to the price of our clean label line,” Mr. Lindemann said. “No preservatives shortens the shelf life to 300 days, but that is still a great shelf life for a spread this clean.”

Mary Lindemann, marketing director, said, “The removal of the coloring and artificial flavoring was easy. We start with white aged cheddar blocks and selected spices that add natural color.”

The clean label varieties look a little different than the traditional line. This does not seem to be an issue with consumers when it’s explained to them, as the variation helps them differentiate. Swapping ingredients, however, is not always easy.

“It was challenging to find a clean label alternative to the Red Dye No. 40 that we use in our port wine spread,” Ms. Lindemann said. “Eventually we found that beet juice provided us a color that got us close to the original port wine look.”

Pine River port wine cheese spread
Finding a clean label alternative to Red Dye No. 40 in its port wine spread was a challenge for Pine River.

Removing preservatives and swapping colors are just some of the hurdles dairy foods processors face. Raw materials sourcing, including procurement of non-G.M.O. cheese, butter and powdered whey are stumbling blocks, Ms. Lindemann said. The same is true for milk free of artificial growth hormones.

“The good news is that in early 2018, a large part of the Wisconsin dairy industry will be going rBST free,” she said. “By late 2018, our clean label gourmet cold pack cheese spread will include an rBST free claim.

“We are also going to remove lactic acid and replace it with vinegar, which provides the same antimicrobial function.”

Replacing artificial non-nutritive sweeteners with natural options in lower-calorie dairy foods is taking place across the dairy case. The Dannon Light & Fit brand now sports a “zero artificial sweeteners” claim after replacing acesulfame potassium and sucralose with stevia leaf extract.

Dannon Light & Fit Zero artificial ingredients yogurt
The Dannon Light & Fit brand now sports a “zero artificial sweeteners” claim after replacing acesulfame potassium and sucralose with stevia leaf extract.

General Mills Inc., Minneapolis, is hoping to gain back refrigerated yogurt market share with its new oui by Yoplait. The product is itself a story and is described as “inspired by our traditional French recipe.” Sold in 5-oz glass jars with a peel-back foil seal, the premium whole milk yogurts are made using an artisanal process of pouring ingredients into the individual glass pots where they set for about eight hours to develop a unique, thick texture. Further, the yogurt boasts a non-G.M.O. claim.

Organic dairy foods are not immune to the clean movement. Many use ingredients that some consumers question.

“For our consumers, getting rid of carrageenan was a top-requested priority,” said Tripp Hughes, director of brand management, Organic Valley, La Farge, Wis. “It required a lot of research and development to get us back to the shelf life we had previously.”

Mr. Stohrer said, “If you look at the dairy aisle today, you can see many of the changes in the industry driven purely by consumer preference, knowledge and demand. The clean dairy movement truly speaks to consumers’ interest in being educated on what’s in their favorite dairy products, being able to identify what might be necessary vs. unnecessary.”