In pop music the current trend may be “all about that bass,” but in the food and beverage category it is and always will be about taste. When product developers are working with a full toolbox of applications to maintain iconic flavors and create new ones, the effort is simplified. But during the past few years some tools have been removed from the toolbox, and the process of flavor development has been complicated. Put bluntly, the clean label trend is having an effect.
With every announcement a company has reformulated products to provide a natural or clean label positioning there are days, weeks and months worth of work behind the scenes to ensure the only noticeable changes are on the ingredients listing. The list of companies adopting a clean label positioning is growing rapidly. What started as an effort by small- and medium-size companies to differentiate has now spread to some of the largest consumer packaged goods companies and to major food service operators.
During the past month, both the Panera Bread Co. and Noodles Co. announced plans to “clean up” their menus. On May 5, Panera announced the publication of its “No No List” of ingredients that will not be used to formulate its products.
“We are not scientists,” said Ron Shaich, founder and chief executive officer of Panera. “We are people who know and love food, and who believe that the journey to better food starts with simpler ingredients. And to turn that belief into meaningful action, we consulted third-party scientists and experts to compile a list of common artificial additives that we are going to do without.
“Simplifying our pantry is essential to our vision, but it is not an end point. We want to be an ally for wellness for the millions of guests we serve each week.”
Some ingredients on the chain’s No No List include acesulfame K, autolyzed yeast extract, high-fructose corn syrup, maltodextrin, microparticulated whey protein concentrate and others.
The company’s goal is to remove the ingredients on the list from the formulation of its menu items by the end of 2016.
“Last year we unveiled our Food Policy to hold ourselves accountable to long held values and set the future vision for our menu,” Mr. Shaich said. “The No No List is the latest step on our journey to clean food and a transparent menu.”
The company estimated 85% of the menu items reformulated without the ingredients on its list are in test or have been rolled out nationally. Reworked items will continue to be introduced in advance of the 2016 deadline, according to the company.
The restaurant chain also said it will offer salad dressings that are formulated without artificial sweeteners, colors, flavors and preservatives.
“Dressings have been one of the most complex projects given the number of artificial additives — namely flavors and preservatives — conventionally used for taste and consistency,” said Dan Kish, Panera Bread’s head chef. “We’re proud to be offering bakery-cafe salad dressings without artificial additives. We believe they also taste better than ever.”
Noodles & Co., Broomfield, Colo., also announced in early May its plan to clean up its menu offerings. The company, which has 455 restaurant outlets, said it plans to remove all artificial colors, flavors and preservatives from all of its soups, sauces and dressings later this year. The company also said it is testing naturally raised, antibiotic-free chicken in its restaurants and is working with suppliers to expand the ingredient nationwide over the rest of the year and into 2016.
“(A) strength of the brand is Noodles’ ability to resonate with guests of all types through our distinct approach to craft cooking, our service model, and most importantly, the quality ingredients and flavors offered in our menu,” said Kevin Reddy, chairman and c.e.o. of Noodles & Co., during a May 5 earnings call with financial analysts. “The fresh vegetables we prep throughout the day, our quest for real ingredients, clean labels, and cooked-to-order meals meet the discerning desires of guests today.”
Noodles & Co. long has touted the quality of its ingredients, which include organic tofu, naturally raised pork, fresh produce and noodles made without bioengineered ingredients. Limited-time offers showcase such seasonal ingredients as asparagus and corn, which is shucked and sheathed in the restaurants. Recently, Noodles & Co. introduced Buff Bowls, which substitute fresh spinach for pasta in four of the chain’s signature dishes.
“I tell you, I think the quality of ingredients, non-processed, are very important,” Mr. Reddy said. “All the work that our supply chain team has done and continues to do, I think just support a strong story and positioning about ingredients that still is a differentiator today. I think more and more companies, as well as the agricultural system, will move in that direction. That is working.”
Going behind the scenes
There are many challenges presented to product developers who are faced with the prospect of simplifying a formulation while maintaining flavor.
“The first thing you as a developer have to understand is how do they define clean label,” said Kent Crosby, technical support manager for Sensient Flavors, Hoffman Estates, Ill. “Some may want natural ingredients and others may only want ingredients consumers have in their pantry. How they define clean label has an effect.”
There is also a question of cost vs. function, said Jean Shieh, marketing manager of savory flavors for Sensient.
“With any change you have to keep the experience and the profile,” she said. “We really have to work closely with customers to understand their needs and goals.”
Mr. Crosby added that the demand for ingredients that are organic or non-bioengineered adds complexity to the process.
“The supply chain becomes critical when you start talking about organic, non-G.M.O. or even natural,” he said. “When you start talking about ingredients that fit these attributes, very often you are talking about agricultural crops. Crops are not consistent. Their quality can be affected by a number of variations, like the weather.”
On Panera’s “No No List” are such ingredients as vanillin, artificial flavors, artificial smoke flavors and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), all of which may play a role in flavor development. Mr. Crosby said vanillin is a good example of a functional ingredient that adds complexity to a formulation when it is replaced.
“Vanillin is a cheap ingredient that is used to support a flavor,” he said. “To keep a vanilla flavor profile becomes more difficult, because there are so many (vanilla) varieties to choose from. Does the customer want a Madagascar profile or a different one? Now you are talking about a taste profile and a cost impact, and what you want to do to achieve a specific profile.”
Lauren Williams, marketing manager for Sensient’s beverage business, said HFCS is another ingredient of concern that if removed may affect cost.
“There are a number of natural alternatives for HFCS, but each needs a specific solution,” she said. “Any replacement is going to affect mouthfeel and a product’s flavor notes. How you address a change requires understanding the customer’s goals and then offering solutions.”
Then there is the issue of established flavors. Mr. Crosby said he knows from personal experience the challenges of changing the formulation of a product that has an iconic flavor.
“We wanted to make the product taste better,” he said. “But when you are dealing with an iconic product in the market that has a specific flavor, you can’t change it; you may change the formulation but the consumer can’t know the difference.”
A key question surrounding the clean label trend that has taken hold is where is it going? Food and beverage companies are working to establish footholds in a variety of categories, whether it is natural, organic, non-G.M.O., etc. Ms. Williams said the clean label trend will be dictated by consumer education.
“Consumers today have resources at their fingertips that make it easy for them to learn about the food they eat,” she said. “There is a wealth of information about how food gets to them. As they learn more about what they eat, the ingredients used and how those ingredients are processed, that information will shape the products they want.”
Mr. Crosby said it is safe to say that while health and wellness is a trend, clean label is a push toward health and wholesomeness.
“Consumers want to feel like the food they are eating is wholesome,” he said. “They are going to continue reading and understanding labels, and wanting products that fit what they think is wholesome. It’s much easier for them to get information and they are going to act on it.”