A clean label checklist

Formulating clean label dairy foods often refers to eliminating chemical-sounding additives or any ingredient perceived as being artificial, most notably certain colors, flavors, preservatives and sweeteners. The concept of wholesome complements the definition of clean label. With milk and dairy products historically perceived as wholesome foods, it makes sense to formulate as clean as possible.

It is best to determine finished product labeling, sensory and shelf life goals prior to product development. The checklist may assist with identifying a toolbox of potential ingredients to work with.

Colors:Any ingredient with the sole purpose of adding color to a food or beverage is a color additive, with all color additives requiring approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.) as a food additive. The F.D.A. classifies color additives as either “certified” or “exempt from certification.” The former is commonly referred to as artificial or synthetic, and the latter, by default, is often characterized as natural. Because the F.D.A. does not consider any color added to a food as being natural, unless the color is natural to the product itself, such as strawberry extract boosting the red color of strawberries in yogurt, it is more common to use label claims such as “free from synthetic colors” or “colored with vegetable juice” rather than “all natural.”

Flavors:Both natural and artificial flavors are manufactured through the blending of chemicals. The difference is when essential oils are used in the manufacture of the flavor, or when artificial chemicals are blended to simulate essential oils. The former is considered natural, the latter artificial. Based on the raw material, F.D.A. is clear on the labeling of flavors as either natural or artificial. Historically many natural flavors were considered weaker in flavor strength and less stable to processing than the artificial counterparts. New technologies have improved quality but often with a cost. It is paramount that formulators determine flavor targets and budgets in order to establish realistic goals.

Preservatives: The F.D.A. defines a chemical preservative as any chemical that, when added to food, tends to prevent or retard deterioration. Ingredients excluded from the list include salt, sugars, vinegars, spices or oils extracted from spices, as well as substances added to food by direct exposure, for example wood smoke. Consumers expect refrigerated dairy products to have a shorter shelf life, as they are perishable living systems.

Chemical preservatives are usually not necessary, unless the goal is for a lengthy shelf life, as is the case with spreadable cheeses and even some cultured products. Determine the minimum expiration date necessary for your distribution system.

Sweeteners: The F.D.A. does not impose the descriptor of artificial to any sweetener, rather, there are six high-intensity sweeteners — acesulfame potassium, advantame, aspartame, neotame, saccharin and sucralose — approved as food additives in the United States. Even though they are not legally classified as artificial sweeteners, the descriptor has become common language, making label claims such as “free from artificial sweeteners” increasingly popular in the clean label movement. There are an array of sweeteners available to formulators, some of which have cleaner reputations than others. For example, agave, honey, monk fruit, pure cane sugar and stevia have all gained traction in the natural products channel as wholesome, naturally derived sweetening options. Formulators should identify all sweeteners to avoid prior to product development, as sweetener may impact product appearance, color, flavor, mouthfeel and other attributes. Remember to consider the sweeteners in ingredient systems such as fruit preparation and inclusions.