As anti-synthetic sentiment spreads across Europe, the number of ingredient companies working on clean-label solutions has proliferated.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the clean-labeling drive has snowballed in the last three or four years.
What started as a push by UK retailers to rid products of artificial colors in the wake of the Southampton study has escalated into a full-scale clean-up operation of food labels across Europe.
“The trend was initially driven by retailers in the UK in response to consumer concern over E-numbers in foods and is now expanding rapidly across Europe,” affirms Hannah Cressy, marketing manager, wholesome, Ingredion.
Her observations are backed up by Claire Robertson, R&D taste solutions manager at Synergy, who says: “More widespread in the UK, the clean-label trend is seeing traction in other European countries.”
Outside the UK, the main countries where the clean-label movement has really gained momentum are Sweden, Denmark, and Finland.
In fact, Avebe food market manager Christer Andersson believes that some Nordic retailers have gone even further than the British multiples.
“In Scandinavia, some retailers have stipulated which ingredients they want to replace,” he says.
Even before the Southampton study, pressure to clean up labels was building in some European countries, according to Olga Schwemler, product manager with Kampffmeyer Food Innovation. “In Europe, in countries like the UK, France, and Germany, clean label has predominated since 2005. The UK food industry in particular is under increased pressure to simplify ingredient lists and remove E-numbers from foods because of the high demand from retailers and consumers for the reduction of additives in foods,” she says.
What hasn’t changed since the trend went viral is the lack of a clear definition as to what constitutes a clean label.
“The term clean label has different meanings, ranging from ‘free from E-numbers’ to ‘totally natural,’” says Kemin’s Kelly De Vadder.
Kampffmeyer’s Schwemler agrees that no universal definition currently exists. “The term clean label is not defined in food legislation, therefore it is very difficult to find a universal definition for clean-label foods. But it is very closely connected to claims like ‘all natural,’ ‘no additives or preservatives,’ and ‘homemade,’” she says.
The only unequivocal definition comes from Limagrain Céréales Ingrédients (LCI), which says the term covers “products in which additives are eliminated.”
“More than 300 substances are considered to be additives and are authorized by the European Union, bearing a code consisting of the letter ‘E’ followed by an identification number. The additives are defined as substances not normally consumed as foods in themselves,” says Dr. Walter Lopez, nutritionist at LCI.
Wild offers a similar explanation of the term: “Commonly it stands for food and beverage labels that do not contain food additives such as preservatives,” says Hélène Möller, Wild product manager, ingredients. “As a result, they are free from E-numbers, which all food additives bear.”
But where does this definition leave ingredients that are chemical sounding but technically clean label, such as sodium chloride, and ingredients that are classed as additives but that are acceptable to many consumers, such as ascorbic acid?
LCI is pretty clear on this point, too. “Following the previous definition of additive, sodium chloride has been widely used in the kitchen for a long time. Thus, salt is considered an ingredient and not an additive...whereas ascorbic acid is not really an authentic food component. Did your mother use ascorbic acid in her cooking? I think not. Therefore ascorbic acid is considered a food additive by the European Union.”
The case of xanthan gum further illustrates how confused and contradictory the situation is: on the one hand, Hydrosol reports that it is one of the additives manufacturers are looking to outlaw because it sounds artificial, while on the other, consumers in the UK can go to a supermarket and buy a pack of xanthan gum for baking gluten-free bread.
The situation is clearer when it comes to flavorings: to be clean label, a flavor has to be natural, and there is now legislation in place that stipulates when the term natural can be used to describe a flavor.
“The latest EU flavor legislation, enforced in January 2011, provided new general conditions for the use of flavorings, food ingredients with flavoring properties, and source materials. It also defined the conditions under which they could be classed as natural. This has undoubtedly helped refine what the term clean label means in real terms,” says Joris Hermans, product line manager, process flavor, DSM.
Maybe this lack of clarity doesn’t really matter anyway, given that-in the words of Hermans-“essentially the term clean label is a marketing tool and is therefore open to interpretation...We believe that consumer understanding is the main criterion that influences an ingredient’s clean-label status. That is to say, consumers must understand exactly what they are eating and drinking.”
The issue, though, is not just one of removal, but also of replacement. So which of the 300 or so additives are top of food manufacturers’ hit lists, and what are they being replaced with?
The first additives manufacturers were looking to strike from ingredient lists were the Southampton six: Quinoline Yellow (E104), Sunset Yellow (E110), Carmoisine (E122), Ponceau 4R (E124), Allura Red (E129), and Tartrazine (E102).
“The so-called Southampton study, which looked at six artificial colors in connection with hyperactivity in children, is the reason for the efforts of the food and beverage industry to replace artificial colors with colors from natural sources or coloring foodstuffs,” explains Wild’s Möller.
Wild produces coloring foodstuffs for use in extruded products such as licorice, chewing gums, and candy rolls. It also offers natural extruder-stable colors, which cover a spectrum ranging from green to yellow, orange, red, and brown.
Wild has also been busy on the sweeteners front and has developed the natural fruit sweetener Fruit Up, which is made entirely from fruit via a physical production process.
“Food and beverage manufacturers are looking to remove non-natural flavors and flavor enhancers,” says Synergy’s Robertson. “Those that carry E-numbers are perceived by consumers as undesirable and cannot carry the all important natural claim on end-products. Equally, ingredients such as MSG, recognized as being responsible for the important umami taste in savory products, are being removed.”
Synergy’s Saporesse Plus lactic yeast extracts are said to deliver flavor and mouthfeel enhancement in cheese sauces, dips, and seasonings. On labels, they can be called simply “yeast extract” or “natural flavor preparation.”
Flavoring regulation EC 1334/2008, which came into force in January, has created further clean-label challenges around flavorings, as process flavors can no longer be declared natural, so manufacturers must find natural alternatives.
“This can be an expensive process and also lead to a loss of taste,” says DSM’s Hermans. “However, there are cost-effective solutions out there which allow food producers to maintain the same authentic taste direction.”
He is specifically referring to DSM’s Maxavor YE All Natural range of flavor ingredients, which is said to offer the same functionality as process flavors.
“By combining our mild processing and yeast extract technology, we have developed products that really mimic the composition of meat and meat flavors,” says Hermans. “We cook the yeast extracts under ‘home cooking’ conditions, meaning they develop authentic, home-style taste directions.”
At Leatherhead’s New & Natural event held earlier this year, Jon Arzberger, with Azelis Food & Health, reported strong growth in interest in natural preservatives for finished meat products. At the same time, Kemin reports that deli meat manufacturers are looking for solutions to improve their food safety program against Listeria monocytogenes.
Kemin recently launched a clean-label, vinegar-based ingredient called BactoCEASE NV, which addresses both of these concerns, serving as a clean-label alternative to traditional synthetic preservatives and keeping deli meats safe and fresh.
In the emulsifiers, stabilizers, and thickeners arena, there are a number of candidates for removal.
“They are additives that sound artificial, like xanthan gum, and also substances with names that sound suspiciously chemical-for instance, hydroxypropyl methyl cellulose or polyglycerol esters of fatty acids,” says Dr. Dorotea Pein, Hydrosol’s innovation manager. “Modified starches are a problem, too.”
As to Hydrosol’s proposed solutions for replacing these ingredients, Pein says: “As stabilizers, thickeners, and emulsifiers, we use vegetable fibers with different origins and functionalities. We replace modified starches with functional proteins and with native starches, or such that have been treated by physical means.”
Similarly, Phil Whitcomb, marketing activity manager with Arla Foods Ingredients Group, says modified starches and gums as well as mono- and di-glycerides are on the hit list.
“Our milk protein solutions can replace a full range of these additives, including modified starches, gums, and emulsifiers-and the label declaration is simple: ‘milk protein,’” he says.
As an example, in yogurts, ingredients like gelatine, pectin, and modified starches can be replaced with milk proteins.
The problem with removing modified starch from recipes is finding a native starch with the same shear resistance and temperature and pH stability, according to Avebe’s Andersson.
“That’s very difficult to do with the knowledge we have today,” he says. However, he claims Etenia-the company’s clean-label potato starch-has properties that in some applications are comparable to modified starch or even to hydrocolloids like gelatin.
In dairy products, Etenia can replace combinations of hydrocolloids and modified starch, as well as some of the fat content, thanks to its gelling and mouthfeel properties. In confectionery applications, it presents a clean-label substitute for modified starch where an alternative to gelatin is sought. And in mayonnaise and dressings, it provides a means of reducing the fat content without the use of hydrocolloids or modified starch.
Kampffmeyer Food Innovation claims its Purafarin functional flours, which are physically treated, are able to meet the demands of industrial food processing.
Purafarin H 151 W, for instance, is a waxy wheat flour which is said to have technological properties that are comparable to those of chemically modified starch. These include improved resistance to high temperatures (enabling application in sterilized and pasteurized food and microwave-ready meals) and improved freeze/thaw properties (enabling its use in frozen convenience foods).
Latest additions to Ingredion’s Novation range of clean-label functional native starches include Novation Indulge 2450 and 2550. The starches can be used as co-texturizers in applications such as pasta fillings and dips, as well as to replace costly pulpy ingredients while maintaining texture and taste.
LCI, meanwhile, says it uses specially selected cereal varieties in combination with its Farigel hydrothermal treatment to obtain a range of functional flours with texturizing and industrial stress-resistance properties for replacement of thickening additives such as modified starches and gums. These can be used in bakery, pastry, breakfast cereal, ready meal, meat, and beverage products.
Lastly, Wild has developed a binding system based on juice concentrates as an alternative to the binding agents currently available to the cereal bar manufacturing industry, all of which rely on food additives.
“Using this binding system means that manufacturers no longer need many common additives and ingredients such as emulsifiers, fats, citric acid, or sorbitol as humectants,” says Möller.
Ingredient solutions are coming thick and fast, even though the problem they are addressing is largely a product of the consumer’s imagination.
Research carried out by industry consultants Campden BRI concluded that fenugreek gum could offer a potential clean-label alternative to the emulsifiers currently used by the bread industry.
“We did a large survey to find out what clean-label emulsifiers existed for bread and found that everything that has emulsifying capabilities is an additive and therefore has an E-number,” Dr. Charles Speirs, baking science manager at Campden BRI, told IFI. “The exception to this was fenugreek gum.”
Historically, the issue with using fenugreek gum as an emulsifier has been its odor. However, Dr. Speirs says that Canafen gum, a water-soluble food hydrocolloid made by a patented process from Canadian-grown fenugreek seed, appeared to overcome this problem.
He said the gum has GRAS status in North America, but that its status in Europe was unclear.
In another project, Campden BRI looked at rosehip as an alternative to ascorbic acid.
“Instead of producing ascorbic acid synthetically, you would go back to the natural source, so the ingredient declaration would be ‘rosehip powder,’” he said.