Rising Demand for Recognizable, 'Clean Label,' 'Natural' Ingredients

Consumers are more closely scrutinizing the ingredients and processes involved in the food products they purchase

January 8, 2021
Tamieka Hardy

A big advantage of a number of natural colorants is that they do double duty as powerful nutraceuticals.

On one side of the food and beverage processing industry, food manufacturers have been tasked with solving issues of food and ingredient safety and security. From the other side, consumers are more closely scrutinizing the ingredients and processes involved in the food products they purchase. These two pressures have brought unprecedented challenges to the product developer.
Compounding those pressures is a borderless economy where many companies increasingly find themselves supplying, and being supplied by, global food and ingredient concerns. Because the terms “natural” and “clean-label” are neither legally defined nor regulated in many countries, there is flexibility for manufacturers to innovate around fluid interpretations of what it means for a product to qualify as such. But this flexibility can be a double-edged sword.
At face value, natural or clean-label foods can be seen as having recognizable ingredients, few to no artificial ingredients or preservatives, and no GMOs. As the industry expands to meet consumer demand, and the influx of new ingredients and products in the consumer packaged goods space continues to swell, developers and food manufacturers are driven to become increasingly creative in their efforts to innovate.
Some food philosophies take the definition of “natural” further to include ingredients that are minimally processed. There is strong emphasis on plant-derived ingredients as well. Other approaches accept products that have plant-based origins but have undergone a modicum of processing.
Some frameworks for defining “natural” place heavy emphasis on organic ingredients, while others interpret “recognizable” ingredients as extending to any scientific naming nomenclature, erroneously rejecting even organic, plant-derived, minimally processed ingredients that have chemical-sounding names.
On top of all this, most approaches include an expectation of fewer ingredients, and even the “cleanest” label can fall under a shadow if it lists more than a dozen ingredients. In essence, product developers are working with a moving target. This requires an understanding of what the client or company is looking for in the product and on the label.
Robert Boutin, owner and president of Knechtel Inc., describes the progression of the natural foods movement from the ambiguous “natural” designation to more recent inclusions of organic, non-GMO, and other specific standards gathering under the natural foods umbrella. “From the start, it was necessary to become highly focused on what the attributes or characteristics of the product are,” he says. “It is important to keep an eye on that focus so you don’t develop something that is really not in tune with shifting consumer and the market trends.”
Boutin advises that developers must maintain constant dialogue with clients and keep consumer research ongoing throughout development to stay on track with what is important to the end users. Since the approach to research and development can differ based on the characteristics and expectations that exist, he stresses that such characteristic specificity will help reduce development costs, accelerate time to market, and capitalize on current market trends.
Certifications such as “organic,” “hormone-free,” “antibiotic-free,” “GMO-free,” and others can actually provide assistance by establishing tangible guardrails for development. “There is more demand now for clean-label products that are ‘foolproof’ while remaining craveable to consumers,” notes Charlie Baggs, president and executive chef of Charlie Baggs Culinary Innovations, Inc.
Based on his experience developing for the foodservice sector, Baggs recognizes that working within such highly individualized parameters makes saving labor critical. “Clients are looking for clean ingredient applications that are foolproof for the staff to prepare, but must also satisfy consumer expectations, have authentic flavors, and appeal strongly to consumers. In execution, such applications can be marketed as natural, clean-label options that are easy to prepare, commonly plant-based, great tasting, and interchangeably utilized.”
When it comes to ingredient sourcing during the concept stage, less is definitely more. Baggs recommends that, wherever possible, developers keep it simple. There has been a rapid and comprehensive expansion in the portfolio of options by ingredient suppliers that make it possible for manufacturers to achieve the objective of simplifying their labels. Moreover, quite a few of these options are derived from vegetarian sources.
“Natural preservatives, extenders, and enhancers — like rosemary extract, celery powder, tomato extract, tomato fibers, [and] textured proteins — are viable ingredient choices to consider when developing formulas for products with a natural or clean-label objective in mind,” says Zal Taleyarkhan, corporate research chef for Charlie Baggs. “The majority of the acceleration in the concept of clean label has occurred just in the past five years.” Taleyarkhan believes it’s based on the “vast availability of information influencing what people choose for themselves, and the money they would spend on it.”
Whether the goal is extending shelf stability, minimizing oxidation, or controlling microbial activity, there are a number of available extracted components of botanicals to help attain the desired results while maintaining a natural, clean label.
Celery, beets, and lettuce, as well as their ingredient scions, contain significant amounts of naturally occurring nitrites and their precursors, nitrates. The concentrated nitrate/nitrite profile of celery powder and juice allows for application in preserving deli meats while maintaining an organic designation. Celery and rosemary extracts have been rapidly gaining popularity in food processing because of their antioxidant and antimicrobial reputations.
Taking advantage of the antimicrobial characteristics of ingredients like rosemary and celery extracts, tart cherry extracts, and other herbs is a means of providing preservative attributes while keeping the names on the ingredient label simple. Extracts from many spices, such as clove, cinnamon, and black pepper, also have similarly strong purported microbe-killing abilities.
Innovations in extraction and processing of rosemary oil have expanded the potential for its use by yielding a more flavor-neutral product. Phenolic compounds found in rosemary extract are demonstratively effective in reducing protein and lipid oxidation in sausage-type products and other meats.
Rosemary’s antioxidant properties also have proven successful in extending the usage of frying oils by increasing their oxidative stability. Furthermore, rosemary extract’s ability to act as an antimicrobial agent against pathogens like Bacillus cereus, Staphylococcus aureus, and Escherichia coli make it an excellent clean-label ingredient for meat processing.
Flavor enhancers, such as those derived from tomato and mushroom extracts and similar products, provide recognizable, clean-label alternatives to ingredients such as monosodium glutamate (MSG). Their naturally occurring glutamic compounds add the functionality of flavor enhancement without having to list glutamates as a stand-alone item on an ingredient list, which can deter some end consumers.
Sucrose and fructose are certainly plant-derived and can readily fall under the natural umbrella. Yet, as pointed out, the definition of “natural” is fluid and consumer-driven. The demand for natural sweetener alternatives — not only to sucrose and fructose, but also to artificial zero-calorie high-intensity sweeteners — easily ranks as the most prominent flavor aspect in the effort to “go natural.”
There are more varieties of nutritive sweeteners being used in product formulations as well. With the stigmatized perception of some sweeteners as unnatural, applications of options like tapioca starches, brown rice syrups, and fruit juice concentrates have become more appealing.
Epidemic levels of obesity and associated comorbidities like diabetes drive demand for products that laud reduced sugar content. “Reduced sugar is a mainstream product attribute, and more and more processors are striving to the sugar in their products,” concurs Knechtel’s Boutin. Previous efforts to decrease sugar use favored nonnutritive polyol sweeteners such erythritol, xylitol, and maltitol.
As with sucrose and fructose, these alternative sweeteners were typically extracted from plants and proved helpful for those monitoring sugar intake. However, their potential drawbacks lie in the risk of imparting off flavors and, for some consumers, causing unpleasant gastrointestinal symptoms.
While these sweeteners do have a place in product development, and can overcome their possible negative attributes with careful application, many consumers do not accept them as complying with clean-label and natural considerations.
Naturally derived alternative sweeteners that do not have such handicaps have become widely available of late. Monkfruit extract has been gaining traction as a noncaloric sweetener since the FDA granted it GRAS status in 2010. And, of course, stevia — especially its rebaudioside-M format — is proving to be successful as a nonnutritive option. Both have approximately 200 times the sweetness
of sucrose.
Stevia and monkfruit are not without controversy, however. While clean-label versions of these plant-derived sweeteners abound, some consumers might reject them based on perceptions that they are “chemical” sounding. Careful labeling and marketing can overcome this issue.
A third recent arrival in the sweetener toolbox, allulose, is a natural sugar a stereoisomer of fructose derived from beets, corn, wheat, and other plant sources. It is 70% as sweet as sucrose and has most of the functional attributes of sucrose and fructose. More importantly, it has a clean taste that falls between that of sucrose and fructose (with which it shares most of its chemical structure) and has no off flavors or aftertaste.
Colorants comprise another ingredient category that has experienced a huge shift into the “natural” realm. It is now estimated that more than half of new product launches with colorants are sourcing them as natural.
More ingredient companies are supplying plant-based alternatives to the FD&C colorants. Vegetable and fruit pigments are increasingly available in vivid shades, with fixing and lasting capacities that come close to those of artificial colorants. Bold pigmentations from black carrot, berries, dragonfruit, beetroot, purple yams, spirulina and other algae, turmeric, and other plant sources are increasingly mainstream and conform to not only regulatory interpretations but also the consumer perception of what a natural ingredient should be.
Another way to align with clean and natural labeling is by increasing utilization of novel or emerging technologies that allow for minimal processing to maintain the integrity of ingredients while also upholding nutritive attributes, shelf life, and food safety. An increase in the popularity of cold-pressed juices has spurred the development of processing methods that negate the need for additives and preservatives that may not be easily recognizable to the average consumer.
Embracing innovative processing techniques is more common in beverage spaces, as the beverage industry is known for its “early adapters” who implement new technologies and cater to emerging trends first. An example of this is various companies’ use of High Pressure Processing (HPP) and ultraviolet (UV) light treatments. These are nonthermal antimicrobial processes that can be used to maintain a “natural” halo for juice beverages.
Both processes demonstrate efficacy for microbial lethality, with UV treatment exhibiting an edge for maintaining visual characteristics of cold-pressed juices at retail. Often these juices are organic, or they boast a “raw foods” ingredient list that is limited to a few recognizable elements.
Costs of incorporating plant-based and other natural ingredients are gradually decreasing as technologies and supply chains emerge to accommodate demand for these ingredients. Achieving sustainability benchmarks for clean-label ingredients is becoming easier, too, as the global food industry produces more plant-derived proteins and adopts more responsible agricultural practices and food waste mitigation strategies.
The decades-old evolution of the natural foods movement is not expected to slow down any time soon. As the movement endures, drivers like the globalization of the food supply beget infusions not only of cultural food styles, but also new ways of thinking about what it means to eat and live healthfully, cleanly, and naturally.
Functional foods marketed under the “food as medicine” or “good for you” halo continue to surge in popularity, and the natural and clean-label trends play a big part in that. While in the future, the industry likely will see a formal standardization of what it means to be a “natural” or “clean-label” product, in this information-driven age, the knowledge and expectations of consumers will continue to influence demand.
Food manufacturers, in turn and alongside ingredient makers and suppliers, will need to keep innovating and advancing new techniques and applications to satisfy these emerging market dictates. This will push the creativity of the food market to new levels and engender even more innovation.