Natural appeal: How cleaner formulations are shaping the NPD agenda

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Today’s consumer wants to know exactly what’s in the food and beverages they are buying. They want to see fewer food ingredients on the label. What’s there should be naturally derived, renewable, and produced in a sustainable way.

This all means that manufacturers are under increasing pressure to ensure that the ingredients they use in their products can be easily recognized and understood, and that the processes involved in creating them are as simple as possible. It’s all about minimizing the length of ingredient lists and avoiding additives with chemically sounding, hard to pronounce names. Often it is a matter of going back to the kitchen cupboard and reverting to ingredients that consumers understand and love.

“Consumers want shorter ingredient lists and more recognizable ingredients. They want products that are minimally processed, more natural, and cleaner,” says Trevor Nichols, Food Application Scientist at Brenntag Food & Nutrition North America. “Artificial preservatives are definitely being pushed out and there is a trend towards using naturally sourced alternatives. It is about finding functional ingredients that can fulfill that clean label identity, and be accepted by the consumer,” he adds.

This market background is leading to strong new product development in the clean label space. Innova Market Insights global data shows a steady +5.7% CAGR in new products featuring clean label positionings (no additives/preservatives, natural, organic, non-GMO), from 2014 to 2019. Growth was particularly strong from 2018 to 2019: +8%.

Trending clean label solutions

Ingredients that support the clean label concept are those with no artificial components, freshness, reliable origin, or those that are minimally processed (e.g. functional native stabilizers vs. modified stabilizers).

They include naturally derived preservatives to replace ingredients such as sodium benzoate or potassium sorbate. For example, cultured dextrin and niacin can be used for the natural preservation of foods, vinegar-based solutions offer antimicrobial properties, while rosemary and chamomile extracts can help protect against oxidation, and maintain quality.

Other clean label ingredients include plant-based naturally sourced colors and coloring foods that serve as alternatives to artificial color additives (e.g. Red 40) or non-vegan options (the insect-based coloring carmine).

Enzymescan generally also be considered as clean label, since they can often avoid labeling requirements when functioning as processing aids with emulsifier replacement potential.

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A wealth of applications

The clean label trend is no longer limited to specific applications either, with reformulation and new product development happening across the board.

Marly Sumayong, Senior Food Application Scientist at Brenntag Food & Nutrition (F&N) in North America, notes that while natural options have been important in dairy applications for 8-10 years, and in baby food for decades, it is now becoming prevalent across the food & beverage landscape too. “Lately, we have seen that the trend is going into other applications such as beverage, bakery, confectionery, prepared foods and snacks. In the past, people would still ask whether you wanted a natural or artificial color or flavor. Now naturalness is almost expected in new product requests,” she adds.

For Terry Wagner, Senior Product Development Scientist and Lab Manager at Brenntag F&N in North America, the higher margin beverage space is a particularly prolific front for clean label application work right now, with naturally derived colors thriving in holistic healthier product concepts. “We see a lot of work happening in beverages that meet the reduced and no sugar trend. There has definitely been a move towards incorporating clean label ingredients, through the use of naturally sourced colors, more label-friendly hydrocolloids, naturally derived preservatives, and more,” he notes.

The meat alternative market is another fertile ground for clean label application work. Until now, many of these products contained additives that arguably went against the clean ethos of their target consumer. Now there has been a strong push to reformulate these vegan meat alternatives, such as sausages, peperoni and burgers, through the use of texturized vegetable proteins like pea, soy, fava bean, and rice protein.

Up to the challenge?

But when opting for a full clean label reformulation, there are many technical challenges to take into consideration. These involve the question of how to maintain the same sensorial attributes of the original product, in terms of taste, texture, and shelf-life. At the same time, the solution will typically need to be application specific, with the process adjusted to maintain natural ingredient stability.

Marly highlights some of the challenges involved in shifting from artificial to naturally sourced colors, where pH and water activity must be considered, in addition to the shade of color you are looking for. “When working with artificial colors you can use one color in many different applications, but when it comes to natural colors you have to be application specific. This is because pH can impact color functionality by shifting color shade or causing precipitation,” she explains.

“Fortification with vitamins & minerals can interact with some pigments and cause color shifting or destabilize color emulsions. Other ingredients like flavors & essential oils may degrade color over time. Light exposure in a clear packaging type can impact some natural color shelf-life too,” she notes.

Innovative ingredient development & applications work is required to help achieve the optimum ingredient functionality, even in the most challenging clean label applications. Expectations must be managed at all times, however, because food safety can never be compromised.

But despite the application challenges, the rewards far outweigh the risks, since clean label is a good selling point for the customer. “In the past, cleaner label was nice to have, but now it is a must have for most brands. It is a transition from where natural is the premium and newer ingredient, to now being the effective mainstream,” Trevor notes.

Strawberry marmalade

An ingredient innovation boom

Clean label application development work is booming at Brenntag Food & Nutrition, as the company’s distribution portfolio expands.

Recent additions in North America include Chr.Hansen’s new extension of their FruitMax® line, Hansen Sweet Potato™, a natural vegan replacement for carmine. The color from carmine is non-artificial but the ingredient has gained a less favorable image as it is insect-based. Replacing it is a challenge, however.

“Carmine is a very important natural red color because of its vibrant hue, heat, pH and light stability. But the rise of the vegan movement means that having a vegan bright red alternative to carmine is crucial,” notes Marly. Chr. Hansen’s new solution closes this clean label gap and is even suitable to demanding high pH bakery applications.

Pectin is another ingredient that holds both a clean label and plant-based advantage, with applications expanding far beyond the fruit preps and yogurt space. For example, the North America Brenntag Food & Nutrition team is partnering with strategic pectin supplier Silvateam on replacing animal-based gelatin with specific solutions in gummies. “Switching away from animal-based gelatin is a technical challenge, as gelatin chews differently than other ingredients. But we are working on some new options that close that gap and deliver a vegetarian, clean label product that is similar to gelatin-based gummies,” says Terry.

A fertile ground for application innovation

A further area of development within his application center relates to high fructose corn syrup replacement in bar applications. The application center Terry is working in is using oligofructose, a liquid version of the prebiotic FOS (fructooligosaccharides), to achieve a viscosity that is very similar to corn syrup in a one to one replacement. “We are using oligofructose in various applications, including as a sweet binder in a vegan granola bar. Here it is about more than just replacing high fructose corn syrup; you are replacing it with something that brings a beneficial claim to your product,” he notes.

Clean label demand is being boosted by growing consumer calls for simpler, healthier products. When strategically using ingredients that have an additional halo such as plant-based or digestive health, there are numerous opportunities to create future on trend healthy foods, just waiting to be explored.