In the quest for healthy, tasty products, modern consumers attach increasing importance to the origin of the ingredients used to produce their food. From oils to fats, to seasonings and condiments, they want authentic taste through natural flavour ingredients.
In their annual trend-spotting, research groups Mintel and Datamonitor identified natural and clean label flavours and ingredients, as well as low salt, fast innovation, adventurous and ethnic tastes, stability of quality and mitigation against fluctuations. Mintel further reports that consumer focus is definitely on ‘natural’ nutrition and products incorporating inherently natural, fresh, wholesome, balanced nutrition are increasingly popular in the savoury goods sector.
Leading the way towards natural foods across the Asia Pacific region is China, a country known for its lax food safety standards but is now working to shake off the negative image.
Earlier this year, China conducted a consumer research study in the three major cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. The results showed that more people are now considering buying foods with ‘natural’ or ‘green’ labels and that natural ingredients are more likely to be accepted than chemical or synthesised ingredients.
Close to 85 percent of those surveyed said that they check the ingredient list before buying packaged food. Food with natural ingredients is also perceived to be the safer and healthier choice. Chinese manufacturers, as a result, are taking a closer look at production technology and processing to cater to the local demand for clean labelled products.
In the global marketplace, retailers are key influencers in the clean label movement, judging by the entry of new products. In the past five years, 30 percent of total new products launched had a clean label positioning. In Asia, the number of products launched on a clean label platform increased from 1,235 in 2003 to more than 7,675 in 2010.
The growing mega-trend towards clean label products spans across all food and beverage segments and creates unlimited opportunities for reformulation and new product development.
However, there are implications to the use of natural ingredients depending on the food product and the proposed natural solution—the taste will change and the shelf life could shorten and/or costs might increase. Manufacturers not only have to contend with the expense and time of reformulation and product development, but also increasing prices of functional ingredients, natural colours and flavours.
Additional challenges facing manufacturers and marketers include labelling requirements and market differentiation, technical issues such as shelf-stability and processing and delivering the taste and texture consumers demand.
Defining ‘Clean Labels’
As with many trends in the global food industry, clean label is difficult to define. Consumers, retailers and the industry have different understandings of the term.
Does clean-label mean organic, natural, ingredients, simple ingredient lists or GM-free?
Ultimately, it all comes down to credible ingredients in a food product, so that the consumer understands the logic behind the use of different ingredients in the food.
In Europe, many companies have been able to reduce the e-numbers on the label—the question is how many e-numbers are still acceptable for a specific product?
In the US, the chemical sounding ingredients are under pressure regardless of whether they are natural or not. For certain categories, the number of ingredients is being reduced, whether they are natural or chemical.
The push for clean-label products in Europe is led primarily by manufacturers and brands, rather than major retailers. The clean-label trend in the US is spreading across the market sectors as manufacturers move to counteract negative perceptions of processed foods that include salt, saturated fat and sugar.
In the UK, much of the clean label trend has been driven by major retailers and supermarkets, which have been quick to respond to increased consumer interest in what goes into their food—leading to many brands moving to reformulate their products in order to meet retailer specifications. Even some naturally sourced ingredients with names perceived to be artificial or chemical are being removed from ingredient lists.
Japanese consumers, like their counterparts in the UK, Europe and US, are increasingly concerned with what goes into their foods, prompting manufacturers to find natural alternatives. This, combined with the tradition of seasonality in Japanese culture that has long demanded constant product variation from Western manufacturers, seems likely to drive the desire for clean label further.
Innovative Ingredient Solutions
Across the globe, clean label research has demonstrated that what matters most to consumers are the ingredients. Consumers are seeking products made with simple, wholesome ingredients with minimal processing.
The focus on natural for savoury goods is also becoming increasingly popular and in line with overall trends in the broader food category, where freshness has gained ground as a point of difference as consumers look for more natural products.
The food industry is faced with the challenge to find natural ingredients that can deliver on food quality and integrity without compromising on taste or shelf life.
Under such pressure, food companies are working on the double with ingredient specialists to provide consumers with foods that are safe, tasty, and of top quality, with ingredients lists as ‘clean’ as can be.
Ingredients suppliers are developing solutions such as functional native starches, functional flours, nutritional ingredients and naturally based sweeteners to help manufacturers develop clean label products without dramatically increasing costs.
In response to these clear market trends, Corbion Purac recently launched their Verdad line of label-friendly ingredient solutions to preserve the freshness, integrity and flavour of a wide variety of foods that include bakery products, prepared refrigerated meals, and meat and poultry products.
Based on the natural fermentation processes of sugar cane, the latest addition to the line, the Verdad Powder F80, is permitted to be labelled as ‘fermented sugar’ to meet consumer demand for natural, fresh and authentic-tasting products.
Using the latest fermentation and spray-dying technology, this multi-purpose powder minimises the need for heavy processing (for example, sterilisation) and contains components that enhance savoury notes, such as tomato, spices, and herbs. The powder can easily be applied to a wide range of fresh and ready-to-eat products, such as sauces, salads and breads, and now offers food processors a greater choice of label-friendly ingredients and more flexibility in applications.
Fermentation is an age-old process that imparts multiple benefits to a finished food product, including enhanced flavour, improved texture, and greater microbiological stability. The addition of ferments to food products yields all of these advantages without fermenting the product itself.
On the Horizon
In terms of driving market expansion, retailers continue to refine their private label strategies, with packaging playing an essential role. The latest package designs put the ‘brand’ in store brands, with smart looks that convey differentiated quality. Active packaging technologies, for example, effectively reduce the need for food additives and preservatives without compromising on a product’s shelf life. They also create an opportunity for cleaner product labels.
Manufacturers and retailers will continue to collaborate with ingredient suppliers to help formulate clean label products given the inherent challenges that exist in clean label formulation. When working with the right partner, manufacturers can produce clean label products that match consumer taste and texture expectations at a reasonable cost.
As consumers become increasingly informed about the foods they eat, it will become even more important to them to be able to access the products they want with ingredients they recognise and trust. Manufacturers will need to find innovative solutions to incorporate new ingredients that deliver on consumers’ desire for simplicity and transparency.