Free-From Foods Are Full Of Potential
Monday, February 18th, 2019
Clean-label ingredients give manufacturers the functionality they need to bring innovative dreams to market. Consumer communication is also vital to securing a successful future. By Xue Si-Ying, Innovation Group Manager, ASEAN, DuPont Nutrition & Health.
Savvy consumers rely on food packaging more and more to inform their purchasing decisions. What consumers look for is not only what food and beverages are made of, but, increasingly, what they do not contain—depending on their preference for foods they see as healthier, more natural or better for the environment. In the Asia Pacific region, the growing number of free-from claims on product labels shows that food manufacturers both have noted the trend and are acting on it.
That’s highly understandable. There is no doubt the free-from trend is bursting with opportunities for manufacturers to make their brands stand out and capture market share. But the process of developing new products can be fraught with challenge. One thing is the lack of definition about what ‘free-from’ actually means – as it all depends on individual consumer perceptions. Another is the difficulties involved in eliminating an ingredient from a recipe—because how do you replace it without compromising sensory quality, shelf life and processing efficiency?
ASEAN: The Free-From Leader
We’ll come back to that later. First let’s dip into the market statistics that portray the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as a free-from leader as far back as 2014. According to Innova Market Insights, ASEAN had a higher share of no additives/preservatives claims on new product launches than China, Western Europe and the USA. In fact, in 2015 more than a fifth of all product launches—21.6 percent—in ASEAN carried a no additives/preservatives claim. China, for example, trailed behind with just 6.3 percent (Innova Market Insights).
When Health Focus International conducted a 2014 survey in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand, a majority of consumers expressed that it was important to them to recognise the ingredients on product labels.
And so the trend has continued. In the five years up to October 2017, the Mintel Global New Products Database reported that free-from claims grew more than any other claim on new food and drink launches in Asia Pacific—primarily driven by the hot beverage and dairy categories. Growth in ethical/environmental claims took second place.
A Deep-Rooted Trend
Free-from claims have grown hand-in-hand with the move towards cleaner, more transparent food labels – and the trend is not as new as you might think. A quick look at the history of food labelling shows that concerns about transparency stretch back a long way in time.
In Thailand, for example, the first labels on imported tinned foods were introduced to protect consumer safety more than a century ago, when most of the population still relied on subsistence agriculture. In the early 1940s, national legislation made colorants the first ingredients to be declared on product labels. Thailand was also an early adopter of the international labelling standards that began to appear in the mid-1960s.
Today, ASEAN makes a proactive effort to raise and harmonise standards of food safety and food labelling practices across its member countries.
In other words, the clean-label movement that feeds the free-from trend has deep roots and is very much here to stay. That brings us back to the definition. What are we actually discussing?
Fuel For Innovation
These days, producing free-from foods is not just about removing additives and preservatives with a chemical-sounding name. The term also refers to foods free of allergens, genetically modified components or raw materials obtained from animals, or to foods that are low in sugar, salt or calories, for example. The demand for clean labels in general is fueled by increased consumer awareness of health and a sense of responsibility towards issues such as climate change and the growing global population.
For food and beverage manufacturers, the trend holds tremendous opportunities for innovation – by developing new food products that make the best possible use of natural raw materials, reduce food waste and environmental impact and provide health benefits for consumers. Tailored combinations of functional and nutritional ingredients are the way to achieve these goals and, at the same time, ensure the sensory quality of the final products continues to satisfy consumer expectations.
Recognised Clean-Label Ingredients
Many food products already obtain important taste and texture attributes from existing ingredients that consumers widely accept as clean label. These include texturising and stabilising ingredients such as pectin and carrageenan.
Pectin extracted from citrus peels left over from juice production is a great example of sustainability. Once the pectin is taken out, the remaining peel is used for animal feed – reducing waste to a minimum. Pectin is widely used to deliver a smooth and stable texture in applications such as sugar and fat-reduced yogurt or dairy-free drinks. Carrageenan derived from seaweed has the capability to replace starch and gelatin in dairy products and plant-based alternatives with no compromise in texture and creaminess. And, for those sugar-free products that have previously relied in artificial sweeteners, natural xylitol from wood pulp can fill the sweetness gap.
Going Lactose-Free And Gluten-Free
These are all well-established ingredients which, if produced in the right way, have a low carbon footprint. However, in other areas, the free-from trend has called on the ingredient industry to find new solutions from scratch. Since lactose-free and gluten-free have become global mainstream trends, for instance, the ingredient industry worked hard to develop new ingredient solutions that work on all markets.
In dairy production, lactose can be removed from milk relatively simply using a natural lactase enzyme. The challenge here is to control sweetness levels when the enzyme cleaves lactose into its sugar components, galactose and glucose. This gives food manufacturers a choice: either they embrace the higher sweetness as an opportunity to replace added sugar in their dairy recipe or they can use a special filtration process to reduce the lactose level in milk before lactase is added. If they choose the latter, then it is possible to produce plain lactose-free milk with a similar taste to regular milk.
Although gluten-free bakery is not yet widespread in the Asia Pacific region, there are signs that it is gaining traction. Until recently, gluten was difficult to replace in bread without accepting a significant compromise in overall eating quality. For this reason, early gluten-free solutions often relied on sugar and fat to make up the shortfall. Today, the situation has changed. Solutions with protein and fibre are paving the way to healthier gluten-free bread with a softness, structure and look more similar to regular bread. The source of some of the fibre is the hydrocolloid blend that replaces gluten functionality.
Clean Eating With Less Dairy And Meat
In markets around the world, plant-based foods are rising in popularity as clean-eating options. For many consumers, the choice of a flexitarian, vegetarian or vegan diet is tied up with a desire to eat more sustainably. By reducing their consumption of dairy and meat products, or avoiding them completely, such consumers aim to support the planet and their health.
Soy and pea protein and a broad range of plant-based texturisers and stabilisers are trailblazing innovation in this area. As a result, a wave of new dairy-free beverages and desserts and convincing alternatives to meat are currently making a successful impression on the clean-label market. Lifecycle assessments show that the vegetable proteins they contain have a carbon footprint many times lower than that of protein from meat and milk.
Clean Label And Safe
When it comes to taste, texture and stability in storage, there exists a well-developed portfolio of clean-label ingredients that can solve most food and beverage challenge. The only remaining reservation consumers may have concerns food safety. For how do you keep microbial spoilage at bay in products that are free from preservatives? The answer to that lies with plant-based protective cultures. Based on 35-year-old technology, their ability to inhibit mould, yeasts and specific pathogenic bacteria has stood the test of time.
Future Innovation Must Inform
Current forecasts show no sign of a let-up in the free-from trend in Asia Pacific. But there is, as always, still a need for manufacturers to remain vigilant and agile in their response to changing consumer needs. Comprehensive communication is also key to educating consumers about new ingredients and avoiding misconceptions.
It is important to remember that another factor that has spurred the clean-label trend is consumer mistrust and confusion, caused by what consumers see as the food industry’s unwillingness to explain the purpose of additives with unfamiliar names. When manufacturers respond to concerns by simply removing an ingredient rather than communicating its benefits, then the idea that the food industry has a hidden agenda only becomes stronger in consumer minds.
This is the challenge that all of us in the food industry need to tackle moving forward. Consumers demand a constant flow of new and exciting brands to choose from on store shelves. But, as the free-from trend shows, they also expect transparency and sustainability. The future of clean label rests on the industry’s ability to deliver and inform.
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