SPECIAL REPORT: Cleaning Up Product Labels: It’s Time to Level Up

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30 Jan 2017 --- It’s widely regarded that the clean label movement has picked up enough steam to be considered the “rule of thumb” rather than just a trend. As 2017 surges ahead, clean label is maturing into a classification that more and more companies are not just taking notice of, but innovatively pushing ahead with, ensuring they stay ahead of the game. Meanwhile consumers look to the label to scrutinize the precise contents of what they are eating, where it came from, how it got there and if anyone or anything got harmed, marginalized and so on, along the way. These things matter more and more. 

It’s not just about reducing certain ingredients like sugar, fat and salt - although this is still high on the agenda - it’s about the environment, the workforce and methodology involved in sourcing the product and the all-important sustainability, clean and clear credentials that presents.

The demand for total transparency increases marketing efforts incorporating the entire supply chain into a product's branding. The upstream part of the value chain is gaining more attention in product and brand positioning, as the overarching clean label positioning becomes more holistic. More products carry claims referring to agricultural practices, while calls for transparency have led to strong regional marketing; through the use of origin flags and illustrations.

There is still no overall official definition for a clean label product and it seems the industry is shaping its own definitions along the way  - and of course just because something is marketed as “natural”, “green”, “eco-friendly” or whatever else, doesn’t mean it’s good for you, or that no one and nothing suffers. Similarly, a synthetic/artificial ingredient should not be deemed unhealthy or unsafe by default.

“People increasingly want to learn more about the foods and beverages they consume: not just how they contribute to a healthy lifestyle, but also how food is made and the environmental and social commitments we’ve made to the communities in which we operate,” a Nestle spokesperson tells FoodIngredientsFirst.

Innova Market Insights tipped “Clean Supreme” as the top trend to watch out for in 2017. Government legislation, pressure on manufacturers to reformulate, and the food industry at large coming under much closer scrutiny, are all factors pushing the need to take the notion of clean and clear to a whole new level. 

Lu Ann Williams, director of innovation at Innova Market Insights says: “It’s not really a trend anymore, it’s the new rules of the game.”

“Now we are seeing it (clean & clear) spreading even further back in the supply chain. In terms of the claims we see, no added preservatives is still the most tracked claim, but it’s not a differentiator anymore, it’s more of a fact.”

“Natural is really the ultimate aim but we know there are a lot of issues with this, it lack a clear definition but in some countries there is a definition, and that’s not a label claim that is easy to use.”

FoodIngredientsFirst spoke with pioneers of clean and clear label product, US-based ingredient giants, Ingredion, about today’s key drivers in the segment. 

“Health-conscious US consumers and millennials often have increased interest in foods and ingredients that they perceive as clean label. This interest then increases as they become parents. Additionally, influential bloggers have emerged and are raising awareness on food ingredients,” says Sharon Chittkusol, associate marketing manager, Wholesome Ingredients. Ingredion Incorporated.

“Consumers are showing their desire for clean label products by giving more of their wallet shares to products where natural or clean and simple is an integral part of the promise. Some big mainstream brands, in particular, have seen the decline in sales of products perceived as being “unclean.”

“According to our proprietary consumer research study conducted in 2016, 26% of consumers claim to always check the ingredient labels while more than 80% claim they are more likely to buy a product if they recognized all the listed ingredients. The consumers in the study showed that they want ingredients they perceive as natural and less processed. They believed that natural ingredients are better for their health, the environment and taste better.”

Ingredion is continuously bringing solutions to the marketplace in the clean label space - and has been for many years now.

Its recently launched NOVATION PRIMA 340 and 350 functional clean label starches – for extended cold shelf life stability in clean label refrigerated, frozen and instant foods  – is one such example.

“Manufacturers can now deliver the same shelf life stability and functionality as traditional modified starches or other stabilizers with NOVATION PRIMA 340 and 350 functional native starches, but with a simple, consumer-friendly starch label. In addition to high freeze/thaw stability, the starches offer high stability to heat, acid, and shear during processing, a clean flavor profile and smooth textures,” says Angelina De Castro, senior marketing manager, Wholesome Ingredients. Ingredion Inc.

And in December 2016, Ingredion entered into an agreement with SweeGen, Inc., a company dedicated to the development and manufacture of stevia-based sweeteners, to be SweeGen’s exclusive global distributor of the company's novel, nature-based stevia sweeteners in all markets except China.  

“SweeGen’s zero-calorie sweeteners, made using pure stevia leaf extract and a novel, proprietary process, have an unparalleled clean, sugar-like taste and are suitable for use in a variety of foods and beverages. Ingredion will distribute these sweeteners initially in the United States and subsequently in other countries as additional regulatory approvals are granted,” adds De Castro. 

“We are also expanding non-GMO project verification to additional sweeteners, texturizers, and nutrition solutions, which adds another layer of trust to Ingredion’s long non-GMO track record and broad portfolio of ingredients,” she says talking about further developments for 2017. 

Regional differences

The dominating themes of clean and clear are leading to a reduction in the use of ingredients with a negative perception surrounding them. Perception often depends on location. For instance palm oil is considered a big ‘no-no’ in Italy and France, while fat, sugar and salt reduction are on the radar across the board with most developed countries around the world citing obesity, cardiovascular diseases and dental issues as the underlying public health concerns, especially for kids. 

It’s interesting to consider how the clean label category will expand in the coming years. Is a saturation point looming? And how will industry strengthen the bonds of trust between product, label and consumer?

“In an effort to gain more consumer trust, many major food and beverage companies have committed to removing artificial ingredients and are becoming more transparent by publishing their No No Lists. Others have incorporated sustainable sourcing practices as well as humane treatment of animals and the absence of harmful ingredients into their sustainability strategy and brand promise,” adds Chittkusol.

“However, reformulations can take time especially as consumers expect to have the same end product and pricing as the original.”

by Gaynor Selby 

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