Tackling food waste: Ingredients are often the unsung hero, claims IFAC chief
16 Mar 2018 --- Food waste has been an industry concern for some time and there are a multitude of ingredients available that manufacturers can use to both extend shelf-life and fulfill consumer expectations for quality, safety and experience. The European Commission (EC) recently released a study investigating the relationship between date marking on food labels and food waste and according to the International Food Additives Council chief, Robert Rankin, ingredients are often the unsung hero.
The overall objective of the EC study was to help inform the European Union (EU) of actions it can take to help mitigate food waste, which is substantial in the EU and globally. Researchers found that up to 10 percent of the 88 million tons of food waste generated by the EU annually is linked to date marking, presumably due to widespread confusion around how to interpret dates on food labels. Of avoidable food waste based on date labels, the study found that the top products wasted were yogurt (70 percent), eggs (59 percent), cooking sauces (59 percent) and cakes & desserts (28 percent).
Date marking practices were originally introduced by supermarkets to help ensure the freshness of foods and optimize stock control. Today, the intended audience has shifted to consumers, and, in accordance with European regulations, most packaged foods in the EU display a date and accompanying language to indicate whether the date represents a safety threshold (“use by”) or the point after which quality would likely be diminished (“best before”). However, there is flexibility in how a “best before” date is indicated depending on the length of the product’s shelf-life.
The study notes that: “Any reform of date marks and the extension of product life will have benefits in food waste reduction within the supply chain, but these are likely to be modest compared with the benefits at the consumer end, particularly with respect to food products where the public have been shown to be more attentive to date marks.” While food waste can occur at various points throughout the product lifecycle, changes to date marking practices or products with extended shelf-lives will most likely reduce food waste occurring at the consumer level.
The connection between online shopping and date marking addressed by the study was both unexpected and extremely important considering the exponential growth of e-commerce over recent years. The study notes for instance “in the UK, online grocery sales reached £11.1 billion in 2017 (around 10 percent of total grocery sales) and are projected to grow at around 11 percent per annum to £16.7 billion over the next five years.”
This ever-expanding online platform adds a new dynamic to date labeling and guidance; it is likely that online product information will become more important for consumers as online services grow not only in Europe but the US and other markets.
Speaking to FoodIngredientsFirst, Robert Rankin, Executive Director and Chief of the International Food Additives Council (IFAC) said: “Food waste is a result of various issues, including a lack of alignment between countries on food labeling standards and a lack of consumer understanding what various label statements mean. Since IFAC represents manufacturers of food ingredients located around the world, we have a platform to educate consumers about the products they see on grocery store shelves, whether it be how to read a label or what important technical function an ingredient serves.”
“The other task at hand is the global harmonization of food standards. IFAC actively participates in the Codex Alimentarius and strongly supports global harmonization of science-based food ingredient standards and specifications to facilitate a safe and sustainable food supply,” he notes. “As we speak, food waste continues to be a global problem, and at the same time, food insecurity remains critical within the rapidly growing global population. What we as the food industry have access to now, more than ever before, is safety data, technology and innovation in the food industry, which can be leveraged to enhance policies and food products that address issues like food waste and availability.”
So what are the main advantages of ingredients and packaging in countering food waste? “Both are important,” claims Rankin. “While the packaging is a more obvious means to protect and preserve food, ingredients are often the unsung hero. Take a bag of shredded cheese, with so much surface area for mold to grow; this product is particularly prone to spoilage regardless of packaging. However, an ingredient like natamycin extends the shelf-life of fresh cheese to as long as 38 days.”
“Many consumers don’t even realize that their favorites like goat cheese, crumbled feta and shredded mozzarella rely on this ingredient to ensure it stays safe from the point of production to their kitchen and doesn’t need to be thrown away a couple of days after they purchase it,” he explains.
The link between “clean label” and being sustainable regarding countering food waste is complex, and there are arguments on both sides, according to Rankin. While a lack of preservatives means shorter ingredient lists, it also results in shorter shelf-lives and increased likelihood of food waste. “Since consumers following the clean label trend are paying more attention to ingredient lists and packaging, perhaps we will begin to see consumers taking more careful steps to consider date marks when grocery shopping and maximizing use of foods in their kitchen.”
Although preservatives have undergone significant backlash, this trend also provides an opportunity as much as it does a challenge to food manufacturers. When you take a step back, you can see the clean label trend is a public cry for more accessible labels – ingredient lists consumers understand and recognize. This is a challenge for food scientists using innovative ingredients and technologies, safe as they are that sound overtly scientific. IFAC believes that instead of saying “yes…but” we should be saying “yes…and” to consumers. Reformulating to keep up with this consumer trend is just as important as educating consumers that clean label ingredients and ingredients used as preservatives can be two sides of the same coin.
“For example, a clean label meat stabilizer solution developed by one of our members is completely natural and helps to ensure that meat products are moist and tender. While ‘clean label’ consumers expect final products with ingredient lists that are as simple and short as possible, taste remains a top deciding factor for consumers,” Rankin notes.
“IFAC tries to educate consumers about the important technical purposes that ingredients serve to ensure not only taste and safety, but also stability, texture and other attributes consumers expect. We explain that there is no actual definition for a ‘clean label’ and that ‘clean labels’ and preservatives are not necessarily mutually exclusive, as our members can attest.”
IFAC believes in continuous improvement and innovation, which is a paradigm expected to remain in the next five to ten years. “I think we can expect more technologies to be developed that extend shelf-life and help prevent waste, while at the same time continuing to meet consumer and manufacturer needs,” says Rankin.
Recently, there has been a big push towards transparency in all areas – whether it be government, consumer goods or the food industry – and Rankin doesn’t think this demand will decrease. “We’re already seeing ingredient manufacturers developing solutions that address the shifting priorities of consumers, who now more than ever care about the healthfulness and environmental impact of their food choices,” he adds.
“For example, the goal of one of our members, Apeel Sciences, was to create an edible, water-based formula that could be produced from any wasted plant matter. They have since achieved this goal, and produce an ultra-thin surface coating for fresh fruits and vegetables that act as a natural barrier for more delicate crops prone to external stressors and short lifespans.”
“The Kerry Group is another one of our members and they developed a cultured celery product that ensures fresh taste over the shelf-life of meat products, and another formulation that contains organic acids and peptides that maintain fresh taste of dairy, soups, and sauces. Regarding preserving bakery products – which the EC study pointed out sees large rates of food waste – this member has developed a naturally-derived fermented ingredient consisting of a blend of organic acids that inhibits mold growth in the way calcium propionate is used in bakery applications,” explains Rankin.
IFAC says it is excited to continue partnering with industry and scientific experts and serve as a resource for companies, organizations, regulatory agencies and standard-setting bodies looking to tackle consumer trends and global issues such as food waste.