I recently read an interesting paper publicised by Ingredion Incorporated, an ingredient provider that turns food basics into ingredients for the food and pharmaceutical industries. The article discussed the importance of designing ingredients that look “clean” on product labels. For those with a conspiracy bent, yes they have tenuous links to Monsanto and their former name was Corn Products International, Inc – but that’s for another blog.

The paper itself is a promotion piece on how good Ingredion is at doing what they do, but it did give an insight into how these conglomerates think and operate.  The origin article was published by Food Navigator USA and can be read here .

We all know that key to a healthy way of eating is in the label reading that you do as part of the weekly shop.  Reading food labels makes it much easier to compare foods and their constituents, in order to make healthy food choices. It is a requirement that producers list the ingredients of their products so that you, as a consumer, can tell exactly what is inside the package.

The new trend, that of  the “clean label”, is beginning to drive the food industry to communicate more clearly whether certain ingredients or additives are present, or if the food has been produced using a more “natural” production method . While there is no official definition for the term, “clean label”  it is in people’s minds, closely associated with nature, simplicity, and transparency along with “ingredients I can pronounce,” and “minimal and familiar ingredients”.

Within the food industry, small brands are credited with starting this clean revolution and it has begun to spread to every aspect of food production and purchasing. Research shows that 82% of ingredient-conscious consumers believe that clean labels are important and more than 60% of people will pay a premium for products with simple labels. This alone is an incentive for manufactures to produce more healthy sounding fare.

However the food industry is not simply focused on producing healthy products. They are more interested in “projecting a healthy image”, and are determined to formulate their products from ingredients that are preferred by the public, and is so doing beat the products of their competitors. The drive to create cleaner food labels is compelled by the drive to increase their profits.

As cleaner food has become more mainstream the expectations of consumers continue to evolve with the belief that food should be inherently nutritious and that this will be reflected in what is specified on the product labels. According to research there are currently three defined areas that consumers consider clean food to fall into, with ingredients foremost. Of those who scrutinise the label, 75% take the time to evaluate them, with 40% of consumers’ perceptions being influenced by specific ingredients.  Second is the nutritional value of the product – important for around 66% – and affecting 40% of consumer perceptions, with sustainability the third leg of the trifecta.

The clean label movement became a wake-up call to the food industry to re-examine ingredients, formulations, and processing as consumers were showing an increased awareness of their food and what was in it. A decade ago, food labels frequently listed ingredients that were artificial or unfamiliar to consumers. These days’ companies are developing products to replace those components with familiar household ingredients, in the hope that consumers will relate more positively with their branding. But does it mean that these foodstuffs are any healthier or is it all just smoke and mirrors?

Being aware of consumer’s preferences for cleaner food has shaped new product lines in a positive way, with the move toward clean labelling happening rapidly in certain regions and segments, such as the United Kingdom and ready-to-eat type meals.  The problem for manufacturers is that with many of these products now containing very similar base ingredients, they do not stand out from the pack and there is a need to create brands more appealing than those marketed by their competitors. It doesn’t necessarily mean that these will be foodstuffs of a more healthy nature!

From a clean label perspective, removing polysyllabic (long) chemical names from ingredient lists, such as in this Twinkies example, was an obvious first step. The more difficult proposition is in deciding whether consumers will prefer corn starch, potato starch or rice flour in their food, in order to keep their custom.

Formerly, many products featured modified starches and gums but these fail to support the preferred ingredient list that consumers’ value. Companies replaced their (chemically) modified starches with native starches (obtained by a physical process) which resulted in cleaner labels. This still does not fully address what the consumer wants however.

Studies show that around two-thirds of people would rather see “flour” on a product label than “starch.” This reflects the widespread belief that flour is “natural” and “healthy” with many consumers having a bag of flour in their cupboard as opposed to anything labelled as starch. Furthermore, 75% of people see rice flour as being natural, healthy and filling making it slightly more popular than wheat flour. The problem, solved Ingredion, was in designing a flour ingredient that will act in the product equally as well as the former starch ingredient, with that ingredient having a name that resonates with the purchaser written on the label. Vis-a-vis the “wholemeal bread verse simple white bread with wheat husk added” issue in Breaking Bread: The things you didn’t know about supermarket bread.

Ingredion are quite proud of the fact that consumer perceptions shape their R&D. ​This was the validation behind changing from their production of modified starches to native starches twenty years ago. Today, Ingredion has discovered a way to functionalize a variety of flour types that have the characteristics of modified starches. At the same time, the name “flour” meets consumer perceptions of a healthy and natural product. Sounds good but what exactly are natural products in the food industry?

Unfortunately the FDA does not have an official definition for “Natural Foods” which gives manufactures considerable leeway in what can be termed natural. The FDA’s official position on this is that natural food “does not contain added colour, artificial flavours, or synthetic/artificial substances” and has not had material added to it that would not normally be expected to be in that food. This does not explicitly address food processing or manufacturing methods though. Additionally a food product labelled as such could still contain hormones, GMOs or gluten, and can also be high in calories, fats, sodium, or sugar. In other words a natural product does not need to be healthy.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) does have a rather vague definition for natural ingredients, but again does not address food processing or manufacturing methods. Critics claim that this leaves too much room for interpretation and misinterpretation by producers. Ironically this lack of a clear definition for what makes a product “natural” has caused manufacturers to be nervous about the use of the word.

The question still remains though, are changes to food, and consequently their labels, made for the good of consumers or to improve the marketability of foodstuffs to give the perception that we are eating healthy food. What changes are in fact made during the processing stage to these base ingredients and how close are they really to their original natural state?