As consumer rejection of artificial ingredients becomes more widespread, food and beverage manufacturers are searching for efficient, inexpensive ways to clean up their labels.
But making the switch is easier said than done, especially since manufacturers don’t want to compromise on the taste, appearance and mouthfeel of a brand’s original product.
This challenge is compounded by the fact that many shoppers who demand clean labels don’t have a good understanding of what that entails.
“The majority of American consumers have not heard of ‘clean label’ and do not know what it means. Consumers just want their foods to do no harm,” Kantha Shelke, principal at food science and research firm Corvus Blue LLC, told Food Dive in an email.
Still, Shelke said that that the clean label movement is pushing producers toward ingredients, formulations and front-of-pack label claims that appeal to three consumer expectations: products that are free from food additives and synthetics, ingredients listed with recognizable names and no chemical implications, and products that are minimally processed.
But which synthetic offenders are the first to go, and what are their natural replacements? Brooke Bright, senior data manager at Label Insight, told Food Dive that the answer is largely category dependent, as some ingredients may have more of an artificial stigma in certain applications than others.
But there are some ingredients that are top of mind for consumers across categories, pushing manufacturers to find natural substitutes that will satisfy consumer expectations.
Naturally derived colors are typically the first ingredients to be swapped in when manufacturers revamp their product formulas. Bright said that this is because the term “clean label” is often synonymous with “no artificial colors” in the mind of the consumer.
Shoppers have been wary of synthetic colors since the infamous Southampton Six study in 2007, which linked six widely used dyes to hyperactivity in children. Since the study’s release, experts from around the world have found the research to be unsound, and scientists have conducted research that finds current levels of artificial color consumption to be safe.
Still, fear of artificial colors remains strong. This brings food and beverage companies a low-cost, highly visible opportunity to give their products a health halo.
“As far as replacing ingredients and reformulations go, [artificial colors] are probably the easiest,” Bright told Food Dive. “There’s pretty often [a] relatively comparable natural version that they can use to derive that color.”
Some brands have made the switch to natural colors with virtually zero disruption. In 2015, Kraft replaced Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 in its boxed macaroni and cheese with a combination of paprika, annatto extract and turmeric. Consumers weren’t aware of the change until the company announced it months later.
But finding natural colors that are as stable, inexpensive and widely available as synthetic dyes can be a tall order. Mars has spent years trying to create a replacement for Blue 1 from spirulina, a non-toxic freshwater algae, but has yet to find an extract that delivers taste-free, consistent color. Even if it could create a marketable natural blue, the company would need “twice the current global supply” of the plant just to color its M&Ms.
It’s also challenging to match the vibrant hues to which consumers have grown accustomed. General Mills reformulated its Trix cereal with natural colors in 2016, but recently announced it would bring back its classic neon-colored formula after consumers complained the subdued natural colors were depressing.
Sugar is perhaps the biggest no-no ingredient for consumers today, as evidenced by the success of local soda taxes throughout the country.
Some manufacturers have tried to get around this problem by replacing the word "sugar" with cleaner-sounding labels, such as “evaporated cane juice.”
“Consumers are led into believing products made from evaporated cane juice and agave are healthier and more natural than the original,” Shelke said. “Evaporated cane juice is not cane ‘juice,’ but just another name for sugar.”
But as health-conscious consumers scrutinize product ingredients, their label literacy is improving, putting pressure on food and beverage companies to make a real switch.
Some manufacturers are experimenting with emerging natural solutions like monk fruit as well as more familiar ingredients like honey and agave nectar, but stevia is without a doubt the darling of the natural sweetener family. The plant-based sweetener is 100% natural, easy to source and 30 to 40 times sweeter than sugar. It allows producers to cut down on sugar without hurting product mouthfeel.
As of August of this year, stevia was an ingredient in 27% of new products launched using high-intensity sweeteners, according to Mintel. The top categories for new stevia-based product launches included snacks, carbonated soft drinks, dairy, juice and other beverages.
The ingredient’s only significant flaw is its bitter aftertaste, which food scientists have worked to phase out by isolating and extracting more palatable extracts. Steviol glycosides Reb D and Reb M have been found to have the sweetest profiles, but there aren’t high levels of these in the stevia leaf. Scientists with the PureCircle Stevia Institute and KeyGene have recently sequenced the plant's genome, hoping to learn more about the glycosides and how to best utilize them.
Coca-Cola recently stated at its investor day that it created a stevia-sweetened soft drink that has no sugar or aftertaste. The beverage giant will introduce the soda to a small market outside of the U.S. in 2018, and said it will take a few years before it will have a large enough quantity of the glycoside to reach full commercialization.
Because of food safety concerns, Bright said artificial preservatives are often one of the last major synthetic ingredients to stick around when producers reformulate for a cleaner label.
“You get a product without artificial preservatives — or preservatives of any nature — and you’re losing perhaps shelf life or safety, and that’s something that manufacturers by and large aren’t willing to trade on because it’s so important to consumers,” she said. “Whether it’s 100% top of mind or not, you probably won’t find a consumer that says, ‘I prefer a clean product over a safe product.’ ”
Consumers are wary of preservatives like nitrates, nitrites, sodium benzoate, calcium propionate and potassium sorbate because they are unfamiliar and sound more chemical. Nitrates, which are often naturally occuring and can help preserve meat, are perhaps the most dangerous preservative in consumers' minds because they have previously been linked to increased risk of cancer. Studies have found the substances are sometimes converted by the body into carcinogens that may spur tumor growth. A 2005 study conducted by the University of Hawaii linked consumption of processed meat — which contained 50% more sodium nitrate — to a two-thirds higher risk of pancreatic cancer. More recent studies, however, have been less conclusive.
Many consumers only know the negative connotations of nitrates, not understanding that they protect against potentially deadly bacteria, elongate product shelf life and reduce unnecessary food waste. Nitrates also give processed meats the “cured” flavor and pink color to which consumers are accustomed, and prevent growth of dangerous bacteria. Without them, meat can turn brown quickly. This poses a unique challenge for the industry, where claims like “naturally cured” and “uncured” are seen as a value-add and an indicator of premium quality.
Many meat producers turn to nitrates that occur naturally in fruits and vegetables as replacements for synthetic preservatives. Shelke said that when using ingredients like celery powder, the mixture’s amount of naturally occurring nitrate doesn’t have to be disclosed on product labels the same way that artificial sodium nitrite and nitrate sources do — a bonus for manufacturers. And in more good news for food safety, scientists have found that nitrates from celery juice aren't chemically different from synthetic forms.
Clean label meat is still a niche space, according to Nielsen data, but bigger players are giving the trend momentum. Earlier this year, Tyson removed all added nitrites and nitrates from its Ball Park brand hot dogs, replacing the chemicals with natural alternatives. Ingredients like sage, salt and vinegar are also commonly used as preservatives in processed meats like sausages.
Outside of the meat category, rosemary, citric acid, sugar and other herbal extracts can serve as natural preservatives in products like bread, cookies and dry cereal. Clean label technologies like high pressure processing and aseptic packaging can also help manufacturers extend shelf life, maintain flavor and keep food products safe to eat without using artificial ingredients. These solutions can help manufacturers work around the issue of artificial preservatives without undermining product freshness, or having to develop and reformulate with a combination of natural substitutes.