Americans want it all. They want food that tastes great, is healthy, can be eaten anywhere, satisfies their hunger and isn’t made with questionable ingredients.
And that, according to Roger Clemens, is a huge challenge for food and beverage manufacturers. Clemens is the associate director of the University of Southern California School of Pharmacy’s regulatory sciences program. He’s worked for more than four decades with the food and beverage sector and spent time with people in less affluent countries, finding U.S. consumers to be some of the most difficult to work with.
“The U.S. population is an elitist population,” he told Food Dive. “… The U.S. population wants it both ways. They want something they can understand, they want cheap, they want nutritious, they want beneficial, they want safe. They want everything. It’s interesting they are willing to accept technology in all areas of their lives except food. To me, that’s kind of an oxymoron.”
As food technology has advanced, Americans’ desire for a more perfect meal — and regulators’ desire for more nutrition to be added to many processed foods — has led to the development of many preservatives, colorings, flavorings and chemicals to make the food supply delicious, inexpensive, well-preserved and fun.
"The U.S. population wants it both ways. They want something they can understand, they want cheap, they want nutritious, they want beneficial, they want safe. They want everything. It’s interesting they are willing to accept technology in all areas of their lives except food. To me, that’s kind of an oxymoron.”
Associate director, USC School of Pharmacy regulatory sciences program
As the transparency movement has marched forward, Americans’ enhanced scrutiny of what’s in their food has caused those additives to raise eyebrows, spark questions and inspire consumers to find other things to eat and drink. While items on the ingredients label may not be harmful — and in some cases may be completely natural — consumers are starting to see chemical-sounding items as red flags.
“Companies are more reticent to include things like dough conditioners,” Jeni Rogers, an attorney at Holland & Hart LLP who specializes in food regulations, told Food Dive. Many of Rogers’ clients are small startups in the organic and natural foods space. “By regulation, when you have a dough conditioner in your ingredients list, it will specify 'dough conditioner' — and have some kind of chemical name that doesn’t project the kind of image that companies that are really going for a clean label usually would want on the package.”
It doesn’t matter that some of these products have functional purposes, like emulsifiers that help to more easily and successfully produce large quantities of a product. Or something simple like added vitamin C being listed on an ingredients label as “ascorbic acid.” If consumers don’t understand it, they may not buy it — and that can spell disaster for a food company’s bottom line.
The journey to having a clean label on food products is long and risky, according to experts. Figuring out how to get a food product that satisfies consumers’ desires for something healthy, tasty and with ingredients that don’t read like the index of a chemistry textbook is not easy for anyone involved — but it is a challenge manufacturers must rise to for today’s consumer.
“It seems like we’re constantly redeveloping and updating our foods across all of our brands,” Jonathan Davis told Food Dive. He is the senior vice president for research and development at LaBrea Bakery and Otis Spunkmeyer, and deals with unique challenges for different segments of the bakery sector. “It seems like a nonstop process.”
What is a clean label formulation, anyway?
While most will agree clean labels are revolutionizing the food industry, not everyone agrees on the exact definition of a clean label. One manufacturer’s clean label is another’s product list that needs a lot of work.
“A lot of times, people feel like clean label and healthy might be interchangeable,” Justin Prochnow, an attorney with Greenberg Traurig LLP, told Food Dive. Prochnow's expertise is in food regulations and he does a lot of work with beverages and energy drinks. “But they don't always mean the same things.”
Part of the clean label push at La Brea Bakery was making all of its products non-GMO certified. The artisan bread producer made the commitment last year. For the niche served by La Brea, having a non-GMO product is more of an entry-level qualification, Davis said.
For the Otis Spunkmeyer cookies and cakes, however, the clean label transition has been a bit more involved. The sweets bakery has a “no funky stuff” initiative, under which ingredients like artificial colors and flavors, as well as chemical sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup, are replaced with other ingredients. The sweets bakery, which offers a diverse array of goods, including CPG products for retailers and easily prepared items for foodservice and fundraisers, said the variety of its offerings makes reformulation a long and seemingly never-ending task. The bakery started by reformulating its cookies, then went back and started working on other products.
“It’s all about simplification of ingredient declarations, that's where it really comes from: trying to simplify these formulas while maintaining the sensory. ...It seems like once you have finished a reformulation, you’re back at it for some other reason.”
Senior vice president for research and development, LaBrea Bakery and Otis Spunkmeyer
“It’s all about simplification of ingredient declarations, that's where it really comes from: trying to simplify these formulas while maintaining the sensory,” Davis said. “...It seems like once you have finished a reformulation, you’re back at it for some other reason.”
Since Rogers’ primary work is with smaller startup clients, many of whom started making their natural and organic products in their own kitchens and then scaled up, one of the bigger issues she sees in reformulation occurs as production ramps up. Ingredients like emulsifiers and conditioners are sometimes added to the initial kitchen cupboard ingredients to enhance large-scale production or increase shelf stability and freshness. Some companies institute training programs to try to teach those making their products how to do it without chemicals — with mixed success.
“Sometimes, it’ll work to be able to do a training program and other times the loss is just too high and you need to think about a different formulation,” she said. “That’s when you go into one of these — either a natural product or a product that might not be your first choice. Something else that companies can look at, too, is there are processing aids that are out there that can be completely removed from a product and then don’t go into your label in the first place. But if it makes one of your ingredients much easier to work with, that can be a really good place to try and make things work."
A consumer conundrum
As consumers spend more time reading labels, they are learning more about what they are putting into their bodies. But, Clemens said, that knowledge and education are woefully incomplete. He knows many people — even those in the science community — who get their information about food from “Dr. Google” instead of more reliable, credible sources.
“I’ve advocated to many of my clients that education is paramount, that effective communication is paramount,” he said “But the difficulty becomes one that the general consumer will accept mantra of non-credentialed individuals moreso than credentialed individuals. … What do they trust? Unfortunately, everybody’s going to be suspicious about anybody and everybody. Even the International Food Information Council, which is a really wonderful group of people, they try so hard to provide clear, concise, evidence-based information. However, the suspicious mind of many consumers, more or less suborned by the food industry, say, ‘How can we trust them?’ … They go to the Food Babes of the world, which don’t have a credential — they have an agenda.”
"The suspicious mind of many consumers, more or less suborned by the food industry, say, ‘How can we trust them?’ …They go to the Food Babes of the world, which don’t have a credential — they have an agenda.”
Associate Director, USC School of Pharmacy regulatory sciences program
Consumers often want products with easy-to-understand labels free of chemical-sounding names. But they can’t always get that, even with ingredients that are completely sourced from nature, Clemens said. The FDA has strict labeling requirements that spell out how different items must be referred to on a food label. And natural ingredients and extracts need to go through a rigorous testing process to ensure they are safe — especially since something that is innocuous in its natural state, like grape skins, can contain potent chemicals that have a more significant impact when concentrated into an extract.
The upshot, Clemens said, is that an ingredients label sometimes makes natural ingredients seem more off-putting to the consumer. Names of the naturally occurring chemicals that were extracted from fruits and vegetables could be what appears on the label. And ingredients that are not done with their full FDA review can sometimes be used, but are sometimes officially called “additives.”
Davis said that he finds consumers to be pretty demanding with extremely high expectations. As ingredients labels have changed, he’s fielded calls from consumers asking about some of the items added to flour and its enrichment process. But it’s more been questions, and fewer complaints.
For labels to change, consumers have to be willing to accept changes in some of their favorite products. Natural colors generally aren’t as vibrant as their artificial counterparts. Removing some additives that condition products can change the texture. Reducing sugar and salt content will change the way a product tastes.
Clemens offered the example of strawberry ice cream. The average consumer envisions bright pink scoops with a taste that is sweet and has a strong berry flavor.
However, a clean label strawberry ice cream is more of a white or pale pink color, since it does not contain pink dyes. The color and more subdued berry flavors may lead some manufacturers to consider adding more berries. With more berries, the ice cream may need more of an emulsifier. And then the manufacturer has the challenge of finding an emulsifier that the consumer will accept and doesn’t have a name that sounds too much like a chemical.
“The reality is the food supply is going to change, and … consumer perception of strawberry ice cream is going to have change,” Clemens said. “The question is, are they going to accept a white-colored ice cream? And I expect the answer is yes.”
Questions of supply and taste
Prochnow said there are clean-label products that taste good. But there are also reformulations that are more about the ingredient list — and seem to be less concerned with whether consumers will actually want to eat them.
“It’s surprising to me how often some companies forget about taste,” said Prochnow. “They want to talk to you about how great all of the ingredients are. I would say that it's great that it has those ingredients, but if I'm not going to drink it again because I could barely get it down, it could have all of the ingredients in the world, but I'm never going to see them because I'm never going to try it again.”
The move to reduce sugar, he said, has caused a lot of this. In cutting sugar, manufacturers have added more stevia and other natural sweeteners, which just don’t taste the same.
For Otis Spunkmeyer and LaBrea Bakery, sweeteners in and of themselves haven’t been a big issue. Ingredient suppliers — many of whom can be reluctant to change their processes or sources — present the biggest challenge, Davis said.
“The biggest hurdle we have found is finding the right ingredients and the right partners to use when taking on one of these large initiatives,” he said. "...Sometimes our existing suppliers are so entrenched in what they're doing, they sometimes don't even want to engage in that type of project."
Davis has had mixed success with the suppliers he works with. Sometimes, suppliers are more willing to make changes because of the larger clean label movement. Since other manufacturers will be making the transition to cleaner labels, Davis said some Otis Spunkmeyer suppliers have appreciated the impetus to change.
“It’s surprising to me how often some companies forget about taste. They want to talk to you about how great all of the ingredients are. ...If I'm not going to drink it again because I could barely get it down, it could have all of the ingredients in the world, but I'm never going to see them because I'm never going to try it again.”
Shareholder, Greenberg Traurig LLP
On the other side of his R&D work, Davis said he has seen more issues with suppliers for LaBrea Bakery. Some of them have just been unwilling to make changes, meaning he has had to look for someone else who could supply non-GMO products at the quantities and frequency that was needed. The largest hurdle has been the cheese used in some breads. To obtain non-GMO certification, the cows producing the dairy that makes the cheese need to eat non-dairy feed. The bakery has found a new cheese supplier, but the cheese has not yet been incorporated into products because it first needs to age. Once the new cheese is used in bread, he said, the finished product is likely to look and taste noticeably different.
Cleaning up a label can also run deeper than expected. As Davis was reformulating Otis Spunkmeyer products, he needed to not only find a naturally sourced margarine, but the beta carotene in that margarine also had to be naturally sourced.
Clemens said that as the clean label movement thrives and online advocacy against processed food becomes more impassioned, one important point can get lost. “Food is processed for your safety and to ensure nutritive value is maintained,” he said. “… I suspect if we go down the path of clean label, where safety is paramount and the consumer isn’t as essential and nutritive value is critical, the unintended consequence may be we are generating a generation of nutritive deficiencies again.”
Items like flour and cereal products have traditionally had vitamins and minerals added to boost consumption and increase general health. This kind of deficiency, he said, has not been seen in generations, since the fortification movement started.
Davis and Rogers both said that as more manufacturers move toward clean labels, it is getting easier for those who reformulate to get the job done.
“We’re getting better and better at it,” Davis said. “Because once you have that range of tools in your arsenal— you have all your natural colors and flavors approved, ready to go and work out in the field, it's a matter of tweaks there. You don't have to reinvent the wheel every time. Vanilla extract will be applied in many different foods, now that we know it works."