As Kemin Industries watched the clean label trend take off, executives made the decision roughly 25 years ago to position the maker of preservatives and other specialty ingredients firmly behind natural offerings.
While the Iowa-based company will continue to make its synthetic products, popular among lower-priced brands aiming to keep costs low, the push among consumers toward healthier eating and preference for premium brands has given natural preservatives, in particular, a favorable tailwind. This gave Kemin the confidence to make the move after decades of focusing much of its innovation on chemically produced ingredients.
"Demand for clean label preservatives has increased over the last five to 10 years," said Courtney Schwartz, marketing director of the company's Kemin Food Technologies. "It is the focus when we go in to meetings with all of our customers, the focus is how can we clean up these labels."
The natural food preservatives market was valued at $796.1 million in 2018 and is projected to top $1 billion by 2026, a compound annual growth rate of 3.7%, according to data from Allied Market Research. The data firm said demand for these ingredients is especially robust in North America, accounting for about 40% of the total natural food preservatives market share in 2018.
The market opportunities haven't gone unnoticed in the market.
Earlier this year, Irish ingredients company Kerry Group acquired the clean-label, low-sodium preservatives specialist Niacet from private investment firm SK Capital for roughly $1 billion to gain access to its portfolio of conventional organic acids. The purchase came two years after Kerry purchased Biosecur Lab, a provider of natural antimicrobials made from citrus extracts.
And Netherlands-based ingredients company Corbion announced in 2020 it would invest in key growth areas such as natural food preservation, while looking to exit other parts of its business.
Increasingly, all natural is a deciding factor for consumers when they contemplate what product to buy, a factor that has grown in importance during the ongoing pandemic. Research from the International Food Information Council released in June found four in 10 consumers seek out natural preservatives.
“Consumers are definitely driving this. There's a bit of a conflict though when consumers say they're looking for ingredients that they recognize on labels versus what they're willing to pay," Schwartz said. "That puts the onus back on the food manufacturer to see what applications they want to convert first, and what makes the most sense for them to convert.”
Natural preservatives are incorporated into a wide swath of products, including meat, candy, bakery and snacks to preserve the natural characteristics of the offerings, prevent spoilage during shipping and increase the overall shelf life. The demand for natural preservatives has only increased as consumers have turned to snacking more and upped their consumption of food on the go.
The most common go-tos in the better-for-you category include citric aid, which is derived from fruits like grapefruits and lemons; ascorbic acid, or vitamin C; vinegar; and rosemary extract. Vinegar, for example, is used to curtail the growth of bacteria and prevent spoilage. Rosemary extract is popular for delaying color and flavor loss in products such as snack bars, cookies, chips, nuts, dressings and sauces that have significant fat content; and citric acid is regularly incorporated to make it difficult for mold or bacteria to survive.
Whitney Linsenmeyer, an assistant professor in the department of nutrition and dietetics at Saint Louis University, said early versions of natural preservatives dating back thousands of years include salt and sugar. But with those natural food additives increasingly shunned by many people, it has put the focus on ingredient manufacturers to develop alternative better-for-you substitutes.
In many cases, it's a difficult task riddled with challenges that can take researchers years to overcome.
Natural preservatives sometimes require a larger amount to achieve the same effect as their synthetic counterparts.
The problem is upping the quantity used to achieve the same shelf life as synthetics can negatively impact the flavor, forcing ingredient makers to find workarounds. Flavor can be more easily masked in something like a spicy sausage when a potent natural preservative is added, but in frozen chicken nuggets that often command a shelf life of up to 18 months, changes in how it tastes are less forgiving.
"Demand for clean label preservatives has increased over the last five to 10 years. It is the focus when we go in to meetings with all of our customers, the focus is how can we clean up these labels."
Marketing director, Kemin Food Technologies
Kemin, for example, discovered that blending green tea extract with its rosemary extract slowed down the oxidation process and the rancid flavors that it creates. The pairing of the ingredients not only boosts the antioxidant protection but reduces the amount of rosemary that's needed in products such as sausages.
Another hurdle is not only discovering natural preservatives that do the intended function, but producing them in a large enough quantity and for an attractive price to convince a large CPG maker to include them in one or more of their mass-produced brands.
“People look at the cost before they even start investing money in an application. And if the cost position can never get in line with what they think they're going to need it to be, they won’t embark on that application’s development," said Casey Lippmeier, vice president of innovation at Conagen. "That restricts the hunger for doing this kind of research.”
Conagen, which uses fermentation and enzymes to recreate molecules found in nature, recently commercialized, along with a partner, rosmarinic acid valued for its antioxidant and antimicrobial properties.
The ingredient, which is an active component found in rosemary extract, is different from its parent in that it's odorless and tasteless. The lack of these attributes is especially valuable when a beverage maker, for example, wants to create a strawberry drink but doesn't want the distinctive taste of rosemary.
A challenge for rosmarinic acid in the past was that it was difficult to produce enough on a large scale, an obstacle that caused the price for it to surge and deterred some companies from using it. By creating more of the ingredient in a lab using natural processes, Lippmeier said it has not only lowered the cost "but opened up many more applications for which it will become available."
Meaningful strides in innovation during the last decade have expanded the availability of more clean label, natural preservatives available to food and beverage manufacturers. But in some cases like a value brand, it may never make economic sense to switch over to a more costly natural alternative if a manufacturer wants to maintain a specific price point.
In addition, Linsenmeyer said there are segments of the food space where synthetics continue to reign, most notably in products like chips or candy bars where an individual isn't turning to them to eat healthier in the first place.
"We know we're eating something as an indulgence," she said. "People don't tend to pay as close attention in those areas and therefore less industry change is reflected in that.”
While synthetic options are likely to remain widely used in some offerings, consumer demand, innovation and improvements in technology will provide further momentum for more clean-label preservatives.
“It's definitely the future. It's not going to go away, and I think that we will just continue to get closer and closer at providing matches to those commonly used synthetics, and we will get better at that cost and use and sensory portion, too,” Schwartz said. "The fact that we've gotten to a point where we can provide great alternatives to those traditional chemicals at an economical price, I think, is really what is keeping the industry moving.”