The “clean label” movement has grown steadily for years and has reached all aisles of the supermarket. At its center is the ingredients list. Before deciding to buy a food product, more and more consumers pay particular attention to the number of ingredients listed, and whether the list includes familiar names.
Of the two components—length and familiarity—the latter is the more important to consumers, according to research from InsightsNow, a behavioral research consultancy firm based in Corvallis, Ore. “Our data shows that the length of the ingredients list is only about half as important [to consumers] as having recognizable names. A short list with artificial ingredients is more likely to be rejected [by the consumer] than a long list with no artificial ingredients,” says Greg Stucky, chief research officer at InsightsNow.
At the heart of clean label formulations is the replacement of artificial, “chemical-sounding” ingredients with natural ones. That goal, however, forces food companies to reassess the shelf life of products. It’s not just that changing ingredients will create different food safety and quality issues; replacing well-known synthetic antimicrobials and antioxidants with natural ones won’t necessarily guarantee the same shelf-life duration.
The Go-To Antioxidant
When it comes to clean label antioxidants, the go-to ingredient is rosemary extract. Technology has come a long way in this area: “Today it’s a lot easier to replace synthetics, whether it’s a single antioxidant or a combination. An effective strategy is to use rosemary extract alone or with other natural compounds, like mixed tocopherols, acerola cherry, or green tea, depending on the matrix. With meat products, for example, rosemary extract would be enough. But with frying oil, we would use a combination of different ones.” says David Johnson, senior product manager at Kalsec, a natural ingredients supplier based in Kalamazoo, Mich.
“With clean label antioxidants, challenges come from regulations, labeling requirements, and the claims that brands want to make on the label,” says Jane Quartel, executive director of product management at Kalsec. “For example, rosemary as an antioxidant is not allowed in India. In Europe it’s a well-established additive, but it cannot appear on the label as a natural flavor; its antioxidative purpose must be explicit. The alternative would be to use its e-number E392, which is definitely not clean label.”
Off Colors and Off Flavors
Rosemary extract is also proving to have good antimicrobial properties, although a few issues remain. “The problem with rosemary extract and with a lot of clean label antimicrobials is that, in order to get the activity you want, you have to add a lot of the base ingredient, which comes with other components that can give an off color or off flavor. That limits how much of an ingredient you can add,” says Kathleen Glass, PhD, associate director of the Food Research Institute at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. “For example, when we tried benzoic acid—a common preservative obtained from cranberry extract—with chicken, we had to use such a large amount for antimicrobial activity that it gave the meat a sickly grey color. It doesn’t matter if it’s safe if nobody wants to buy it.”
According to Dr. Glass, as research into extraction and fermentation continues, we’ll be able to obtain higher concentrations of active components.
Another issue that comes with natural antimicrobials is variability: “There can be a lot of variation in the concentration of active compounds between suppliers or even between lots of a specific ingredient. The problem is, there are already enough variables when working with natural ingredients that I don’t want to necessarily add the concentration of active compounds as another,” says Dr. Glass.