The clean label market: An expert take on misconceptions, challenges and trends

The clean label market: An expert take on misconceptions, challenges and trends

By PreScouter Editorial Team
Principal Food Scientist | Meati Foods
Stefan Bucher, Principal Food Scientist | Meati Foods

Stefan has been a food science researcher and product developer for over 20 years. He has worked for several global Fortune 500 consumer packaged food corporations, mainly with grain-based products (e.g., breakfast cereal, snacks, etc.), from small-scale prototyping to plant testing, start-up, and implementation, as well as shelf-life testing and extension. 

Stefan is currently developing new meat analog products and processes from fungal mycelium. He is passionate about launching highly rated, technically difficult products into the market.

“Flavor technologies now are focusing on sodium and sugar reductions, improving the taste of plant-based products and residuals, or bad notes that come from different kinds of ingredients used in foods.”

What do you think are the biggest misconceptions in the clean label market?

That all those ugly-sounding names are bad for you or are less sustainable. Most certainly are not less healthy, nor bad when it comes to sustainability.

What are some of the most unexpected developments for clean label ingredients in the past 2-3 years?

I think citrus fiber is a very good example, but many other fibers that were unheard of years ago are now showing excellent properties.

What are some challenges that you faced when developing a clean label product? And what are some recommendations for food developers?

The biggest challenge is the texturizer. 10-15 years ago, there were many incredible, functional modified starch options. Now all those modified starches are under some scrutiny, so you have to process them in a more natural way to deliver the same functionality.

I am not too worried about finding natural colors or flavors, but you have to be creative and go to areas that you have never gone to before. I never explored areas outside of starches.

We now have to look at gum acacia, which we never used before because it was expensive. Much to my surprise, now you have all these fibers from all kinds of materials.

Oat fibers have different particle sizes, and citrus fibers have different particle sizes that give you different water absorption and also different protein levels. I am impressed with the company Rettenmaier, but ADM, Cargill, and all these companies are working in this field.

If you see oat fibers in your products, you would think, “Oh, this is great, this is probably healthy.” To me, that is the new frontier for food developers. Getting into the texturizers and resources that 5-10 years ago was not intuitive.

What about masking technologies? 

In terms of maskers, you could get bitter or earthy notes when you use soy protein isolates, garbanzo, and pea proteins. All those will impart some earthy, bitter taste.

The flavor companies have natural flavors that are great at masking that bitterness.

Similarly, our mycelium carries some natural flavors, as any mycelium and any fucus will do. They will create their own set of mushroom alcohols as a natural part of their process, and you want to make sure that you mask those as well as possible. 

We test maskers regularly, and you never know which one is going to be the one. They mute certain things; sometimes, they mute the things you want to appear, and sometimes they are more specific to the things you don’t want.

What are some common mistakes that companies make when they try to launch a clean label product? 

Two things here: 

  1. As a developer, I think that some ingredients are pretty safe, yet they carry an unfair bad connotation, which limits the product developer’s ability to make a better product just because of unfounded bad characteristics associated with an ingredient; and 
  2. Switching to a “better sounding additive” does not change the nutritional properties. E.g., making something with honey is virtually the same for the body as making it with High Fructose Corn Syrup; making something with corn maltodextrin is virtually the same as making something with tapioca maltodextrin. It just “feels” better, but chemically the same for the body, essentially.

What are some existing or emerging technologies that many companies are not considering but have great potential in the clean label market? Certainly, the use of fermentation is a field that may grow simply because of its efficiency.

Once the microorganism is developed to produce a specific component, it does it in a very sustainable way (efficient). The only problem is the GMO factor. Which I think is a barrier that is slowly shifting towards a more accepted or mainstream perception now.

Do you anticipate any changes in the perception of clean labeling? 

I think texturizers have evolved very well in the last few years (starches, gums, fibers, etc.), and it is much easier to find a solution with them to replace modified starches or weird-sounding gums.

However, I still don’t think the world of high-intensity sweeteners has made the same progress. It seems that they are still relying on the usual questionable ingredients.

Some significant progress has been made with different ingredients, mainly stevioside and rebaudioside from stevia. However, they are GMO products, which carry a negative connotation.

Can you elaborate on why you think GMOs are becoming more accepted? 

There are two examples: Stevia and leghemoglobin. 

The best example is stevia. Some consumers will never have any issues with it. If I try stevia, I will have sweetness in my mouth the whole afternoon, and then it will turn bitter.

Cargill had a massive project about ten years ago to research and test all those rebaudioside. Out of possibly hundreds, 2 or 3 of them are super clean and non-bitter, but that’s a very small percentage of the total that was tested.

Therefore, they knew they had to find the gene and put that gene in yeast and produce it right away.

So instead of harvesting millions of pounds of stevia to get the very small percent of rebaudioside that work, they went and made it straight away. 

So, taking this as an example, companies have to be upfront and say that this includes a GMO product, but this GMO is saving you from eating sugar and saving the environment.

If companies present it this way, it may have a different appeal. Not everyone will buy it, but there is a good chance some will. 

The most recent example is the leghemoglobin that Impossible Foods has made. They figured they didn’t want to use blood, so they set out to make that molecule. They figured out that the root of the soybean has a heme-like structure with iron in the middle that gives you a metallic taste.

However, to make that, we need to plant millions of tons of soy and extract the roots and the compound.

Instead, we can go to the gene and make it. In this case, we are making a GMO product, but at the same time, we are allowing consumers to eat a meat product that has very close proximity in taste to what they used to eat, but it’s much better for the environment and without animal farming. 

Motif FoodWorks and Ajinomoto, similar to Impossible Foods, are using yeast to produce the heme protein. They also developed the actual heme proteins through yeast. 

It’s a GMO product, but they could label it as a natural flavor. The perception has changed from “absolutely no, it’s GMO” to “I see your point.” 

The risk, in my opinion, has been reduced. Acceptance is going to come from what you are going to achieve and how you can label it. If the FDA was a little bit more forgiving in the labeling, you might not even know about it.

From what I’ve seen of scientific research regarding GMOs, it has been safe. I am convinced that it’s just a matter of positioning it in a better view than just focusing on the unknown part of it. 

 Is there anything that you think I should know that I have not asked about? 

This is pretty much it. I think the main thing is to overcome perception with science. Sure, test the ingredients to make sure they are safe. Highly functional, naturally derived ingredients can be unsustainable in the long run.

This excerpt was taken from our Intelligence Brief “Clean Label Flavors.” The full report can be viewed here.

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