Consumers are having greater influence over the composition of food products as a function of their desire for natural, non-artificial and additive-free formulations. This so-called “clean label” is moving from a trend to a rule. Major food and beverage companies always have and will respond to consumer wants and needs to maintain brand relevance. Providing such differentiation offers a way for companies and brands to communicate benefits to consumers and provide a critical competitive advantage by setting themselves apart from competitors. Additionally, claims and certifications such as non-gmo, gluten-free, and Rainforest Alliance Certified have increasing importance for products.
The flip side of the coin is that this transformation to simpler, non-chemical sounding ingredient lists is creating a significant challenge for the food industry to respond to the shift in consumer trends and meet their evolving wants and needs. The quest to remove these perceived “undesirable” functional ingredients falls on product developers and food-scientist support teams of both consumer product companies and ingredient suppliers. And that can result in real or potential trade-offs of which consumers may not be fully aware. Whether or not one believes consumers are being unduly influenced to view so-called artificial colors, flavors, and additives as “not good for them,” and even when the science does not support this, the reality is that consumers should and do have free choice to avoid them regardless of the reason. Consequently, food and beverage companies must respond to their consumer base to stay relevant in the marketplace.
Over the course of history, the food industry has invested a great deal of time, money, and other resources to research, develop, and commercialize technological ingredient advancements aimed at providing consumers what they desire in the way of better tasting, safer, longer shelf life, more universally available, and less costly products. The developments of food science and technological advancements have always been driven by consumer pull; not by food manufacturer push. Through a collaborative network of university, government, and industry, a base of safe functional ingredients has been made available that protect foods from spoilage, extend shelf life, improve color and texture, deliver superior taste, lengthen freshness, and cost less. Food science and technology enable foods to be distributed over greater distances and provide greater variety to more consumers worldwide. The functional benefits of these ingredients contribute to a more sustainable food supply for the masses now and as the population of the world increases, thus contributing to global food security.
As with all choices we make, removing these functional ingredients and additives from foods can have drawbacks. There are trade-offs. The food industry is doing the best job feasible to find suitable substitutes or alternate formulations that maintain the organoleptic properties, safety, shelf life, and cost of clean-label alternatives. The fact is that there is a practical limit as to what can be achieved, and the consumer will need to accept some trade-offs. Of course, food safety and regulatory compliance cannot be sacrificed in the process. Take the example of preservatives traditionally used in some sauces and condiments. These are FDA-approved safe substances added to a food to inhibit microbial growth or retard deterioration. A possible clean label goal would be to remove preservatives where technically feasible without compromising food safety or product quality. The most apparent solutions would be a requirement to keep the product refrigerated or to replace the artificial preservatives with natural materials. The former would result in an inconvenience and both would result in increased product cost.
Unquestionably, a large portion of consumers have a negative view of functional ingredients. I would argue that a major contributing factor is that they do not have ready access and, therefore, an understanding of their benefits and unique values. Without such information it is difficult for them to have a balanced viewpoint to guide their decision making. This can be a source of frustration to food scientists and product developers who wish for the perfect world to be guided by science-based rational thinking. From a positive perspective, a number of food trade associations have recognized that the industry must do a better job of providing and communicating balanced information to consumers. Speaking as a consumer, I believe industry has an obligation to pursue this goal rather than tacitly acquiescing to one side of the story to dominate the dialogue.