Clean labels are said to attract consumers. However, like so much with consumers, perceived wants may fit poorly with reality.

According to a 2008 report by The Freedonia Group, from 2002-2007, U.S. demand for food and beverage additives grew by 5.0%. The demand for flavors and flavor enhancers, the largest segment, increased by 3.0%; alternative sweeteners by 4.9%; texturizers and fat replacers by 5.4%; and “nutraceuticals” by 8.5%. In addition, from 2007-2012, Freedonia predicts an annual increase of 4.4% in additive demand. In comparison, it predicts a category identified as “processed and frozen foods” to expand only 2.7% annually, while projecting some categories such as dehydrated foods, perishable prepared foods and peanut butter to grow 5.4% per year to 2012.

While growth figures are impacted by many factors, not the least of which is raw material costs (up for many agricultural products, although Chinese suppliers have depressed others), one could venture that additive use shows little sign of fading. One may thus ask, “What’s going on?”

Phil Lampert reports consumer priorities are first “taste,” then health, then price. While many tout their “no additives/no preservatives” claims, food ingredients often offer the best or only way to achieve a sensorially satisfying and safe product that consumers can afford. “Food and beverage processors turn to these additives to improve finished product quality and control costs,” concurs the Freedonia report.

Many innovative products introduced this year at Natural Products Expo West exemplify this. For example, Go Appetit Foods’ new, all-natural, portable Cool Soup line in Luscious Tomato Bisque, Rich Vegetable Gazpacho and Creamy Mango Spice delivers luscious, rich and creamy portable soups, partially through added flavors, guar gum and whey protein isolate. Turtle Mountain LLC’s coconut milk-based Purely Decadent frozen desserts offer a creamy, smooth texture, with help from carob bean and guar gums and chicory root extract (a.k.a. inulin).

Indeed, the use of alternative ingredient names is one strategy processors use to calm consumer sensibilities, while incorporating badly needed additives. The ingredient “evaporated cane syrup” is, for most intents and purposes, sugar. Barbara’s Bakery Inc.’s tasty Oatmeal Organic Mini Cookies contain sodium bicarbonate, labeled as “baking soda.”

I have no space to address the issue of ingredients like benzoic acid, which the industry generally incorporates at 0.05-0.10% levels, and Mother Nature  uses up to as much as 0.22% (as one researcher found in a berry variety). Indeed, as a recent title of a item said, “Food additives are ‘probably here to stay.’” Yes, they are.