With more than three out of four consumers worldwide claiming to read ingredient labels, it has become critical that food and beverage manufacturers offer clean-label products consumers can trust. Like the term “natural,” “clean label” has no legal definition, so when it comes to innovative approaches, reformulating, and developing products to carry an allergen-free and clean label, research chefs and manufacturers can find ingredient options confusing.

“Consumers are complex and contradictory, but they’re also really fickle, so there’s always room for something new,” says Lynn Dornblaser, director of innovation and insight for the consumer research group Mintel. “However, one thing that hits home for many consumers, and will encourage repeat purchases, is striking the right balance of indulgence and healthy.” Today, that means products must have a component that’s considered “wholesome” and “natural.”

The clean-label aspect, is complex. Primarily driven by consumer demand, it requires food products to contain familiar, simple ingredients that are easy to recognize and pronounce. This means no artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors; no artificial sweeteners; and no genetically modified organisms, among other ingredients that get caught in the net. And, as far as many consumers are concerned, the fewer the ingredients, the better.

According to Mintel, among clean-label claims in new products, non-GMO claims have seen the largest increase, up 13% between 2014 and 2018.  But, the decision of what is permissible in clean-label products is often made by manufacturing companies and retail grocery store chains. Companies compile official lists, explicitly stating the ingredients that cannot be present in their food and beverage items.


Spread the News

Eggs Benedict with Mustard Spread
Photo courtesy of: Saskatchewan Mustard Development Commission (www.spreadthemustard.com)

When it comes to versatile, clean-label ingredient, the humble mustard plant proves to be multifunctional. Mustard is a natural antimicrobial ingredient. Among its bioactive compounds are glucosinolates. In the presence of water, these are converted to the microbe-killing isothiocyanates. Isothiocyanates can effect up to a 5-log reduction of E. coli 0157:H7 in fermented meats. The powerful compounds also are fatal to Staphylococcus carnosus, Staphylococcus aureus, Pediococcus pentosaceus, Listeria monocytogenes, Enterococcus faecalis, and Salmonella typhimurium. When added to bakery formulations, mustard essential oils (MEO) inhibit fungal growth and production of aflatoxins.

Mustard proteins exhibit excellent fat and water binding properties, plus gelling and emulsion stabilizing properties. Also, yellow mustard bran contains about 5.5% mucilage, a soluble polysaccharide that imparts excellent rheological properties. It is a natural bulking, thickening, and emulsifying agent and can be used as a gum substitute and natural thickenener, agent and as a gum substitute. Yellow mustard mucilage also has shear-thinning properties similar to xanthan gum, and being water soluble it exhibits good freeze/thaw stability compared to gum arabic and citrus pectin.


What's In a Name?

Due to the complex nature of clean-label claims, a group of ingredient companies conducted their own global consumer research studies, spanning 30,000 participants in 37 countries. The research revealed that awareness and acceptability of certain ingredients can vary by application and region or even country. For consumers, the meaning of clean label echoes Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who said he could not define obscenity, “but I know it when I see it.”

It’s important for product developers to clearly understand the consumer motivation for moving to clean label. Additionally, when R&D and research chefs go about reformulating to “clean up” and simplify labels, they face both commercial and technical challenges. Examples of these challenges include understanding which clean-label claims will generate the most value and which ingredients consumers trust to support the claims. Of course, such ingredients also must maintain functionality and eating quality and keep costs down.

When it comes to product development, Dornblaser points out that after health, consumers want an indulgent component. This is an element that offers a favored texture — such as crunchiness — or a specific ingredient, such as chocolate, that gives consumers the sense they are treating themselves.

Food and beverage product developers face a constant conundrum: create products that are not only tasty and nutritious, but have a long shelf life, good structure, and high stability. This can be challenging when a company is focused on developing allergen-free or clean-label products. With so many formulations bringing together fats, fat-soluble ingredients, and water-soluble ingredients, emulsifiers figure significantly when it comes to fulfilling these desired attributes.

Eggs, are one of the most easily employed and versatile natural emulsifiers (see “A Clean Original”). However, for some manufacturers, for example those avoiding the use of allergens or those making vegan-friendly products, eggs would not be an option. Egg replacers are available in clean-label form derived from ingredients as diverse as faba, algal flour, and pea protein. Studies have applied such replacers with success in breads, cookies, cakes, muffins, brownies, noodles, mayonnaise, and custards.

Fortunately, there’s been a wealth of advancements in ingredient technology that brought many clean-label and nonallergenic emulsifiers to the product developer’s toolbox. Native starches have taken a leading role in this category. The Department of Food Technology at Lund University, Sweden, recently conducted a study, investigating the potential of certain starches in food processing that can act as stabilizers or emulsifiers to improve the quality of food products.

Starches such as from quinoa, oat, barley, potato, and maize were evaluated. Researchers reviewed how these starches influenced stability, keeping fat-soluble and water-soluble ingredients from separating (such as in mayonnaise, vinaigrette, margarine, and dressings) and maintaining product structures.

In the study, starch-based emulsifiers were developed after investigating different techniques involving the processes of hydrolysis, cold gelatinization, dissolution, precipitation, sedimentation, encapsulation, and applying hydrophobic elements. The results demonstrated the ability to make starch-based emulsifiers from micro- and nanoparticles and how to bind the interface of emulsions more effectively, imparting long-term stability in food emulsion systems, as well as improving food structure and shelf life.

By building this deeper understanding of starch characteristics, functions, and properties, such innovative technologies could make possible the use of starches as natural ingredients that could replace synthetic and chemically processed stabilizers.


Clean on the Outside

Carton of Iced Coffee
Photo courtesy of: Evergreen Packaging Co. (www.evergreenpackagingco.com)

Healthier products need more than just healthier ingredients — they need “healthier” packaging, too. Recent consumer research found that 68% of shoppers polled agreed that foods and beverages with “cleaner” ingredient lists should also use more eco-friendly packaging materials.

According to Evergreen Packaging Co., a sponsor of the annual EcoFocus Worldwide US Trends Survey, some consumers are thinking about the package as an extension of the clean-label product’s ingredient list. “Shoppers expect clean-label products to meet healthier and more sustainable packaging standards,” says Linda Gilbert, EcoFocus president and CEO. “It’s time for clean-label brands to start thinking about their packaging materials as an extension of their clean-label ingredient list.”

The research also revealed that, of retail food and beverage shoppers asked, 65% agreed that healthy beverage brands specifically need to do a better job of providing alternatives to plastic packaging, and 60% claimed to be influenced by a company’s decision to use only packaging that is plant-based. Slightly fewer — 59% — agreed that natural and organic products need to do a better job of packaging their products with recyclable materials. These percentages climbed significantly higher among Millennials.


Native With a Pulse

One of the major challenges of clean-label formulations is achieving the same functionality one would get from chemically modified ingredients. Using traditional white gravy as an example, one can pair functional native starches, such as waxy maize, with pulse flours to provide a home-style flavor and texture appeal that is reminiscent of a “simple country gravy” recipe.

Pulse flours are made of a variety of legume bases, including lentil, fava beans, pea, and chickpea. Pulse flours help product developers make the switch to clean-label formulations by adding viscosity, opacity, and a variety of textural preferences. Blends of functional starches and pulse flours can allow a product to attain longer shelf life, greater freeze/thaw stability, and desired viscosity and textures, while maintaining a clean label.

Another value of pulse flours is that, because they typically have higher protein levels, they can enhance the nutritional value of items such as baked goods, energy bars, sauces, thickened soups, and smoothies. Pulse flours are easy to use and incorporate into formulations. Product developers can add them into their formulas just as they would use traditional wheat flour or protein powders. For some recipes, however, it might be necessary to increase the amount of available water in the formula, as pulse flours tend to absorb more water than traditional wheat flour.

Modified corn starches have become technically advanced and now include non-GMO varieties, waxy maize types, and others that provide enhanced performance. Benefiting from new emulsion technology, waxy maize modified starches are available in cold-water dispersible formats that are valued not just for clean-label emulsifying but for flavor protection as well.

Such starches boast excellent performance in high oil load formulations (up to 30%). In addition, many of these types of starches can act secondarily as a functional ingredient that can help deliver flavors, nutrients, and oil-soluble ingredients across a range of applications. Waxy maize modified starch produces equivalent beverage turbidity to gum arabic at a lower cost in use, is stable in alcohol-based systems up to 20% alcohol by volume, and is stable across an impressive pH range (2.5 to 8.0).

Flours in bakery applications also can send up red flags for label-conscious consumers. Bleached white wheat flour has been on some consumers’ radar for a number of years. One of the earliest “clean-label” flours to be marketed as a bleached white flour replacer was a 100% white whole wheat flour from a variety of wheat that is milder and sweeter in flavor than standard whole wheat.

The advent of the gluten-free and non-GMO trends brought a parade of other functional white flours and starches to the scene. These range from white chickpea starch to rice starches and starches from roots and tubers, including forms of tapioca and potato starches updated for better texture, flavor, solubility, structure, and nutritional performance as direct replacers for classic bleached white wheat flour.



When it comes to sugar, keeping things clean can get awfully sticky. Sugar is, of course, a natural ingredient and presents in many forms and from many sources. But it is an excellent example of the fluid nature of the “clean label” definition. Simply put, today’s consumers express concern about sugar above and beyond any ingredient. And as a multifunctional ingredient, it is hard to replace in many formulations.

When sugar in a formulation is reduced or removed, more than sweet taste is lost. The product can also lose its functional properties that dictate texture, volume, mouthfeel, and consistency.

To build back sugar’s sweet taste, next-generation stevia and monkfruit sweeteners have been a popular choice. Newer stevia sweeteners, such as rebaudioside-M and rebaudioside-D, offer improved sweetness and flavor dynamics compared to earlier rebaudioside-A options, enabling greater sugar reduction in an array of applications.


While stevia does a great job replacing sugar’s sweetness, it won’t make up for the loss of bulk or functionality. That said, it is possible to create reduced-sugar bakery products with no sensory differences, but it takes careful formulation, often combining stevia with erythritol and chicory root fiber. These bulking agents help deliver the tenderness and mouthfeel consumers expect. In many bakery applications, this trio of ingredients can successfully replace the functionality of sugar, keep cost-of-use in check, and satisfy consumer preferences.

Consumers, however, have demonstrated mixed reactions to the use of stevia and sugar alcohols in clean-label products. Although these products are natural, some forms of their manufacture might be deemed too far removed from nature to please strict label readers. This is where fruit sweeteners, syrups (fruit syrups, malt syrups, etc.), and honey can be brought in.

New to the sweetener scene is allulose. The natural sweetener derived from corn, although also available from figs, raisins, and other fruits, is unique in that it provides the bulk and performance (including browning) of sucrose and fructose, is about 70% as sweet as sucrose, yet yields only about 0.2kcals/g, and thus is an ultra-low calorie sugar replacer.

With a flavor nearly identical to fructose, allulose is an excellent and comparatively inexpensive drop-in replacement in many formulations, especially those with fruit bases. In many cases, its sweetness does not need augmenting. Currently, based on its initial launch into the marketplace, its GRAS status is limited to 30g/day, making it a better option for foods than for beverages, but it is expected this limit will be lifted in the near future.


Gums and Fibers

As the plant-based market continues to grow, the use of functional ingredients to produce cold cuts, spreads, sausages, and burgers is on the rise. Ingredients such as gelling agents and emulsifying components build the base for all kinds of sausage analogues, helping them obtain the required texture and mouthfeel.

Because these products all begin as “powders,” there is a need for coarse texture-providing ingredients, such as textured proteins or vegetables, when it comes to burgers. However, they won’t stick together or provide the desired mouthfeel without stable emulsions and/or a viscous and gelling base that acts like a glue to bind the granules together and improve the juiciness of the product.

The most interesting aspect of developing vegan meat analogues is the synergy among the various hydrocolloids. Xanthan and locust bean gums, for instance, create a paste-like viscosity when added separately into water. Using a combination of both, users can obtain an excellent and versatile gel.

Conversely, carrageenan typically creates hard and brittle gels. Using only this additive, a cold cut will break as soon as the end-user starts to slice or bend it. In combination with glucomannan-rich konjac, the gel becomes more flexible. However, even though it is a natural seaweed extract, carrageenan was the subject of “mistaken identity” and deemed by many consumers to be non-clean label.

Good educational marketing has overcome most of the resistance to the ingredient, but there are some technical challenges with using carrageenan in some products. For example, it has a low melting point. The aforementioned Konjac, an Asian tuber related to the sweet potato, has been used in Asia for centuries for its gelling qualities, especially for candies and confections. The clean-label revolution has brought it to the forefront in the US as developers discover its impressive capacity for gelling, neutral flavor, and high melting point.

Historically, methylcellulose has been a popular turn-to as a thickening and gelling agent. But while cellulose is a natural plant fiber, methylcellulose is not. Instead, clean-label formulators are turning to citrus fibers, which work as a drop-in replacement for methylcellulose when combined with clean-label native starches.

Amino acids, such as L-cysteine, are often used in conjunction with starches and flours to in order to provide structure and texture in baked formulations. Traditionally, these had been derived from animal products and through processing techniques that made them a tough sell for clean label. However, ingredient technologists developed plant-based amino acids that give the same performance without losing a clean-label or even vegan classification.


Well Preserved

Natural preservatives represent the biggest leap forward in clean-label technology. Among their best advantages, they are easy for research chefs and product developers to use and easily recognizable to consumers. Popular ones include rosemary extracts, celery extracts, tart cherry extracts, green tea extracts, spices (such as clove and cinnamon), and other botanicals. Besides being clean label, these ingredients are also powerful natural antioxidants.


Green tea contains between 30-40% polyphenols. The four primary polyphenols found in fresh tea leaves are epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), epigallocatechin, epicatechin gallate, and epicatechin. In a study of green tea extract applied to fresh mutton stored at 25°C (77°F) with 85% relative humidity, the extract inhibited microflora spoilage for four days without impacting flavor and aroma or the physical quality of the meat. Additionally, free fatty acids that typically are given off during spoilage were lower by two thirds in the green tea extract-preserved meat versus the control product (1.5g/100g vs 4.1 g/100g).


Flavorants and Colors

When it comes to flavorants and colors, the two largest markets for these ingredients are drinks and candies. These are categories in which the consumer expects to see colors, and often, those consumers are children. But as health-conscious parents strive for better-for-you alternatives, the tide is changing. In the past, manufacturers wouldn’t think to promote added colors or flavors to consumers. Today, the use of natural flavors and colors can add value.

In its recent report, “Food & Beverage Market in the US, 9th Edition,” research group Packaged Facts reported that parents want better-for-you or “stealth health” product options that also are categorized as all-natural, non-GMO, no/low sugar, and free of artificial ingredients. These demands, of course, dovetail perfectly with clean-label stipulations. As a result, numerous new ingredient solutions for flavors and colors have hit the market.

Soy sauce is an excellent clean-label ingredient for boosting flavor, adding rich umami notes, and reducing sodium in formulations. But all soy-based sauces are not created — or used — equally, stresses Robert Danhi, research chef and CEO of Flavor360 Solutions, LLC. As with most ingredients, “each one has different biological, physical, and chemical attributes that play a functional role in processing and the resulting organoleptic results,” he explains.

Soy based sauces are available in multiple formats, including light soy sauce, dark soy sauce, thick soy sauce, sweet soy sauce, soybean paste, and powdered soy sauces. Danhi notes that these can be applied singly or in combination in a formulation. He also praises the versatility of soybean paste as a multifunctional clean-label product: “Soybean paste — a byproduct of soy sauce production — is an integral part of hoisin sauce and provides its main umami flavor component. It can be used for flavor enhancing capabilities and sodium reduction, without adding moisture and jet black color. It also can help with controlling water activity levels and it can even play an important role in physical dynamics.”

The huge shift to natural colorants also is continuing as clean label considerations take greater hold in food and beverage manufacturing. One Israeli startup recently entered the $2.7 billion food colorant market with betalains, red pigments that are found in plants. While betalains from beets already are on the market as an extract, the new formats are derived through a proprietary process that allows for a wide range of colors from dark purple to yellow. They are water soluble and more stable than most other other natural food colorants, which makes them applicable to a greater variety of foods and beverages.

Whether today’s research chef is working to reformulate established products or develop new ones, ingredient technologists are providing support and bringing a panoply of plant-based options to the bench. Many of these have been used in a number of culinary traditions around the world and are being refined for application in today’s batch operations. This is ample proof that when it comes to “natural” and “keeping it clean,” Mother Nature usually knows best.