Consumer demand for clean labels and simple ingredients poses a challenge for food scientists

CHICAGO — “A frustrating reality” is how one food scientist described the consequences of consumer demand for simple ingredients.

Jonathan Baugher, manager of scientific affairs for Blue Mountain Flavors 

“We scientists and R&D specialists are handcuffed with limitations that aren’t based on science or have any true merit, but we deal with that on a day-to-day basis,” said Jonathan Baugher, manager of scientific affairs, Blue Mountain Flavors, Kinston, North Carolina. “In developing a flavor system or a finished product, we dance around the inevitable facts that we can make a better product or a more nutritious product, but that it may not have the label that’s desired and may not be successful.”

A prominent theme at the Institute of Food Technologists’ annual meeting and food exposition held July 16-19 in Chicago was clean label. Baugher and others speaking during a panel presentation at the event discussed the implications of the trend. The panelists agreed the food industry must do a better job of communicating and engaging with consumers about ingredients perceived as unrecognizable or harmful.

Mark Hughes, president of Anderson Partners Food Ingredient Marketing 

“If there’s a trend I’d like to see come back, it would be a trend of the food science community doing a better job of communicating the food science story to consumers,” said Mark Hughes, president of Anderson Partners Food Ingredient Marketing, Omaha, Nebraska.

Another panelist used the example of consumer attitudes regarding food additives.

Taylor Wallace, PHD, principal consultant at the Think Healthy Group LLC

“How many times have you heard on the news that food additives cause cancer?” said Taylor Wallace, PhD, principal consultant at the Think Healthy Group LLC, Washington. “There’s really not any research out there. I think we can no longer rely on history of safe use as an argument.”

He added, “If all (consumers) can fall back on is a rat study from 1978, that’s our fault.”

The complexity of clean label was echoed during a separate presentation by Stephanie Mattucci, global food science analyst at Mintel, Chicago.

The belief that food additives are harmful is still widespread. 

Research shows consumers are increasingly avoiding certain ingredients or foods, seeking out and paying more for minimally processed products and questioning the practices of major food manufacturers.

Stephanie Mattucci, global food science analyst at Mintel 

“Seventy-one percent of US consumers agree that there are probably more harmful or deceptive ingredients in foods that manufacturers aren’t telling us, really speaking to that point about skepticism about the food industry and the food supply in general,” Mattucci said.

However, she noted, simple isn’t so simple when it comes to food processing.

“It can be really challenging to develop a simple product and something that is clean label, free from a lot of challenging ingredients, and still have it last on the shelf for a long time and taste good and meet those demands,” she said. “As we know, simple is complicated, and that’s something that a food scientist is faced with on a daily basis. You need to know what ingredients you are going to use, where are those ingredients coming from, do you need to get a secondary supplier to make sure you have a consistent supply chain of those types of products? Is it safe? How are you going to produce it? The list goes on and on. There are so many questions that have to be answered.”

 Food Scientist
It can be challenging for food scientists to develop a clean label product while still preserving shelf-life and taste. 

Demand for transparency has given rise to technologies that enable consumers to learn about the ingredients in the packaged food they buy. However, as Hughes reminded, the needs of the global population must not be forgotten.

“If you really want to look at megatrends, look at the entire planet,” he said. “A lot of things will be fads or trends for elite developed countries that can support them, but there are 10 billion people coming in the rest of the world that we have to feed, and they’re not going to use Google Glass or QR codes to read labels on products. They’re going to get up in the morning and wonder where their food is coming from.

“Make sure to look at the entire world, not just what 50 million people in North America want,” Hughes said.