The Campbell Soup Co.’s recent announcement it is discontinuing its 100% Natural line of soups is a cautionary tale for any company considering targeting the natural, clean-label market segment. While consumers may say they want products with fewer, easier-to-understand ingredients, they also expect the attributes associated with ingredient technologies that may not be defined as clean.

The Camden, NJ-based company is replacing its 100% Natural brand with a new brand of soups called Homestyle. Mark Alexander, president of Campbell’s North America business unit, said the 100% Natural line did not live up to the company’s expectations. He cited two reasons why: First, not all consumers are seeking natural products, and, second, the standards that are in place for a product to be called natural limited the 100% Natural product’s taste performance.

“We’re really working outside with all kinds of vendors and partners in terms of bringing new technologies and new solutions in,” he said. “And with Homestyle, we’re able to bring all that together. And the taste of those products, of those 29 items, is substantially better than what we were able to deliver in 100% Natural.”

Overcoming challenges

During the Institute of Food Technologists’ annual meeting and exposition, held in Chicago July 13-16, an education session focused on the challenges of developing food and beverage products with cleaner labels.

Michael Joy, director of product development for Park 100 Foods, Tipton, Ind., spoke during the session and advocated food and beverage product developers consider “going back to basics,” when considering reformulation projects. He said consumers are interested in natural flavors such as soy sauce, lemon and tomato, and that the natural ingredients may play a functional role by aiding in the reduction of sodium. He added that the clean label trend has evolved beyond ingredients, and that there is also consumer interest in easy-to-understand cooking methods like roasting, braising and simmering.

Joy said product developers should brace themselves when considering “cleaning up” a formulation. He noted that the process may be time consuming and that the interrelationships some ingredients play within a formulation may make the process complex.

Stefan Hake, president and CEO of GNT USA, Tarrytown, NJ, a supplier of colors sourced from natural ingredients, spoke during the session and noted that product developers need to think about the product, consumer perceptions and the regulatory environment.

In a follow-up interview, Hake elaborated on his points and said food and beverage executives need to understand what their goals are before embarking on a reformulation project with the goal of a cleaner label.

“People need to clearly understand what they want to accomplish,” he said. “How do you connect to the consumer? How does the consumer recognize what is on the label? This is not just a matter of changing one little thing.”

Hake said companies must also delineate between whether they want a natural product or a product with an easier-to-understand label.

“If someone wants to say a product is ‘all natural’ on the front of the package, that is a difficult thing to do,” he said. “And that is how most companies run into trouble and get frustrated.”

Successful strategy

A clean label strategy that Hake said is working well for food and beverage companies is to develop products that include ingredients consumers may not have a hard time understanding, whether or not they are perceived as natural or clean label. The companies may call out some ingredients on the front of the label and make an effort to explain what the other ingredients are on the back of the package or through other media such as the Internet.

“If an ingredient is natural, you don’t have to call it natural,” Hake said. “For example, if I am adding a color that is sourced from carrot, I don’t have to tell the consumer it is natural. They know a carrot is natural.”

The challenge, Hake said, is with lesser-known ingredients consumers may not be familiar with and sourced from raw materials that may be considered unappetizing by many. One example of this type of ingredient is carmine.

In July, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) called on the Dannon Co. to remove carmine, a colorant sourced from cochineal insects, from its yogurts. The CSPI said Dannon’s use of carmine in some of its fruit flavored yogurts cheated consumers who may believe the color of the yogurt is from fruit. Dannon has stood by its use of the ingredient.

“Carmine has received some bad press lately,” Hake said. “It may be that the ingredient is natural, but it also may be something some consumers don’t want.”

Joe Leslie, Midwest regional manager and national industrial sales manager for Kikkoman Sales USA, Inc., San Francisco, foresees the trend of some ingredients being targeted as continuing.

“Consumers have become more interested and more educated about the ingredients in their food,” Leslie said. “Everyone wants to feel good about what they feed themselves, their families, and even their pets.

“The biggest recent change has been the impact of social media. Social media has provided an avenue for advocates of clean-label food products to broadcast their message. The information espoused is not always accurate, but it reaches a wide audience and has had a cumulative impact. The resulting consumer awareness is a positive and growing trend.

“We expect the trend of increased attention on food labels to continue growing,” Leslie explained.

SIDEBAR: Campbell’s Homestyle replaces 100% Natural

“Taste is king” is a phrase often used throughout the food and beverage industry, and it is the reason the Campbell Soup Co. is eliminating its 100% Natural line of soups and replacing it with its new Homestyle line of 29 ready-to-serve soup varieties. The company said ingredient technologies not designated as natural were required for the company to achieve the taste profiles it desired.

Mark Alexander, president of Camden, NJ-based Campbell’s North America business unit, said the 100% Natural line did not live up to the company’s expectations.

Alexander made his comments on July 24 during Campbell’s annual meeting with financial analysts.

In her opening remarks during the analyst day, Denise Morrison, CEO and president of Campbell, said the company’s US soup business has been “reinvigorated” and delivered 5 percent sales growth and double-digit profit growth through the first nine months of fiscal 2013.

“US soup has now delivered four consecutive quarters of sales growth,” she said. “That’s four in a row. We expect that this will be the first year in almost a decade that Campbell has held our share in the soup business.”

She added that the company continues to focus on taste, “listening to consumers every step of the way,” and it will continue to drive innovation.

During fiscal 2014 Campbell will introduce 38 varieties of soup. Among the new varieties will be the 29 Homestyle soups, plus three new soups under the Chunky line that are pub-inspired and feature flavors such as cheeseburger, spicy chicken quesadilla and cheesesteak. Campbell said it also will extend its Go soups line with the launch of a Thai style chicken and rice variety.

Alexander said the company is in the process of making some changes to the Go soup line.

“We’ve had some good success in the first year with Go in bringing younger consumers into the soup category and have discovered a pleasant surprise that these products also appeal to others who are attracted to their authentic flavors and innovative packaging,” he said. “The product ranges realized strong repeat rates but needs a booster trial, and we’ll deliver that next year.

“One interesting thing we’ve learned is that the distinctive variety names that were designed to communicate the adventurous flavor combinations of these products had the unintended effect of discouraging some consumers who weren’t prepared for quite as much taste adventure that they feared these soups might offer,” Alexander explained. “So we’re shortening the names to broaden the appeal, adding a new variety and we’ll build out in the use of innovative marketing techniques to attract new consumers to this line.”

Campbell also has plans to grow its condensed soup business in fiscal 2014. It will add new varieties to its Healthy Request line and add additional soups designed to appeal to children.

“Soup is a growth business,” Alexander said. “Do not let anyone tell you otherwise. When soup is done properly, it delivers fantastic taste, great variety, good nutrition and superior value.”