In the second part of a five-part management briefing looking at reformulation, Ben Cooper considers the impact of the clean label trend and its potential to hold back the food sector’s reformulation efforts. 

As outlined in the first section of this briefing the adverse consequences of reducing one nutrient and adding a compensatory ingredient which itself causes concern is a very common challenge in the food reformulation field.

In the context of salt reformulation, the substitution of potassium chloride brings concerns about the possible negative health risks of over-consumption of potassium. The prevailing view of the industry is that the negative impacts of sodium consumption represent a greater risk to a wider proportion of the population than the risks associated with potassium. Moreover, there is growing evidence of health benefits associated with potassium, notably in lowering blood pressure.

Reformulation will often involve balancing competing priorities, and opting for a composition likely to yield the greatest benefit to the most consumers. Another common salt replacer, monosodium glutamate (MSG), faces similar challenges.

There is a particular problem with monosodium glutamate in that it still contains sodium. So while sodium can be reduced by using MSG its inclusion does put some sodium back into the formulation. Nevertheless, it is an extremely useful ingredient for enhancing flavours when salt has been taken out of a formulation, but it is also an ingredient which some consumers will already associate with health risks.

However, MSG arguably illustrates a particular challenge with food reformulation, and that is the association with negative health impacts that appears not to be founded in science. Even though there has been extensive research into the safety of MSG which have yielded no evidence that is harmful other than in extremely large quantities, it does not enjoy the best of reputations as a food ingredient.

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This speaks directly to an issue in food reformulation referred to as the “clean label” trend. Consumers are increasingly seeking foods that are more “natural”, such as wholefoods or those free from additives or with a minimum of additives on their labels.

In the context of reformulation this is in certain ways a troubling trend which was discussed at recent conferences on reformulation in Amsterdam and London.

The clean label trend is borne out of a number of converging factors in food production, marketing and consumption in developed markets.

Consumers today have better and clearer information about the ingredients and composition of the food they buy than ever before. While this is undeniably a good thing and is itself making a positive contribution to better dietary health, it depends on consumers understanding the relative merits of ingredients and nutrients that feature on labels. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. If consumer decisions are irrational, the benefits of reformulation may be compromised.

Ironically, naturalness is itself often associated with healthiness but, as sensory perception expert Carol Raithatha told the Food Matters Live conference in London two weeks ago, this can be a false premise. “Naturalness is becoming closely aligned with healthiness, even if this is not always the case. Clean label is also a big part of this,” Raithatha said.

We are living in an age of huge technological advances, and food science is no exception. It is the central premise of this briefing that through product reformulation food companies have an important role to play in tackling diet-related health problems. However, it is quite possible that progress will be hampered because of disproportionate concern about a particular issue or a particular ingredient.

This has already been seen in the context of sweeteners, with the long and protracted debate over aspartame. As with MSG, numerous studies and extensive research have failed to prove that the health concerns over aspartame have foundation and the ingredient has been passed as safe to add to food by regulators all over the world.

Nevertheless, as Jack Winkler, former professor of nutrition policy at London Metropolitan University, told the Reformulation Series conference in Amsterdam in October, the debate continues. It is an “irrational” debate, he says, but in spite of aspartame now being approved in over 100 countries, because of the “well-organised” campaign against aspartame which “certainly has stamina” the 40-year controversy “is likely to continue for the foreseeable future”.

Winkler believes this has implications for the current drive to reduce sugar intake, and adds that scientific evidence currently available shows that “the proven health risks of sugar vastly outweigh the potential risks of sweeteners”. Winkler says it would be beneficial if aspartame and other sweeteners could be used more widely in food reformulation but food companies are naturally wary. It is because of the clean label trend that the advent of the natural sweetener, stevia, has been seen as such an important development. Reformulation to reduce sugar content is discussed in the following section of this briefing.

Food science is moving forward all the time. As in any scientific field, technological solutions to make food healthier could involve the inclusion of ingredients which may sound forbidding in the “clean label” context but could, in theory, yield incredible results. The same goes for processes, which some activists and consumers may be equally suspicious of, such as nano-technology.

In that context, it may be desirable and beneficial if consumers become less “squeamish” about unfamiliar ingredients, odd-sounding chemicals and new processes. But if anything the trend is going in the opposite direction.

As Steve Osborn of Leatherhead Food Research says, clean label represents “a set of conditions that have been arbitrarily implemented by the consumer without real knowledge of the impact or feasibility”. He continues: “That is not to say that I advocate the widespread and wholesale use of ‘chemicals’ and unnecessary additives, far from it. But it is necessary to develop a clean label philosophy rather than a set of rules, which may or may not be realistic.”

Osborn believes it is “essential” to establish “a pragmatic approach” to the clean label issue, which will hopefully see the development of a “mutual trust between the consumer and the food industry which will allow a stronger trust and belief in the science that inevitably, historically and continually will be applied to food and beverages. The acceptance of nano-ingredients may be some way off but the start of a closer trust relationship is key.”