Consumers are more conscious than ever about making responsible food choices. They want to know what is in their food and how it is produced. At the same time, feeding a growing global population while maintaining a low carbon footprint requires innovation. We spoke with Joost Blankestijn, programme manager at Wageningen Food & Biobased Research in the Netherlands, about technologies that can help producers to deliver safe, tasty and nutritious food, while enabling consumers to make informed decisions.
What is your understanding of the term ‘clean label’?
“Clean label is a simple enough term, but dig a little deeper and the clean label conundrum begins to unravel. With no legal or commonly-accepted definition within the food industry, clean label has become a catch-all for a panoply of food and beverage claims from ‘all natural’ to ‘minimally processed’, from ‘sustainable’ to ‘GM-free’. It has become a mainstream consumer movement that has shifted from being a trend to something that is considered normal, expanding from the health food store to the superstore. It is now a moving target for food reformulators, who are at the whim of the consumer’s changing wish list.”
For clean label manufacturers, what are some of the key challenges in terms of maintaining the quality and safety of products on the shelf?
“At the moment, research questions relating to clean labelling fall into two categories. The ﬁrst involves understanding food product matrices, in order to achieve more targeted reformulation strategies. More specifically, this means understanding the interaction and roles of various components of a food product, and how these components affect sensory properties, product safety and shelf stability. The second category involves the development of technologies that infer novel functionalities to what may be regarded as ‘clean label’ ingredients.”
“In practice, addressing these broad research questions requires a close collaborative effort. On the one hand, ingredient functionalities needed for reformulating food products towards being ‘clean label’ must be met. And on the other, the development of ‘clean label’ ingredients requires that the functionality speciﬁcations are identiﬁed ﬁrst –this information can only be obtained from reformulation studies.”
What are mild preservation technologies, and where do you see most potential for these techniques?
“New mild preservation techniques, such as high-pressure processing (HPP) and pulsed electric field processing (PEF), inactivate micro-organisms as effectively as standard heating techniques – and moreover have the added bonuses of retaining flavour, texture and nutritional value while consuming less energy. As a result, shelf life is extended and products do not have to be thrown out so soon.
Wageningen Food & Biobased Research has been researching mild preservation techniques for over fifteen years. The focus is on the interaction between process and product and reinforcing microbial safety in order to achieve improvements in shelf life and quality. We use this knowledge to develop concrete processes for the mild preservation of food products. Most processes can be tested at laboratory and pilot level to offer quick insights into the effects of a technology on the product. Consumer acceptation, upscaling and implementation are also among our activities.”
What is the state of play in terms of using anti-microbial compounds in clean label food products?
“The reason for adding artificial preservatives to food products and stringent processing is evident: destruction or prevention of microbial growth in food. Reduction of these preservation hurdles leads in many cases mainly to a shorter shelf life due to faster loss of quality, but in case of pathogens it may lead to public health concerns. Many foods do not rely on a single controlling factor but rather use combined preservation methods to assure safety and shelf life. The optimal solutions are expected to be a combination of the effect of natural ingredients, ferments or extracts and new preservation techniques.”
Could you provide examples of how food manufacturers can harness the synergistic properties of herbs and spices to boost quality and safety?
“With consumer demand for clean labels, milder processed and healthier foods, microbial food spoilage and safety is a huge challenge for food producers. At the same time, food losses are a major concern worldwide and microbial spoilage plays an important role in these losses. Traditional approaches used to control microbial growth in food, such as stringent processing and the use of artificial ingredients, do not meet current consumer demands for natural and minimally processed foods. Meeting these clean label demands requires novel solutions using natural ingredients in combination with milder preservation strategies. The combined use of natural anti-microbial ingredients with novel mild preservation methods for synergistic combinations will allow for the best application of preservation methods identification of hitherto unknown solutions, thus ensuring optimal organoleptic properties in microbiologically safe or stable food products.”
From a clean label shelf-life management point of view, what are your predictions for the next 3-5 years?
“As a result of this growing dichotomy, the scales are rebalancing towards increased product and ingredient transparency, pushing ‘clean label’ towards a ‘clear label’ philosophy. This brings with it a chance for the food industry to address the long-standing perception that additives with E-numbers, especially artificial ones, are not safe. Although the E-number system is a catalogue of food additives that have been extensively evaluated (and re-evaluated) for safe use in food products and which was intended to reassure consumers, consumer perception of E-numbers has been clouded by inaccurate and misleading information. This way, the e-number system, far from bringing clarity into additives in food, has hidden many simple molecules behind obfuscating E-numbers. Nitrogen, present in 80% of the air we breathe, is E941. Vitamin C, essential for health, is E300. There are many other examples.”