Inter-company collaboration is essential to address clean label (re)formulation challenges, according to research organisation TNO - and consumer reception and ingredient functionality must be considered.
Joost Blankestijn, business development manager for food innovations at TNO, told delegates at the Fi Conference 2017 that when multiple partners work to solve clean label problems as a consortium they can align their goals and share both costs and results.
"The partners bring expertise to create new, unique value," he said. "Open innovation is about what you put in and what you get out. The value of what you get out is much higher [than what you put in]."
TNO, an independent, not-for-profit organisation, also works with companies on a one-on-one basis to make use of the collective knowledge gained by open innovation to solve clean label reformulation challenges.
Clarifying clean label
One of the first challenges is determining a common definition of 'clean label' and understanding what consumers are looking for.
To this end, TNO conducted qualitative interviews with 20 consumers during which participants were shown several recipe cards for tomato pasta sauce, each with different ingredients. The researchers found that consumers veered away from recipes with unfamiliar ingredients, and that E-numbers were perceived to be intrinsically unhealthy -- even though natural ingredients are also assigned e-numbers.
On the other hand, too few ingredients was also a turn-off, as consumers doubt whether the product is really shelf stable.
From clean- to clear labelling
Companies sometimes need to educate consumers about ingredients' natural origins, to avoid misconceptions. For instance, when Dutch manufacturer Peijnenburg wished to make a sugar-free version of its famous gingerbread, it found natural sweetener xylitol, derived from the birch tree, to be a suitable clean label alternative. The problem was xylitol's name: the x's and y's make it sound too chemical.
The solution was to produce a commercial to raise consumer awareness of xylitol's natural origins and sweet taste. Consequently Peijnenburg Zero, which launched two years ago, has been highly successful, according to Blankestijn.
"This is the benefit of clear labelling -- explaining what the ingredient is and why it is used".
Understanding functionality and synergies
Blankestijn said that clean label reformulation is not just a matter of switching out one ingredient for another. It can also be an opportunity to add functionality to existing ingredients.
In one project, TNO and its partners have used super-heated-steam (SHS) technology to improve the visco-stability of flour and starch. The process is a physical modification, so the new starches can be used to replace chemically-modified starches.
In another, TNO is working with five companies to develop anti-fungal solutions from herbs, spices and plant extracts, for the development of preservative-free foods.
"We know preservatives are very effective against a range of spoiler organisms," Blankestijn said, "It is hard to find alternatives from nature. We think we won't find a silver bullet, one ingredient to do the job."
The solution is to explore synergies between ingredients. For example, the project consortium has observed a synergistic action between vanillin and two specific herb-derived components on Z. bailii (which can cause devastating spoilage in soft drinks).
"Not every combination works against all organisms, so you need a tailored combination for your product."