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Move over clean eating, hello clean labelling. How berries, herbs and vinegar will feed the public appetite and help the industry hit $32 billion

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9 min read

It has been fifteen years since Canadian mother-of-three Tosca Renu launched and then trademarked the Eat Clean™ movement after shifting 34kg thanks to a strict regime of bodyweights and ‘clean,’ natural foods.

Clean eating has since taken on many guises and it is constantly being re-marketed, but most shoppers now recognise it, understand it and would describe it as, eating whole, naturally grown foods and avoiding artificial ingredients and added sugars.

Now, with health and sustainability at the heart of most meals, the drive for clean labelling is also growing at an exponential rate, with the market for clean label ingredients and natural food colours set to boom to more than $32billion globally in the next five years* (1).

But for those wanting to cash in, half the battle will be in helping consumers to understand what’s natural and what isn’t and – crucially – in giving E numbers the mother of all makeovers.

Picture the scene. A health-conscious shopper, clad in gym gear, is down at the supermarket, filling their basket with as many whole foods and natural products as possible. They’re up-to-date on the latest health trends and keen to support their gut health, boost their immunity and eat more plant-based foods. Scanning the ingredients labels of everything from shampoo to sourdough, the new breed of conscious shopper is not only looking at the product, but also at its preservatives and colorants alongside them, and where it all came from in the first place. But what’s this, ‘E330…E171…Titanium Dioxide….Who wants Titanium in their loaf?!’ They grimace, shake their head and pop the bread back on the shelf.

And yet, while E330 is just citric acid from fruit, they were half right, half wrong to be startled by E171, the chemical number for titanium dioxide. It is a natural mineral which can help to keep foods looking brighter and whiter and, until very recently, it was widely used. But E330 was ruled out as safe by The European Food Safety Authority in 2021 due to a small amount of potential toxicity in large quantities.

Clearly there is still a huge gap in consumer understanding of food processing and the various elements that go into keeping edible products both safe and long-lasting. And at the same time, manufacturers and new product developers need to keep on top of the ever-changing laws and rules on what can and can’t be deemed natural, clean or even safe. We are, it seems, all in it together in a world where food technologists and labelling experts are about to become kings and queens.

In the 12 months to March 2022, interest in clean labelling increased by 11% and it is projected to grow by another 12% in 2022. Source: Spoonshot

In the 12 months to March 2022, interest in clean labelling increased by 11% and it is projected to grow by another 12% in 2022. Source: Spoonshot

The focus on clean label has also impacted how shelf life is viewed. Manufacturers are turning their attention to products and preservatives that can be tied back to recognizable, even ancient, natural sources, to put consumers at ease.

Spoonshot’s analysis of online consumer conversations found that 28% of claims-related conversations on clean label associated it with the word “natural”.

Interest in natural preservatives saw a 53% growth in the 12 months to March 2022 after declining since 2019.

So, going forward, which products can food manufacturers use safely, produce at scale and which will draw in consumers?  Nature is going to lead the way here alongside general consumer trends.
Here is our pick of the clean label ingredients to watch.

Rosemary

This woody-smelling ancient Mediterranean shrub is rapdily becoming a more popular option as a natural preservative and a clean label alternative to synthetic antioxidants such as BHA, BHT, TBHQ, and EDTA. Rosemary extract is rich in phenolic diterpenes, highly anti-oxidant chemical compounds that are found in the leaves. These components are sometimes labelled as carnosic acid, carnosol, rosmanol and rosmariquinone. It’s the ‘deterpines’ that contribute to the herb’s antioxidaant and antimicrobial properties, which help fight spoilage across a wide range of food and drink products. Rosemary extract is also popular for delaying colour and flavour loss in packaged snack bars, cookies, chips, nuts, beverages, dressings, and sauces with a significant fat content. Meanwhile, Carnosic acid and rosmarinic acid delay the oxidation of fats and slow down the effectiveness of any microorganisms that can cause food to spoil. This is why rosemary extract is now also being more widely used to preserve meats, oils, fats, and margarine.

We’re also seeing rosemary extract become even “cleaner” as a few companies like Kemin Industries launch organic versions as well.  Kemin’s research found that blending rosemary extract with green tea extract slowed down the oxidation process and the ‘rancid’, ‘gone-off’ stench that oxidation creates. This pairing also reduced the amount of rosemary extract needed in certain products.

Rosemary as a standalone ingredient has also been gaining popularity in food and beauty trends at large ever since a Northumbria University Alzheimer’s trial showed, when used as a pure essential oil, it may gently assist memory, mood and concentration(*2). Don’t be surprised to see it popping up in non and low alcohol drinks, teas and drops.

Currently, only 0.5% of new product launches have rosemary extract as part of their ingredients. However, it does have a fairly wide distribution across categories and we see it soaring.

Distribution of rosemary extract within product subcategories; Source: Spoonshot

Distribution of rosemary extract within product subcategories; Source: Spoonshot

Rowanberry Extract

Baking solutions giant Millbo Srl Italy recently introduced a natural and clean label preservative derived from the botanical compounds of rowanberry to replace the use of the chemical preservatives sorbic acid and potassium sorbate.

Rowanberries already have a public relations advantage because they are so pretty. The fruits grow in generous bright red clusters on fern-like mountain shrubs, everywhere from the Himalayas to Wales. They used to be a popular British botanical, used in drinks, jams and pickles and appear as part of the Viking diet in archaeological findings. But these days most people steer clear as they can be poisonous if uncooked and consumed in larger quantities. Tasted raw, they are extremely bitter and astringent. But once cooked, they take on a tart sweetness. Award winning Scottish gin brand ‘Caorunn’ has been using the berries as part of its botanicals mix since 2009. The brand name comes from the Gaelic word for Rowan berry and takes sustainability and clean eating to the next level since the berries are found within a ten-minute walk of the Highlands distillery.

Rowanberries contain natural sorbic acid with antimicrobial properties that can prevent the spoilage of yeast, mould, and some bacteria in food to prolong shelf- life in wet ingredients such as drinks and sandwich spreads. Sorbic acid was, originally, all sourced from the rowan berry but chemical manufacturing eventually became more cost effective at scale. Now, we’re seeing a shift back to the original source, keeping up with the demand for 100% natural options.

Our data shows that rowanberries have a very high novelty score. That is, their use is still quite uncommon. But with the growing demand for natural preservatives and the berry’s intriguing history and subtle and appealing pink tinge, it is likely we’ll hear much more about this ingredient.

Buffered Vinegar

Even those with little food or science knowledge might have heard that vinegar can be used as a household cleaning product or that it can be ingested to help with gut health or to alkalise the body. Plus who doesn’t like to splosh it over their chips? Vinegar has been used as a natural preservative since Ancient Egyptian times. The acetic acid in it kills microbes and stops food from spoiling while helping to regulate blood sugar levels in the body too.

In large-scale food manufacturing, buffered vinegar is used in place of the regular chip shop stuff. While typical household vinegar has a pH of 2-3, buffered vinegar is a concentrated version with a constant pH of about 6-6.5. This product has the advantage of a neutral taste profile and has no impact on the final product’s flavour or colour. This preservative is also label-friendly, since it allows manufacturers to label the additive “vinegar” instead of using chemical names, and this enhances the clean label aspect for consumers who are looking to completely avoid E numbers.

Spoonshot’s data shows that interest in vinegar has, for years, been steadily on the rise, in both consumer and business media channels. In the 12 months to March 2022, consumer interest in vinegar shot up by 18% and business interest by 24%.

In our research, vinegar had a very low novelty score and a highly accepted consumer score of 7.37 (out of 10), based on us capturing the sentiment of online consumer conversations over the last six months (to March 2022).

We see it as a strong contender to continue to rise in popularity with many more inventive uses to come.

The Clean Gold Rush

In 2021, Kerry Ingredients spent a whopping US$1 billion to acquire Niacet, a specialist in clean-label, low-sodium preservatives with a strong portfolio of conventional organic acids. Just a few years earlier, Kerry had also bought Biosecur Lab, which makes natural antimicrobials from citrus extracts.
In 2020, Corbion, a huge Netherlands-based ingredients company, announced that it would be investing in a number of major growth areas, including natural preservation techniques.

Meanwhile, Cargill has just expanded the processing capabilities of its sweetener plant in Cikande, Indonesia, investing $2.4million in tapioca sweetener, extracted from the root of the cassava plant.
Businesses are now going to be jostling over the start line for clean label foods and it could get ugly. Just look at the recent court battle between Bragg Live Food Products LLC and Goli gummies over the latter‘s use of the term “apple cider vinegar.” Bragg own’s the world’s best-selling organic apple cider vinegar in a health portfolio said to be worth over $36million and whose investors include the Hollywood star Orlando Bloom.

There is going to be a continued buzz of activity in this area in the coming years and significant potential for new types of natural preservatives from plant extracts and fermentation to metabolites and enzymes; or even combinations of all these elements. There are so many ingredients in Mother Nature’s cupboard, many still largely untapped. And those who succeed in cultivating them without harming the planet and in making their labels as simple, short and natural as possible will find themselves sitting on a tasty investment.

*(1)According to latest market report ‘Global Clean Label Ingredients Market: Focus on Ingredients, Application, and Country-Wise Analysis – Analysis and Forecast, 2020-2026. March 2022 ( BIS Research).

(2) https://researchportal.northumbria.ac.uk/en/publications/half-way-to-scarborough-fair-the-cognitive-and-mood-effects-of-ro

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