Flavor Use: Is Natural Necessarily Clean Label?

Posted on:October 20, 2019

“All natural” and “clean label” do not necessarily equate with one another, began Deepthi K. Weerasinghe, Ph.D., Principal, dP3 Consulting, in his presentation “Formation of Flavor—Is Natural the same as Clean Label?”

In the absence of a regulatory definition for clean label and only vague guidance by FDA and USDA as to what constitutes “natural flavor,” such determinations are widely subjective. His presentation outlined a growing struggle between existing and evolving flavor production technologies and regulatory strictures working hard to keep up with shifting consumer expectations.

So, what constitutes natural? To begin, raw plant and animal products have generally been accepted as “natural.” However, their naturalness immediately becomes subject to interpretation, depending on whether genetically modified organisms, pesticides, antibiotics and/or other chemicals were used in their production and handling. Aspergillus oryzae, for example, is a filamentous fungus used to produce soy sauce, miso and sake. The growth media for A. oryzae cultures can be manipulated to create lactones as flavoring compounds.

“Since they are produced through natural fermentation, the lactones would be considered natural at that point, as they are not all that different from other products of fermentation, such as beer, yogurt, bread or cheese,” said Weerasinghe. But what happens when one starts genetically manipulating the enzymatic components of fermentative microorganisms?

Weerasinghe noted a patented process that converts kaurenoic acid into steviol and rebaudioside(s) (sweet components from the stevia plant) using genetically modified microorganisms. Companies need to be alert to such developments and their implications for clean and/or natural label designations.

It is also possible to manufacture colors through genetic modification. Weerasinghe cited a technical paper outlining how four bioengineered microbes could be used sequentially to transform glucose into callistephin, an anthocyanin color found in strawberries, pomegranate and blue corn. Would clean label consumers deem such an ingredient natural?

A demarcation between “soft” vs. “hard” chemistry may also define what is natural. Weerasinghe noted that the flavor industry had contended with this issue years ago with hydrolyzed vegetable proteins (HVP). While initially manufactured using “hard” inorganic chemicals to hydrolyze the proteins into amino acid-based flavor enhancers, consumer pressure shifted the industry toward using natural enzyme-catalyzed hydrolyses (i.e., “soft” chemistry).

This demarcation may not be quite so clear-cut today, especially under more restrictive EU regulations, said Weerasinghe. “Soft chemistry also refers to processing methods similar to common kitchen practices,” explained Weerasinghe, as in the use of juice concentrates and heat to manipulate pH conditions. Weerasinghe pointed to a patent describing the production of aliphatic alcohols and aldehydes from vegetable oils using enzymes naturally present in guava juices and soy flour. But, even then, he said, “The methodology used to extract and purify such enzymes will factor into their regulatory and clean label designations.”

The types of flavor extraction processes used also impact natural label designations. It makes a difference, he noted, if flavors are extracted with water, with ethanol (tinctures), or with natural oils or organic chemical solvents (oleoresins). Vanilla extractions typically use ethanol and water. However, the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) also allows the use of glycerin, propylene glycol, sugar, dextrose and corn syrup in such extractions. Even such minor extraction-process modifications that could ultimately affect label designations.

Processed flavors, which rely on Maillard reactions and Strecker degradations to produce savory flavors, are regulated in terms of process conditions (temperature, time, raw materials) to determine what constitutes natural. In the EU, they must be called “processed flavors.” But their appeal also lies in the ability to create vegan meat flavors from vegetable proteins. “You can make a wide range of chicken or beef flavors without using animal proteins,” said Weerasinghe.

Whether or not they qualify as natural or clean label will depend upon both regulatory authorities—and where vegan consumers are willing to accept trade-offs
“Clean label folks don’t like black box ingredient designations like ‘natural flavors,’ because it doesn’t tell them what is in there,” concluded Weerasinghe. “Customers today are looking for safety; many are looking for comfort. Many customers have health challenges; they want protection from the unknown.”

The question remains: Are regulatory environments helping or hurting such aspirations?

“Formation of Flavor—Is Natural the Same as Clean Label,” Deepthi K. Weerasinghe, Ph.D., Principal, dP3 Consulting

This presentation was given at the 2019 Clean Label Conference. To download free presentations and the Post-conference summary of this event, go to

See past and future Clean Label Conferences at

Food Safety & Preservation of Clean-Labeled Foods

Posted on:October 18, 2019


Kathleen Glass, Ph.D., Associate Director of the Food Research Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is a self-professed “preservative fanatic.” Keeping food safe is her highest priority. However, she also respects consumer demands for clean labels. Glass highlighted clean label strategies for inhibiting Listeria monocytogenes growth in foods in her presentation titled “Challenges & Solutions for “Preservative-free, Microbial-safe Foods.”

In 1985, L. monocytogenes was the “newest bug on the block.” Following an outbreak of L. monocytogenes in cheeses, and not yet knowing the organism’s infectious dose, FDA and USDA took a zero-tolerance approach to the pathogen. The ready-to-eat (RTE) meat industry realized their products were also vulnerable, leading Glass and colleagues to test a variety of RTE meat products and identify pH, moisture, nitrite and competitive microbiota as critical factors for listerial growth.

The first listeriosis outbreak in an RTE meat (frankfurters) occurred in 1998-1999. In response, USDA fast-tracked the 2004 approval of lactate and diacetate to control L. monocytogenes in processed meats. In the meantime, however, a 2002 listeria outbreak associated with turkey caused 46 illnesses and ten deaths. Lactate and diacetate, often in combination with nitrite, became the gold standard for L. monocytogenes control, with propionate and benzoate added to the anti-listerial armamentarium in 2013. Unfortunately, L. monocytogenes outbreaks have continued to occur, particularly when antimicrobials are not used, as in the devastating 2018 South African polony outbreak: an RTE sausage product killed 216 people.

Glass compared using an anti-listerial in a product to that of wearing a seat belt: you don’t expect an accident, but you wear a seat belt, just in case. Using preservatives controls microbes throughout the food chain, providing insurance against improper holding temperature and protecting susceptible consumers.

Sometimes, protection against pathogens can be achieved simply by adjusting pH (<4.6) or water activity (<0.92). Combinations of low pH and low water activity are even more effective. In the cases of moderate pH and water activity, however, additional hurdles, such as antimicrobials, are needed. The effectiveness of an antimicrobial in food depends on many factors such as fat content, salt concentration and more. Different acids may have different activities, even at the same pH; acids with higher pKas tend to be more effective against Listeria monocytogenes in cheeses. Because it is difficult to predict what will work in a particular food, validation testing in the food is essential.

Pathogens can be controlled while maintaining a clean label. Clean label substitutes with documented efficacy exist for some synthetic preservatives, including cultured sugar/milk/wheat for lactate or propionate; vinegar for diacetate or acetic acid; cultured celery for nitrite; and acerola cherry powder for erythorbate or ascorbate. However, not all preservatives have suitable clean label substitutes, particularly sorbate, which is effective against molds, yeast, Listeria monocytogenes, Staphylococcus aureus and Clostridium botulinum. Some clean label antimicrobials may also be required at high levels, which may impact product flavor.

Commercial fermentates (proprietary, clean label mixtures of organic acids, vinegar and bacteriocins) can be effective antimicrobials but may exhibit variability between suppliers or even between lots.

Starter (protective) cultures are another clean label strategy to prevent listerial growth in some products. Glass showed how effective cultured milk solids can be at controlling L. monocytogenes growth in mozzarella cheese. She also described using protective cultures to prevent L. monocytogenes growth in cottage cheese and on apples, while highlighting the need for challenge studies to identify the most effective ways (temperature, application process/location) to use these antimicrobials in a specific food.

While there are no magic bullets, clean label options for pathogen control in foods exist, with ingredient companies actively developing new clean label alternatives. Clean label antimicrobials that are familiar to consumers have the potential to enhance the safety of foods while building consumer confidence.

Challenges & Solutions for ‘Preservative-free,’ Microbial-safe Foods,” Kathleen Glass, Ph.D., Associate Director of the Food Research Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

This presentation was given at the 2019 Clean Label Conference. To download free presentations and the Post-conference summary of this event, go to

See past and future Clean Label Conferences at

Do Clean Labels Have Unintended Health Consequences?

Posted on:October 3, 2019

Dietary recommendations for clean eating are consumer-driven and not backed by science, according to Joanne Slavin, Ph.D., RD, Professor, Department of Food Science and Nutrition, University of Minnesota. Slavin’s presentation was titled: “Do Clean Labels Have Unintended Health Consequences?”

Clean labels are not based on decades of nutritional recommendations, which haven’t changed a great deal since first articulated in 1894 with a focus on protein and calories.

Enrichment of foods, such as vitamin A and D in reduced-fat milk or dairy-alternatives, is needed to help consumers meet recommended levels of intake of these nutrients. However, their listing on labels as “vitamin A palmitate” and “vitamin D3” may be viewed as chemicals and not acceptable when clean label “rules” are followed.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) have been published since 1980 and are developed by experts on the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committees (DGAC). The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, as well as the department of Agriculture, jointly publish the DGA every five years to provide evidence-based recommendations to promote health, prevent chronic disease and maintain healthy weight. The DGA are important, as they form the basis of federal nutrition policy and programs; help guide health promotion and disease prevention initiatives; and inform various organizations and industries. However, Slavin noted that some recommendations “are unrealistic, difficult to communicate to consumers and promote a ‘hit list’ of dietary components associated with disease.”

Slavin asked: “What is a clean label?” In his 2008 book In Defense of Food, journalist and activist Michael Pollan stated that consumers should “not eat anything with more than five ingredients or ingredients you can’t pronounce.” In 2014, one international ingredient vendor offered that “a clean label means the product can be positioned as natural, organic and/or free from additives/ preservatives.” These definitions stress use of ingredients accepted by consumers. The ingredient list should be short, simple and feature minimally processed ingredients where possible.

In the pursuit of clean label, the ultra-processing of foods has been demonized by some. Ultra-processed has been defined as “made from processed substances extracted or refined from whole foods… with little or no whole foods. Products include burgers, frozen pizza and pasta dishes, nuggets and sticks, crisps, biscuits, confectionery, cereal bars, carbonated and other sugared drinks, and various snack products.” Ultra-processed foods are associated with for profit, big food and drink companies.

NOVA food classification, proposed by World Public Health Nutrition Association, is a four-tiered classification system ordered according to the extent of processing rather than nutrient content. NOVA Category 4, ultra-processed foods, includes industrial formulations with many ingredients, usually. “Although public health advice of NOVA is that ultra-processed foods—with an emphasis on fat, sugar and salt—should be avoided to achieve improvements in nutrient intakes,” noted Slavin, “disease links between intakes of ultra-processed foods and health are lacking.”

There are nutritional and health challenges to clean eating, including Orthorexia Nervosa—a condition coined by Steven Bratman, M.D. in an essay published in the October 1997 issue of Yoga Journal. “Orthorexia Nervosa is defined as a fixation on the virtue of food or an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating,” in which people feel a sense of satisfaction and control with extremely restricted and ordered healthy eating.

“Required vitamins and minerals for enrichment cannot meet rules of clean label, as many view these as chemicals. Intakes of nutrients of concern—fiber, potassium, calcium and vitamin D—will only get worse by clean label ‘rules,’” explained Slavin. She provided the example of protein quality for plant-based ingredients, such as soy, which has improved digestibility and absorption due to processing. The same is true for the addition of healthy ingredients—whole grains, vegetables, fruits, pulses—as well as the removal of added sugar, sodium, and saturated and trans fats in some processed foods.

Slavin concluded that the movement to greater support for plant-based diets over nutrient intake will continue. Ultraprocessing is the new villain associated with a distrust of food technology as the solution for nutrition problems—even if that technology solves issues. She stressed, “It is critical to have those skilled in food technology and production on scientific panels that determine nutrition policy.”

“Do Clean Labels Have Unintended Health Consequences,” Joanne Slavin, Ph.D., RD, Professor, Department of Food Science and Nutrition, University of Minnesota

This presentation was given at the 2019 Clean Label Conference. To download free presentations and the Post-conference summary of this event, go to

See past and future Clean Label Conferences at

The Clean Label Movement’s Evolution Toward Sustainability

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Innova’s database contains 130 million records. Over 500,000 products from 90 countries are added each year. Using this tool, Mindy Hermann, MBA, RDN, Innova Market Insights, delved into the evolution of clean label, the results of which were revealed in her presentation titled “Understanding the Clean Label Movement & What it Means for the Industry.”

The definition of clean label has evolved dramatically over the past several years, she said. Five years ago, organic, natural, vegan, and free-from additives and preservatives defined the category. For example, “If we look at a classic definition of clean, from 2014- 2018, more than 25% of new product launches have the words ‘natural,’ ‘organic,’ ‘no additives,’ ‘no preservatives’ or ‘GMO-free’ on their labels.”

As the classification of clean label became more well-defined, it expanded to include minimally processed, dairy alternatives, meat substitutes and sugar/salt/fat reformulations. Today, human and animal welfare, supply chain transparency, sustainably sourced and plant-based nutrition are top contenders that define this space, suggested Hermann. Ethical claims, including animal and environmental, also are rising in importance, and plant-based claims are up 68% from 2014-2018.

Six market categories accounted for greater than 50% of new food and beverage launches with clean label claims in 2018 (see chart “Categories as a % of New Clean Label F&B Launches, Global 2018”). Sauces and Seasonings is the largest of the six defined categories. Bakery followed by the Soft Drinks are the next two categories with the most claims. For example, Passage Foods’ Passage to Asia Thai Basil and Sweet Chili Stir-Fry Sauce provides an insight into claims such as natural, gluten-free, BPA-free and non-GMO. “Consumers consider ’gluten-free’ to be a clean claim, and ‘BPA- free’ is a clean claim in the environmental space,” said Hermann.

The Sports Nutrition category is seeing 40% growth of clean label claims per year, 2014-2018, noted Hermann. Aside from ingredient integrity, companies are telling a relatable story. For example, Organic Valley Organic Fuel Whey Protein Powder builds a relationship with the consumer by claiming that it does not contain “unnecessary additives you can’t pronounce, artificial flavorings or sweeteners, GMOs, pesticides, antibiotics or hormones.”

Hermann also presented an example from the snack market. Billy Franks Hot n Spicy, British Beef Jerky’s label indicated it had no artificial colorings, flavorings or preservatives. The label also claimed that the product was “air-dried grass-fed,” which is “a newer clean claim,” Hermann noted.

Three in five consumers want to know the origin of the ingredients in products they purchase. No artificial flavors or colors; made with real ingredients; natural; and low/no/reduced sugar top the list of factors that influence purchasing decisions. And, consumers are adopting lifestyle diets, such as vegetarian/vegan, plant-based, keto, etc. But flavor is still the number one factor influencing food and beverage purchasing decisions, said Hermann.

Health is the biggest driver behind consumer purchases of alternatives to bread, meat or dairy. Research data reveals that dairy-free is growing at 18% per year, and meat substitutes are growing about 17% per year. “The plant-based marketplace shows no sign of slowing down,” claimed Hermann. “Innova sees a 33% average annual growth in vegan claims from 2014-2018, and plant-based claims grew 60+% during that same time period.” Brands are “greening up” their foods and beverages by adding plant-based ingredients to a variety of products, including dairy.

Animal welfare is growing in popularity, as well. Innova reports a 21% increase in annualized growth over the past five years. As an example, Pre Beef Ribeye Steaks’ label claims: “Grass fed and finished. No added hormones. No added antibiotics.” “Grass fed and finished” connotes a more natural and clean process.

Consumers’ age comes into play when considering environmental, social and ethical factors. Regarding Gen Z, 50% are concerned about the sustainability of the planet. One in two Millennials are concerned about environmental impact. Baby Boomers (43%) feel that food waste and redistribution matter most. Gen X (58%) indicate that waste and pollution is a concern.

These trends are evidenced in Rubies in the Rubble Chipotle Mayo—a vegan product made with aquafaba, the water leftover from cooking chickpeas that is ordinarily waste. And Numi® Organic Tea is made with “compostable tea bags and use…post-consumer recycled packaging for improved sustainability.”

Hermann closed with these key takeaways. “Looking at growing expectations for clean label, the impact of food production on climate change is expected to drive food product development. On the consumer side, consumers expect clean labels to communicate trust, transparency and sustainability.”

“Understanding the Clean Label Movement & What it Means for the Industry,” Mindy Hermann, MBA, RDN, Innova Market Insights

This presentation was given at the 2019 Clean Label Conference. To download free presentations and the Post-conference summary of this event, go to

See past and future Clean Label Conferences at

Wella Cashew Cacao Chaga Bar 2020 Protein Sampling Station

Posted on:October 1, 2019

A new variety of Wella Bar, Cashew Cacao & Chaga, was launched in 2019. It has a number of “on-trend” characteristics such as the need for a refrigerated distribution chain (thus avoiding the need for emulsifiers), plant-based proteins and chaga mushrooms. This product was scheduled to be on the Protein Product Sampling station during the 2020 Protein Trends & Technologies Seminar’s Technology Program: Formulating with Proteins

Cashews*, Sunflower Seeds*, Maple Syrup*, Cacao Butter*, Brown Rice Protein*, Cacao*, Coconut Butter*, Coconut*, Chaga Mushroom*, MCT Coconut Oil*, Vanilla Extract* (contains ethyl alcohol), Sea Salt, Monk Fruit*, Cayenne Pepper*, Cinnamon*.       *USDA Organic.

Serv. Size: 1 bar (45g), Amount Per Serving, Calories 240; Total Fat 18g (28%DV),  Cholesterol 0mg (0%DV), Sodium 110mg (5%DV), Total carb. 14g (5%DV), Fiber 3g (5% DV), Sugars 5g, Protein 8g (16% DV)

COMMENTS FROM PRODUCT WEBSITE: “A bar is so decadent you won’t believe you’re eating chaga mushrooms! We amped it up with brown rice protein to ensure that you’re satiated long after the last bite.”

*Chaga is a mushroom that grows on the bark of birch trees in cool Northern climates. This antioxidant-rich adaptogenic super mushroom has been used in folk medicine for centuries, prized for its immune supporting and anti-aging properties.

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