Beyond ingredients: Food processing as a tool for cleaner labels

12 Jun 2018

Ingredients come first when companies think about developing clean label foods and drinks, but certain processing technologies also should be considered part of the clean label toolbox.

Beyond ingredients: Food processing as a tool for cleaner labels

People have been processing foods for thousands of years: cooking, fermenting, drying, freezing, preserving and extracting. Yet when consumers talk about “processed food”, often they refer to products that should be eaten in moderation, if not totally avoided. For many, food processing does not fit with the concept of natural, wholesome, clean label foods.

However, the idea of clean label processing is beginning to gain ground, whether as a way to replace undesirable ingredients, or as a way to support ingredient changes.

One of the biggest challenges for clean label foods has been finding ways to keep food safe and attractive while retaining a reasonable shelf life, without using artificial preservatives. Apart from natural ingredients for preservation, some companies have looked to natural processes to extend the shelf life of their products instead, such as high pressure processing (HPP), which can extend shelf life by a factor of two to ten. It deactivates a range of common pathogens, such as salmonella, listeria and microorganisms associated with spoilage, while leaving smaller molecules like vitamins intact, and it has no impact on taste and texture. HPP is widely used for fresh juices, but can also be used for soups, sauces, ready meals, dips, meat and fish.

Similarly, the pulsed electric field (PEF) process uses a high voltage electric pulse to break the cell walls within a food product and destroy harmful microbes. Campden BRI is among the companies offering processes like HPP and PEF to ensure food safety, but such processes may provide additional benefits that fit with demand for cleaner labels. The organisation found that using PEF on potatoes to be used for chips, for example, led to sweeter tasting chips without any additional oil absorption.

Clean label processes can be used to improve products’ ingredient lists in other ways too. TNO Innovation has developed a technique using superheated steam, for example, that can modify ingredients like starch or flour to improve their functionality, and can be used to finish frying certain products to reduce total fat content.

Fermentation is another process being used to produce established ingredients in a way that consumers may consider more natural, such as sweeteners or preservatives. And certain processing technologies may give products the added bonus of a premium positioning, such as cold pressing or cold brewing for juices, vegetable oils, teas and coffees, among others.

When developing clean label products, manufacturers must contend with a rapidly evolving concept that encompasses allergens, artificial ingredients, animal welfare, responsible sourcing and sustainability. Consumer expectations have multiplied as the clean label trend has matured. Therefore, manufacturers should take a multifaceted approach that takes into account all aspects of ingredient sourcing and formulation – including processing.

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