We have been chasing the “clean-label” ideal for so long that you’d think we’d have caught it by now.
But then 2020 arrived, the world caught COVID-19, and the industry’s been playing catch-up ever since, trying to make sense of the year gone by and what it means for snack and bakery formulations going forward.
And here’s the catch: It may mean that clean labels will be even more “essential” than before, as consumers spooked by the coronavirus scrutinize every purchase with an eye toward its effect on health.
And that means that snack and bakery developers will be scrutinizing every ingredient’s potential impact on clean labels, as well as finished-product durability, intra-formulation functionality, and the sensory appeal that consumers crave. It’s a tall order, but as 2020 proved, we can do hard things.
WHAT CLEAN MEANS
Lesaffre conducted a study with C+R Research to learn more about what clean-label consumers expect, and one key lesson, Hanes says, was that while most associate “clean” with fewer preservatives, more “natural” ingredients, and minimal processing, “We found that interest in and definitions of clean-label vary greatly by generation.”
For example, the study’s baby boomer respondents were more driven by taste than were Millennials and Gen Xers, who gravitate toward brands that align with their clean-and-healthy lifestyles. His conclusion: “It’s impossible to state that ‘American consumers’ feel a certain way about clean labeling, because there are too many generational differences among Americans.”
Ferraro also sees “clean” as “very much in the eye of the beholder—and the category they’re looking at.” Case in point: a consumer who’d ignore an artificial emulsifier in a chocolate confection might balk at its presence in loaf of bread, he offers. Similarly, “A Dave’s Killer Bread consumer and a Wonder Bread consumer are both eating leavened bread, but their individual definitions of clean label could be—and probably are—entirely different.”
Either way, the umbrella is expanding for what clean means, observes Mel Festejo, COO, American Key Food Products, Closter, NJ. Non-GMO, non-allergenic, organic, plant-based, nutritionally balanced, high-fiber, high-protein, low-sugar, low-sodium, gut-friendly, gluten-free, Paleo-friendly, and more: All are adding their names to what he calls “a constantly growing list” of clean-label qualifiers.
CLEAN GOES GREEN
Consumers are even asking that “clean” go “green.” Allison Leibovich, senior technical service specialist, bakery, Cargill, has seen clean expectations extend to issues of sustainability, transparency, animal welfare, and more as consumers—especially younger ones, she says—“look for products they perceive as healthier for them and the planet.”
That’s driven calls for transparency and traceability throughout the supply chain. Healthy Food Ingredients, Fargo, ND, even fired up two new mills in October 2020—one dedicated allergen-free—to provide complete supply-chain traceability and vertical integration for its clean-label milled ingredients. “Consumers are seeking products that tell a story, beginning with how ingredients are sourced and grown,” explains Jennifer Tesch, chief marketing officer. “So sustainable and regenerative practices are playing a larger role in clean labeling as consumers expect brands to have a clean image and conscience, as well.”
But just as consumers’ definition of clean is expanding, so, too are their preferences for which snack and bakery products they’d prefer be clean.
Tesch notes children’s snacks have become “more of a priority for families, especially with distance learning and more time spent at home during the pandemic.” And while most of the clean-ingredient requests Healthy Food Ingredients fields come from retail customers, “consumers are beginning to push for clean, healthful products in foodservice, as well,” she says.
Hanes thinks white and whole-wheat pan breads have the most room for improvement to their long ingredient lists, and notes “many brands selling pan breads have already set goals to reduce the number of ingredients in their formulations and to use natural alternatives where possible.”
Rupp expects to see more functional foods, as well as products covering a wider price range, join the clean ranks. “The pandemic pushed a lot of consumers to the center aisles where they’re picking up prepackaged breads and other baked goods from brands they recognize,” she says, “and manufacturers are beginning to catch on.”
That quality piece is critical going forward as clean-label snacks and baked goods keep evolving and expanding.
Now that COVID has reawakened consumers to wellness, Leibovich expects to see a nexus between “clean” and “better-for-you” yielding a “proliferation of snacks and baked goods infused with ingredients designed to give a nutritional boost.” This opens the door for plant proteins and fiber, she says, “especially with interest in digestive health on the rise.” She wouldn’t even be surprised to see plant sterols and postbiotics—touted for immune support—winding up in snack and bakery products.
But that’s the sunny outlook. If the pandemic’s effects linger, Rupp predicts, manufacturers may “have to make tough decisions about which SKUs to reduce to streamline production—and some of those cuts may occur in clean-label lines to accommodate production of staples and more-traditional baked goods.”
Festejo thinks that the pandemic may be less a factor in determining clean label’s prospects than the ensuing economic outlook—namely, “how much disposable income consumers will have to spend on snacks and bakery, and how much of it’ll be in the hands of those who view clean labels as ‘essential.’ It may not be a clean sweep in 2021, but it could be a clean-up year.”
Read the full article from Snack Food & Wholesale Bakery.