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Making it Clean: Clean Label Formulation Challenges

The growth of the clean label concept spans different demographics—all of whom have their own concerns and specific nutrition and food purchasing needs. Food processors need to examine consumer drivers and address the varied food formulation challenges when contemplating a shift to clean label formulation.

In the first part of this two-part investigation into the challenges of manufacturing clean label food products, we looked at what the clean label revolution is and what demographics are most interested in purchasing products that are clean label. Here, we take a look at some of the most common formulation challenges and how to address them.


The Right Stuff: Formulating with Clean Ingredients


The past best practice has been to use chemically enhanced natural ingredients (starches, fats) to improve functionality. Unfortunately, this does not match well with modern clean label expectations. So, the focus today is more on all-natural, less-enhanced emulsifiers and stabilizers. These are both effective and label-friendly.


Surfactants and emulsifiers are likely the most technically complicated category of food ingredients, and ongoing consumer demands for cleaner labels have shifted the industry’s focus toward natural emulsifiers and stabilizers, such as phospholipids. According to Peter J. Wilde, Ph.D., research leader at the Quadram Institute of Bioscience/University of East Anglia, (UK), there are many emerging clean label alternatives to meet various formulation challenges. Wilde is a regular speaker, author, and presenter at conferences worldwide. Clean label consumers tend to prefer natural emulsifiers and often shun “chemical-sounding” ingredient names of which they have no familiarity. Phospholipids, such as lecithin, are “ubiquitous in nature, as every plant and animal cell are stabilized by them,” said Wilde. Lecithin is naturally present in both egg yolks and oil seeds. This fits the clean label “bill of health” perfectly and has become a popular clean label formulation staple.


Labels matter a lot; in fact, ingredient label designations eclipse function, no matter how natural an ingredient is. Pointing to a commercially available bile salt supplement, Wilde jokingly noted that it, “(it) really is an excellent emulsifier. It is an approved supplement, so we know that it is safe. However, I do know that it would not be particularly label-friendly.”


Another ingredient category often used in food formulation is that of gums and hydrocolloids.  Hydrocolloids play a significant role in food & beverage development. Such ingredients can improve mouthfeel, viscosity, texture, stability, and many other characteristics of processed foods.

Clean label consumers tend to prefer natural emulsifiers, such as lecithin derived from egg yolks and oil seeds. Such consumers shun “chemical-sounding” ingredient names of which they have no familiarity.

Perception is Everything


A recent article in Food Processing  notes that, “when it comes to deciding the question of clean, consumer perception usually outdoes science.” However, deciding exactly which hydrocolloids accommodate a clean label and which do not “is not an exact science. In fact, science often plays an inferior role to perception,” according to the article.


Hydrocolloids are long-chain polymers that form viscous dispersions or gels when mixed with water. These characteristics make hydrocolloids valuable to food & beverage processors. However, there are endless variations to how hydrocolloids perform—and mixing them changes how they act.


Some hydrocolloids are intact natural ingredients, such as pectin, which is a polysaccharide found in fruit; and acacia, which is a gum that comes from the acacia tree. They easily fit on a clean label, not only because they are natural, but also because most consumers are reasonably familiar with the words. Gum acacia is used to improve powdered beverages, can be used to improve mouthfeel in beverages, and can mask harsh aftertastes or grittiness of other ingredients.


Many other hydrocolloids start out as natural ingredients but are modified in some way. Modified starch is extracted from grains or vegetables, for example, but it is often chemically, enzymatically, or physically altered to change its properties. This will not wash with the label-reading, clean label-demanding consumer.




Clean label translates as uncomplicated, transparent labeling; it lets consumers know exactly what is in their food or beverage—as well as where it came from. In packaging, the more open a brand is about their product, the better it is positioned to keep a loyal customer base. Formulating for clean label products is complex, but many solutions exist for manufacturers who are committed to making the switch to the clean label movement.

    Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a contributing author and not necessarily Gray.

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