Adrian Short, director of Ulrick & Short

The term clean label may be a little bit alien to the average consumer, but behind the scenes the push for simpler, free from additive ingredients has been significantly impacted how manufacturers approach product design.

While there is no legal definition of what clean label ingredients are, there are several interpretations of the term within the industry and a general understanding of what it means, which is adopted by retailers and food producers. From gluten-free food to reduced salt, to sauces and bread, clean label ingredients can help consumers to understand what is going into their food, Ulrick & Short develops and supplies clean label starches for a variety of food sectors across the industry.

Company director Adrian Short explains how what was once a trend has expanded to dominate the food market.

Eloise Mclennan: Where did the push for clean label food come from?

Adrian Short: Clean label has been a growing trend, which I would say started off as a niche market 15 or 16 years ago. First we had the organic trend that came in, and then we had a bit of a gluten-free trend that came and went away, but has now come back as a mainstream sector.

What you have now is clean labels encapsulating a lot of these smaller trends because consumers are very savvy and are turning over to the back of the pack more than ever to find out what the food contains. They are looking for specific claims to be made on food for their diet, and for products to be excluded from their diet, not just for allergy reasons but for lifestyle.

EM: How has this changed the way that food is developed?

AS: When we’re involved with our ingredients, the first thing the food developers and the manufacturers we supply will look at when developing a food is how it will impact upon the label and the nutritional aspect. It’s right up at the top of the checklist when considering how to develop a food, rather than asking how we can make the food stable, how we can make it tasty and how we give it the shelf life that we need and then addressing the ingredient panels and nutritional aspects later on. It has almost been turned on its head.

EM: What is the difference between a clean label starch and a modified starch?

AS: Say you have a packet of corn flour at home and you use that to thicken gravy that you are making of the stove, it makes lovely gravy but if you wanted to freeze it and save it for another day it would split and the texture would go. At home that doesn’t really matter because it will be eaten instantly, but if you transfer that to a food factory, that isn’t good enough. You might be making a sauce or gravy for a ready meal that has to be heated in 1,000l vats and then chilled rapidly. It has to be frozen and then microwaved at home, which puts a lot of pressure on the product. So what people have done in the past is make flours and starches which basically change the chemistry of the natural product to make it robust enough to withstand all of the processing it has got to go through.

“Consumers are carefully considering their diet, not just eating less fat or cutting out chocolate.”

The downside is that they come with a label declaration of modified starch and they come with an e-number. So what we have done, is to take those natural flours and starches and develop processes that put the robustness back into the starch as part of the extraction process, doing it naturally through mechanical and thermal processes without the use of chemicals

EM: There has been a push towards eating ‘healthy’ food. Are consumers more open to trying food that has clean labels rather than the standard labels?

AS: More than ever people are open to trying new things. Consumers are carefully considering their diet, not just eating less fat or cutting out chocolate. They are looking at being more sophisticated than that. They might want a high protein diet or dairy-free diet, not because they need to, but because they want to. And they may look at the ingredients on items that they normally thought would not have had dairy in, but they will check now just in case and there is more information available.

EM: How are consumers becoming more aware of what goes into their food?

AS: Evidence shows that labels like modifying starch or xanthan gum – because it begins with an x or something with an e number – is potentially off putting for the consumer and it can stop them from making a purchase. A consumer who has a little bit of knowledge but is not in the food industry may also look at the back of the pack and come to some pretty dark conclusions about the food. And that’s not just a few people anymore.

“I wouldn’t say we’ve ended up in the industry with cleaner label from a food safety point of view necessarily; it’s more to keep the consumers happy.”

There are programmes on TV, either documentaries or food shows that are fuelling that. I wouldn’t say we’ve ended up in the industry with cleaner labels from a food safety point of view necessarily; it’s more to keep the consumers happy. Consumers’ definitely want simpler labels and want to feel that there are fewer chemicals and additives in their food

EM: The food industry is constantly developing a new ‘it’ ingredient, how do you stay ahead of the trends?

AS: We have an innovation group and you can see the trends coming. With sugar that was an obvious one coming because of all the health talk around the world. We’ve been working on a functional sugar, not from the aspect of sweetness, but how it acts and gives texture and structure to food.

When we sat down and looked ahead we saw that there had been a lot of salt reduction over many years. It’s been done by stealth in many cases, with many slow reductions so that the consumers pallet is adjusted year on year, which is similar to fat. However consumers were a little bit sceptical about low-fat products. If you are taking fat out, what are you putting in?

EM: How do you see the clear label market progressing? What are future trends to look out for?

AS: I can see dairy being the next one as in whether people are looking to actively reduce some of the dairy in their diets, because if you take gluten-free for example, in the past it was a very small sector in the supermarket, in fact a lot of people who were coeliac used to get their bakery products on prescription, and now it is mainstream and people want gluten-free products by default because it ticks another box.

Another trend I see is that consumers are looking for more bespoke diets. We’ve gone from people buying anything, to people wanting a simpler label, to people making a choice to exclude things from their diet and I think that’s only going to increase. So I think that we will see more fragmented sections in consumer diets that meet certain demands that will be more lifestyle based than a health need.