Sensory quality as perceived by the consumer is the driving force in the development of natural food ingredients or products. Notwithstanding the current key trend issues, such as sugar reduction, consumers expect that the essential sensory quality attributes are maintained in the products.
In recent times, consumers are more aware of or are looking for four main areas. These can be grouped into natural, organic, clear/clean label and country of origin.
Of these four, natural is the most used in the U.S. Also, it cast the widest net due to a lack of standard definition. In most cases, the definition of “natural” resides within a company. Every company has a set of guidelines that defines natural.
Looking at natural from the perspective of the ingredients, consumers classify it as being close to the identifying ingredient in the product. This means that orange juice must be yellowish orange in color, with a pulpy texture. Consumers also believe that natural products are minimally processed, have reduced use of or no additives (colors, flavors, etc.), no allergens, reduced level of or no pesticide residue, with more of the essential nutrients from the main ingredient.
Organic is the most specific of this group. It is defined by certification, which is visible to the consumer. It is either organic or not organic. Consumers are willing to pay more for organic products. This is quite evident in the growth of the sector. Recently, an analysis released by the financial firm BMO Capital Markets, showed that Costco, the wholesaler/discount chain is projected to sell just over $4 billion in organic products this year, edging out $3.6 billion by Whole Foods to take the national lead.
Clean/cleaner/clearer/clear label is a very strong consumer trend globally. Consumers are looking at products through the lens of their pantries. The cleaner aspect of clean label is the length of the ingredient list. Consumer expectations are that a clean label must have a short list with ingredients they can pronounce.
Country of origin (source of the main ingredient) is a growing area in terms of consumer trends. The source of origin labeling has existed for centuries in the wine/liquor industry. However, in the mainstream food industry, it is now reflected in flour, crackers, et al.
No matter the consumer trend, it is all about the taste! This of course, means, it is all about consumer perception.
How consumers define sensory quality is how we approach each customer. Consumers associate certain sensory cue to the certain foods. If it does not taste good, it is not worthy of driving 20 miles to the store.
In all the current consumer trends, matching consumer expectations to sensory quality tops the list. All the ingredients that are considered in food formulations always focus on the sensory delivery.
Sensory quality is monitored by maintaining an up-to-date, comprehensive sensory profile and consumer insights of product categories. Ingredion’s proprietary sensory language TEXICON and SWEETABULARY in combination with our consumer–centricity approach enables us to translate consumer language to actionable product develoment.
Ingredient solutions created to meet consumer expectations are continuously maintained, so that consumer expectations will not waiver. Often, combination of ingredient solutions is employed to focus on the sensory qualities that define these expectations.
The DIAL-IN Technology (see Figure 1) is the innovative shortest path Ingredion uses to get to the customer’s perfect texture and sweetness. Our IdeaLabs is spread across the globe and they are equipped to partner with our customers.
Using the example of the current sugar reduction trend in the food industry aims to reduce calories from sucrose while maintaining the same sensory profile (see Figure 2). Naturally sourced sweeteners such as stevia extract can provide this solution. However, careful development must be undertaken in order to ensure that the sensory quality matches the existing product.
What Consumers Want
Clean labeling or transparency in labeling is strongly driven by consumers that are paying more attention to ingredient lists and their dietary habits. Increasingly, consumers are moving away from processed/artificial foods, and seeking “clean label” food and beverage alternatives to maintain wellbeing.
The challenge for manufacturers, retailers and consumers alike is determining what defines a product as “clean label.” In lieu of a legal definition for natural or clean label, food companies take what resonates with consumers as well as what key influencers are promoting. The access to information and the awareness of choices have helped fuel this trend.
Back in 2010, in the absence of an industry-wide definition, Ingredion Incorporated wanted to help manufacturers tap into and benefit from the clean label trend by providing a clear definition. Ingredion’s published definition is based on consumer insight and regulatory/labelling guidelines from around the globe. The three key components that we have defined as clean label are as follows:
• Free from chemical additives
• Simple ingredient listing that consumers understand
• Foods processed using traditional techniques or that are minimally processed
The most common front-of-pack claims that manufacturers make when marketing clean label food and beverage products are: natural, organic, and/or free from additives/preservatives.
Across the globe, clean label research has demonstrated that ingredients matter to consumers. In a recent consumer research commissioned by Ingredion, we found that 73 percent of U.S. consumers say recognizable/familiar ingredients on labels are very/quite important; and the majority of consumers prefer short and simple ingredient listings. And while regional differences occur, as a general rule, if consumers had the choice, artificial additives and preservatives would be out and natural or unprocessed ingredients would be in.
The “Pantry” Model
Clean label foods must deliver the taste and texture consumers are accustomed to eating. For a food manufacturer that means that ingredients used in clean label formulation need to be robust-delivering functionality equivalent to conventional ingredients.
Artificial flavors, colors and sweeteners are often the first targeted ingredients to replace. It can vary by category and type of positioning of the product; therefore, it has to be based on consumer research. Many companies are using the “pantry” as a guideline, looking to replace ingredients that consumers don’t understand with ingredients they can find in their pantries. A good example is replacing modified food starch with corn starch (see Figure 3).
Overall, sensory quality, as perceived by consumers is the overarching factor in every step of ingredient and product formulation. Ingredients and products succeed in the marketplace when consumer expectations are met and maintained. NIE
Layo Jegede is responsible for Ingredion’s Global Sensory, which entails expanding approaches for understanding customer and consumer sensory perceptions of product textures and sweetness. Layo also lead the Sensory Global Expertise Team and works to build functional excellence globally in the sensory program. She has 20 years of experience in the food industry, and worked previously at Nestle at multiple locations in Africa, Europe and the United States. Most recently, she worked at Pepperidge Farm. Layo has a master’s degree in food technology from King’s College, University of London, England.
Angelina De Castro is responsible for Ingredion’s Wholesome Innovation springboard in the U.S. and Canada. She leads commercial and communication activities for ingredients that enable clean label front-of-pack claims, including NOVATION functional native starches and HOMECRAFT functional flours. Angelina joined Ingredion in 2006 and holds a master’s degree in food science and technology from Texas A&M University and a bachelor’s degree in food industry engineering from the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education (ITESM) in Mexico.