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Research Trends in Clean-label Preservation

Clean Label Clean Label

Shelf-life challenges in an age of consumer nutritional activism.

Over the last number of years, the clean-label movement has been in a constant state of flux. In fact, “clean-label” is less an evolution and much more of a revolution. Consumers are seeking transparency and clarity to empower them to feel better informed in their purchase decisions. Additionally, consumer awareness about sustainability is at an all-time high. Research indicates that products with a sustainability claim outperform those without one. Consumers consider packaging, environmental impact and animal welfare when assessing products. Increasingly, they’re asking about the origin and environmental impact of ingredients, and how they were extracted, processed and produced.

Given this continuing consumer-driven attention, the industry faces significant challenges when innovating and reformulating in order to ensure that consumer expectations are achieved. For example:

• “Clean-label” is not a well-defined concept. Food and beverage companies must work between “no-no lists” from retailers or foodservice providers and consumer insights to develop their own definition of what the term optimally means.

• Certain ingredients that are not considered “clean” perform multiple functions and cannot be easily replaced. Preservatives are a leading example: consider shelf life and the important advances preservatives have given the industry over the last century in terms of food safety, reduced food waste, elongation of supply chains, improved cost efficiencies and increased convenience for the consumer. The conscientious shopper is not ready to accept life without their benefits. Yet, paradoxically, consumers consider their presence a major concern. Addressing the preservative challenge has emerged as a key focus area in the clean-label revolution.

Top Consumer Concern: Preservatives

One recent survey referenced by Food Business News noted that the “no preservatives” claim was the leading response to the question of which specific label descriptions most influenced a purchasing decision. In another analysis, “No additives/preservatives” led clean-label claims in a 2018 study of global product launches.

These results confirm the findings of Kerry’s Pioneering Preservatives consumer research report published earlier this year. This extensive report demonstrated a substantial increase since 2014 in product launches carrying the no additives/preservatives claim; drilling down, it pointed to a 43 percent increase in preservative-free sugar confectionary products, 40 percent in baby food launches, 27 percent in hot beverages, 26 percent in sport and energy drinks, and 25 percent in prepared side dishes. Preservative-free product launches range widely—from salsa to cold brew coffee to white bread.

Consumers Are Uncompromising on Clean Label

Consumers desire recognizable ingredient labels, minimally processed foods delivered in environmentally friendly packaging, and affordable pricing. Equally important is retention of taste, appearance and shelf life. The ask is “clean-label without compromise.” Fortification with health and wellness benefits (plant proteins, probiotics, vinegar), in addition to environmental accreditations, may further boost consumer perception of a product. Front-of-pack claims and accreditations—such as the non-GMO (genetically modified organism) Project Verified Butterfly symbol, fair trade and organic certifications—foster trust and desensitize the consumer’s concerns about price or origin of individual ingredients. Approved claims and external certifications take the pressure off the consumer to fully understand individual ingredients, nutrition and sustainability for a product. Companies that align their communication with key consumer values will be positioned to win in a clean-label revolution.

Artisanal brands that have clean and natural positioning in their DNA are often best positioned to educate the consuming public about food quality as part of their marketing launches. For example, the friendly and creative education efforts of these emerging brands have greatly increased consumer understanding of such phenomena as natural sediment in IPA beer, cloudiness in pressed apple juice, and oil separation in nut butters. In the past, these characteristics may have been rejected even though they don’t impact product safety or shelf life.

Kerry’s Pioneering Preservatives project researched how consumer purchase decisions are impacted by the presence of specific artificial and naturally occurring preservatives on product labels. A full 47 percent of consumers are “label-conscious” consumers, i.e., check the ingredients label. Not surprisingly, the research found that they fully reject chemical preservatives as a category; however, when it came to identifying ingredients that act as preservatives from a variety of product labels, all unfamiliar/chemical-sounding ingredients were vilified equally. This highlights the strength of using familiar ingredients on product labels and reinforces the extensive and ongoing need for quality consumer education with respect to food labeling.

Many consumer research studies on clean-label discuss quantifying the significant premium many conscientious consumers are willing to pay for clean-label products. In fact, Kerry’s Beyond the Label report on consumer awareness of clean-label found that 75 percent indicate they would pay more for clean-label foods. As a result, we are seeing new ingredient suppliers enter the market in a bid to capitalize on this lucrative opportunity. With increased choice, however, comes variation and confusion. Manufacturers are advised to seek out credible ingredient suppliers with capabilities to address multiple issues and who can support them with technical expertise, scientific backing and sound regulatory positioning.

Consumer Research and Ingredient Validation Studies Smooth the Way

Replacing chemical preservatives with clean label alternatives or improving the shelf life of a product that has no artificial preservatives of any kind, are both highly desirable by a growing number of consumers. This represents both a challenge and an opportunity for the industry. In such instances, collaboration between an ingredient supplier, the manufacturer and end customer is paramount in achieving success. When choosing who to partner with, consider the following:

• An intimate knowledge of the end-user market and application

• A deep understanding of the customer and industry-leading application capabilities

• Credible market-driven data to inspire your future business strategy

• Global knowledge of the product-specific regulatory requirements

• Transparency with respect to origin and authenticity of ingredients

• Extensive portfolio of ingredients

• Technical depth to address possible hurdles

• In-house ability to optimize the nutritional profile of recipes, develop pilot-scale prototypes, and validate efficacy of ingredients in the application

• Tailored solutions and agile delivery to market.

It’s important to note that no ingredient solution is bulletproof, so equally important is identification of reliable manufacturers who offer key benefits:

• Experience and history processing in the product category

• Technical knowledge, engineering expertise, vision and the capacity to develop novel manufacturing processes

• Established good manufacturing practices (GMPs), as well as robust environmental control programs

• Thorough understanding of their equipment and how to maintain it

• Ability to achieve optimal yields and consistent quality

• A proven track record of understanding where in their process they can impact shelf life or where they are at risk of environmental contamination

• Proven controls to minimize the physical, chemical or microbiological risks identified

New Products: From Sodium Nitrite to “No Added Nitrites/Nitrates”

Our consumer studies highlight the differences in consumer expectations and sensitivities to clean-label claims across various food and beverage categories. In one Kerry study of processed meat, we found that 53 percent of consumers are aware of sodium nitrite and its concerns. Baby Boomers (54–73) and seniors (74+) are the most likely to reject nitrites; this is an important finding, as these groups are the largest consumers of hot dogs, sausages and luncheon meats. Even though the industry has been able to replace this ingredient with naturally occurring vegetable sources of nitrate/nitrite, we’re already seeing an explosion in ambitious poultry products looking to take it one step further.

An ingredient such as vinegar, for instance, when used in combination with extracts or fermentates, allows manufacturers to have the same protection as lactates and diacetates, yet without any of these chemical-sounding ingredients on the label. A new front-of-pack claim has resulted: “No added nitrites/nitrates.” Over the last few years, the use of buffered vinegar in meat applications has grown exponentially, proving it to be a highly disruptive clean-label technology.


In the midst of this clean-label revolution, ingredient suppliers and manufacturers need to align with their consumers, utilizing credible insights from purchase patterns, market behaviors and consumer research studies that illuminate the shifting views on clean-label. A brand’s ability to evolve will drive its long-term success. Consumers’ increased demand for transparency means that products with a purpose and backed by sound science will quickly gain customer trust and loyalty. In conclusion, what consumers want is transparency, and they expect food producers to formulate with their wellness and interests squarely in mind. NIE

Vivien Sheehan, PhD, is global vice president of research, development & application within Kerry’s Applied Health and Nutrition division. Sheehan has made a distinguished contribution in the field of functional ingredients, supporting the introduction of new products to meet consumer demands for cleaner food and beverage labels. Her area of expertise is the development and optimization of fermentation-derived ingredients, in addition to developing innovative food safety solutions. She is a graduate of University of College Cork, Ireland with a bachelor’s degree in food science and a subsequent PhD in microbiology. Reports mentioned in the commentary, and other insights on many other food, beverage and nutrition topics, are available at www.kerry.com or at the Kerry Health & Nutrition Institute at khni.kerry.com.