Looking to nature for better ‘clean label’ reformulation

By Nathan GRAY

- Last updated on GMT

“Careful selection of the right cultures in yoghurts and cheeses can potentially eliminate thickeners like carrageenan, or antifungals such as sorbic acid.” ©iStock
“Careful selection of the right cultures in yoghurts and cheeses can potentially eliminate thickeners like carrageenan, or antifungals such as sorbic acid.” ©iStock

Related tags Color

Industry should look closer at nature’s solutions for current reformulation challenges by mapping out all the possible functionalities of ingredients already present in foods, says Dr Aidan Craigwood, consultant at Innovia Technology.

While many companies chasing ‘clean label’ solutions for products look to switch out problem ingredients with a clean label solution as a like-for-like swap, there can often be issues that lead to a change in functionality or acceptability to consumers.

By considering the possible functionalities of all components already present in the food system, Craigwood suggests that food manufacturers can often achieve ‘significant added functionality’ with only small changes to processing and no change to the label.

“It is hard for brands to gain a systematic perspective on how to improve the labelling because the subject is generally looked at one ingredient at a time,”​ he commented, noting that manufacturers are often content to outsource the challenge of ‘clean label’ to suppliers on a single-ingredient basis, which means that nobody ever considers the whole, and whether greater improvements can be made by a different approach.

“If you really want to improve your ingredient line sustainably, you need to look at the function of all the chemicals on the list and then pick the correct technique or approach to address all of the issues at the same time.”

A natural approach

Clean label has become a big issue for the industry in recent years, as brands and manufacturers look to reduce the number of ingredients ‘on pack’ that are unfamiliar to consumers. Innovia Technology told FoodNavigator that these challenges can be achieved more effectively if brands analyse all ingredients on the label at the same time, to see how their function can be achieved in other ways.

Dr Aidan Craigwood

Indeed, Craigwood noted that looking to already existing chemical, biological and physical processes from nature can provide fresh solutions to old challenges around colour, preservation and texture. 

“Nature has created a fantastic tool box for us to use,”​ he said, citing the issue of switching to a natural colouring solution, which “although desirable are inherently unstable.”

“Stabilising these colours and being able to keep the ingredients as ‘natural’ as possible is an issue for food manufacturers, but this can be achieved by looking at how the colours this is achieved in the living system,”​ Craigwood said. “In a fruit, the colour is reinforced by a process called co-pigmentation, in which another colourless pigment or flavonoid is present, together they create a complex and this ‘locks in’ the colour.”
“We have found that phenolic acids such as rosemary extract can be used to preserve the colour of grape extract, for example. As this is also a natural ingredient it resonates well with consumers.”

Revolution or evolution?

Craigwood said that while no single aspect of Innovia Technology's approach is necessarily that different from existing R&D practices, the idea of looking at how to repurpose all components of a system, and considering a wide range of biologically inspired options, “seems rare.”

Furthermore, he noted that the basic science that builds up gradual understanding of biological mechanisms is vital to this sort of holistic approach, but is often overlooked.

“This isn’t very exciting, as we’re all aware of how slow research can be, but basic biochemical and physical research has opened up many of the most exciting opportunities we’ve run across, whether its better antioxidancy, co-pigmentation and colour shifting for natural colours, through to […] texture control through microphone separation of gums and proteins,”​ he said.

Holistic reformulation

Taking a wider system approach that is inspired by nature can also help manufacturers to see new opportunities, said Craigwood.

“Careful selection of the right cultures in yoghurts and cheeses can potentially eliminate thickeners like carrageenan, or antifungals such as sorbic acid,”​ he noted – suggesting that by borrowing from emerging metabonomic and screening techniques in biotechnology, food scientists may have the choice of many more functional fermentates in the future.

He added that natural fermentation can be utilised to a greater extent to help deliver clean label solutions.

clean label, ingredient list, consumer mistrust Copyright Anetlanda
© iStock

For example, Verdad is a food ingredient based on natural fermentation which can be labelled as ‘fermented sugar’ or ‘cultured beet sugar’ and may be used as a replacement for preservatives that do not meet clean-label criteria (such as sodium lactate or propionic acid).

While fermentation processes are useful for smaller molecules, he noted that for larger compounds like proteins then looking to use nature’s processes to modify ingredients in new ways can help.

“For example pea protein is simultaneously a flavour sponge and a structural element,”​  Craigwood commented – noting that while there is much interest in using pea flour as a gluten-free alternative to wheat, the flour is less acceptable in its native form because aldehydes that provide much of the ‘pea flavour’ are physically bonded into the protein.
“To be useful as an ingredient, the undesirable ‘pea flavour’ needs to be removed and the protein textured by extrusion,”​ he said. “We have found this can be achieved through the use of enzymes which can restructure carbohydrates to trap the pea flavour, whilst others simultaneously cause the protein to ‘clump’ together and create a high-molecular weight structure like the one gluten would normally provide.”

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