Brands concerned about ‘clean labelling’ can achieve this more effectively if they analyse all the ingredients on the label at the same time to see how their function can be achieved in other ways. Dr Aidan Craigwood, consultant for breakthrough innovation consultancy Innovia Technology, comments that chemical, biological and physical processes can provide fresh solutions to old challenges around colour, preservation and texture.
Many brands are looking to reduce the number of ingredients on their labels that are unfamiliar to consumers, in order to boost confidence in their products and decrease the potential for allergens. This can be problematic. Additives are used to improve colour, prolong shelf life or improve texture and so perform a valuable role in the product that can be difficult to replicate with ‘natural’ products.
Craigwood gives the example of natural colours. He says: “Although desirable, natural colours are inherently unstable. As the fruit ripens, it changes colour, so the colours are created quickly – as and when needed - it is functional nanotechnology at its best.”
Anthocyanins are a group of chemicals that are responsible for purple-blue and red colouring in blueberries and cherries. They are powerful antioxidants with other preservative functions such as the inhibition of fungal growth. It is the antioxidant quality that makes fruit and vegetable nutritious and natural colours particularly attractive as an ingredient. However, anthocyanins are sensitive to pH and temperature, and this is a major obstacle to them being used in food.
Craigwood continues: “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.
“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.”
To support its clients in food manufacturing, Innovia has been mapping the ‘opportunity space’ for label substitutions.
Craigwood explains that looking deep into the science behind natural interactions can reveal new options for food preservation. He says: “Investigating the techniques used in nature to break down structures or counter decay can give food manufacturers new avenues to explore when seeking alternatives to artificial colouring and synthetic preservatives.”
The chemistry is complicated, for example, Vitamin C or ascorbic acid is a very good preservative in small quantities, but in large doses or in the presence of iron it can become an oxidiser as opposed to an antioxidant.
“We have found that the concentration of vitamin C being used in some of the formulations was far too high,” says Craigwood. “This can impact the colour of the food, ironically, some B vitamins can have a similar bleaching effect.”
Innovia has a multidisciplinary team and that provides new ways of looking at the options available, extending beyond chemistry to look also at biological interactions and physical processes to see how these can be exploited.
Craigwood gives the example of fermentation as a particularly useful process step. He says:
“Bioprocessing can be used to make new ingredients such as xanthan gum have been produced via fermentation. However, they’ve often been purified and labelled like a ‘chemical’ ingredient.
“Food scientists are now beginning to wake up to the possibility of using fermentation to deliver cleaner labels. For instance, the ingredient Verdad is based on natural fermentation and can be labelled as ‘fermented sugar’ or ‘cultured beet sugar’ and used to replace “chemical” preservatives such as sodium lactate or propionic acid.
“Careful selection of the right cultures in yoghurts and cheeses can potentially eliminate thickeners like carrageenan, or antifungals such as sorbic acid.
“By borrowing emerging metabonomic and screening techniques from biotechnology, food scientists may have the choice of many more functional fermentates in the years to come.”
The growing ‘free-from’ challenge
Of course, process changes can be much wider than this, as Craigwood explains: “The fermentation route is good if you are looking to create small molecule ingredients. For larger compounds, for example improving the physical structure of a protein, then sometimes it’s best to start from the process conditions and see what you can do there.
“For example pea protein is simultaneously a flavour sponge and a structural element. There is much interest in using pea flour as a gluten-free alternative to wheat, but aldehydes that provide much of the ‘pea flavour’ can be 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. 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.”
Another example of clean-label processing Craigwood gives is use of an electric field instead of additives to control the rheology of molten chocolate. By structuring the cocoa/sugar suspension, this process not only improves control over the flow of the chocolate, but also removes the need for emulsifiers with names such as sorbitan trisearate.
Look at the whole list
Craigwood says that looking at the entire ingredient list is the way to go, not the piecemeal approach that is often used at the moment.
“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. However, 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.”
This system level approach will also reveal areas where processes can be improved or rationalised and more consumer acceptable substitutes made.
“Nature has created a fantastic tool box for us to use,” comments Craigwood.
“Developments in science are now helping us to understand better all the components. Likewise, unpicking some of the older recipes with the benefit of this knowledge is providing new insights into how to improve current processes.”