A clean slate

Lindsey Bagley explainsLindsey Bagley what is driving the science behind new ingredients

One of the current principle drivers of product development is ‘clean labels’. This trend has resulted in a major reformulation activity that has ricocheted across the whole of the food industry, and manufacturers are taking this opportunity to ‘spring clean’ their formulations. This process begins by studying all ingredients for their contribution and rationalising those that have only limited or historical value.

These shifts in ingredient acceptability are at the heart of many new ingredient developments.


We consume with the eye first, the nose second and only then with our tongues. Colour has always been a recognisably important part of our sensory appreciation of food, and so product developers have ensured that the visual impact of natural colours lost during food processing are effectively replaced with added colouring materials.

For example, canned peas are much less attractive without added colour to replace that lost during heat processing. Colour is also lost over shelf life, and added colouring materials can compensate for the loss. The addition of colouring materials undoubtedly makes a product more attractive, but they also make a product identifiable; many soft drinks would be various shades of grey without added colourings.

However, colours have been under particular scrutiny ever since hyperactivity in children was first associated with some azo dyes. There is now a wide palette of natural or naturally derived colours available, and these are used across many product categories, although some compromises need to be made, such as overall attractiveness, taste, stability and additional cost (ten times cost in use compared to artificial colours).


Flavours go hand-in-hand with colours in many confectionery items, and so natural flavours were likely to follow natural colours. The flavour industry had pre-empted this by developing the techniques and know-how to manipulate natural flavouring compounds to provide the required stability and quality without impacting prohibitively on costs, although cost in use is usually a tenfold increase.Bottles

In the savoury flavours sector, consumers’ expectations of natural, MSG-free flavours were driven by on-pack claims for its absence, which fuelled the belief that it was an undesirable component and should be avoided. Again, natural flavours have become the norm and the trend is to derive flavours solely from extracts. However, it is still more ethical to use artificial meat flavours, as producing natural ones often means producing ingredients from animal products – which of course means killing animals.

Sugars and sweeteners

Refined sugars are often criticised for being nutritionally bankrupt, but high carbohydrate foods do have their part to play in the overall diet. A ‘no added sugar’ position is often achieved with chemically derived, high potency sweeteners and/or sugar alcohols, so the options have to be carefully explained to the consumer. The arrival of stevia sweeteners and potential natural sweetening systems will add some new dimensions to this category.

Stabilisers and thickeners

The scrutiny of ingredients applies equally to those used for thickening and stabilising foodstuffs. Starch is generally a consumer friendly term as it is well understood; and corn flour has been a store cupboard ingredient for decades. In recent times, starches have progressed from the shortcomings of native starches through to the performance enhanced chemically-modified starches back to native starches once more. Native or ‘natural’ starches are more consumer
friendly compared to their chemically derived alternatives, and the difference this time around is that new science has been applied. Native starches have been physically processed to provide enhanced performance. Using methods such as heat and pressure, functionalities similar to those of chemically modified starches can be generated, with these physically modified starches offering good freeze-thaw, high heat and acid stability.

Breeding programmePeass are also looking at improving the properties of traditional sources of starch such as maize, waxy maize, tapioca, potato and rice. By altering the amylose to amylopectin ratios, their abilities to bind water and add structure to foods under different processing conditions is enhanced. Alternative sources of starch, such as pea starch, are also being investigated.

Another group of thickeners and stabilisers which are very consumer friendly are pectins, a cook’s ingredient in jam making for generations. Generally, formulators now prefer thickeners and stabilisers such as the natural gums and plant extracts, as their source is easier to explain to consumers.


Emulsifiers generally have very long chemical names and so have needed explanation; only now is science beginning to catch up with the technical and labelling requirements. Consumers are familiar with lecithin, as it is naturally derived and has been used as a supplement for many years; it fits easily into the ‘accepted’ category. However, it does not fulfil all the technical requirements for stable emulsions.

Since the group of foods generically described as ‘emulsions’ includes bread spreads, ice creams, and mayonnaise, the importance of being able to produce them efficiently and to effectively maintain their shelf stability is clear. Recent innovations include processing techniques for stabilising emulsions and also the use of novel but consumer friendly components, such as using fibres and cyclodextrins for their emulsification properties.

Antioxidants and preservatives

The trend for natural reformulation raises food safety concerns in the case of preservatives. Where a preservative has an aesthetic impact, such as using sulphur dioxide to inhibit browning in fruit and vegetable processing, food safety is not an issue. However, where the removal of preservatives has the potential to result in microbiological spoilage and food poisoning, food safety becomes a key consideration.

A ‘knee-jerk’ reaction to the removal of preservatives has potentially lethal consequences for some unwary manufacturers, and is not helped by claims of ‘preservative free’ on products that have never needed this functionality. A number of new, naturally derived preservatives are in the development pipeline to enable more options for this functionality.

If consumers are told that salami without sodium nitrite carries a risk of botulism, then they appreciate why it is needed and can decide whether or not they wish to consume it. The presence of nitrite is not a choice but a necessity. Similarly, bacon is not technically possible without saltpetre (aka potassium nitrate), and whilst this can hardly be considered a store cupboard ingredient, we do not expect bacon to disappear from our shelves any time soon.


Hydrogenated fats and trans-fats, once the darlings of food manufacturers for their processability, stability, and versatility, are now known to have negative impacts on our health and have been progressively removed from our foods. Now, partially hydrogenated and inter-esterified palm fats are being replaced with physically fractionated palm oils, with different fractions providing the range of functions previously provided by hydrogenated fats.

We are on a mission to reduce saturated fats in our diet and some traditional foods will be phased out during this process as they become too difficult or impossible to provide in an economically efficient, shelf-stable form.

The use of sunflower, olive and rape seed oils, which contain fatty acids prone to oxidation, has its limitations. Breeding programmes have developed strains of these oil crops with lower levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids. Currently, sunflower oil can be produced containing more that 80 per cent of the more stable mono saturated oleic, omega 9, fatty acid.


Whilst it is difficult to champion reformulation for its own sake, this era of scrutinising ingredients has made manufacturers think how best they can formulate products rather than most easily formulate them.

Ingredients are being rationalised and we will end up with a tidier, more efficiently formulated range of foodstuffs on our shelves. Coupled with nutritional optimisation, these activities are significant challenges to the ingredient industry and to product developers.

Formulation is not one dimensional; take out sugar and you impact structure, stability, acidity, colour and flavour; reduce salt and you impact taste and stability and change the way starch behaves.

Tackling these issues has required a new level of scientific understanding from the ingredient industry.

– Lindsey Bagley is CSci (Chartered Scientist) and Fellow of the Institute of Food Science and Technology (FIFST). This article was supplied on behalf of IFST.

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