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Clean labels: A growing but not yet global trend

By Jess Halliday , 03-Apr-2007

The trend for 'clean label' foods containing few E-numbers is emanating from the UK market but it is not yet a keen priority for consumers, retailers and manufacturers in every country, says GC Hahn.

E-numbers are used on food product labels throughout the EU and refer to additives - be they colours, preservatives, antioxidants, acidity regulators, thickeners, stabilisers, emulsifiers, anti caking agents, flavour enhancers or other miscellaneous ingredients. While E-numbers are also given to natural additives, the overriding consumer perception is that E numbers are undesirable and are best avoided. This perception may well stem from considerable attention in the 1980s to possible negative effects of some E-numbers, famously E110 or sunset yellow, which was linked to hyperactivity in children. According to Hahn, best known as a supplier of stabiliser systems, the UK is leading the way towards E-number-free ingredients. It says that the trend is mostly driven by retailers, who are upping the pressure on food manufacturers for more clean label products. Marks and Spencer and Tesco, both of which have lists or rankings of ingredients to eliminate are regarded as the pioneers. Except where retailers primarily promote on price, such as Asda, others have followed and the main focus is on ready meals. While other European markets are not so focused on clean labels, Hahn expects that it could grow into a key topic in the future. At a seminar held last month entitled Clean label - Status and Perspectives, the company gave a summary of country-specific situations. France is partly influenced by the UK market, but it remains a fairly new, growing topic that is not yet exerting much pressure. Again, where there is pressure, this stems mainly from retailers. In Germany clean label products form more of a niche market. Hahn reports just a few inquiries to date, but there is a general interest from producers, especially those in the health sector. Australia is also much influenced by the UK, with retailers demanding additive reduction and producers stepping up to the plate with special 'clean labels'. Additive reduction is used as a tool to gain an advantage over the competition. Woolworth Australia has even drawn up a list of E-numbers that may not be used in its private label range. Moreover, there is a trend towards listing the generic name of an ingredient instead of the number - e.g. guar gum instead of veg gum 412. As for Asia, clean labels are already an issue in some countries, such as Thailand, which is a major exporter to Europe. Exports are also an issue for Hong Kong, where a clean label is viewed as "nice to have", but the niche is driven more by suppliers than consumers. In Japan, descriptions are used on labelling, rather than E-numbers. "Consumers are looking for more natural [ingredients], but not in the sense of labelling," said Hahn. For the rest of Asia, labelling is not yet a big issue, but Hahn expects that it will catch on to the trend within three to five years. In the Unites States, E-numbers are not so well-known, but health and wellness considerations are expected as standard. The US answer to European E-number reduction is the shift towards organic/natural - but the term 'natural' has not been officially defined. Hahn is positioning to provide answers to common questions posed by manufacturers looking to reduce E-numbers, such as "Which ingredients are suitable for which food application?", "Which functionalities do they have and what are their limitations concerning constant quality standards?", " Can the current product be matched with clean label ingredients?" and "Are the solutions commercially ready?". It has developed a range of ingredient systems for soups, sauces, mayonnaises, dressings, ice creams, cakes and dairy products - adaptable to requirements - which are intended to help manufacturers meet their clean label aims.

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