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Natural ingredients are getting better - but it's still a developing area

By Caroline Scott-Thomas+

07-Nov-2013
Last updated on 07-Nov-2013 at 10:03 GMT

Switching to natural ingredients often requires companies to go back to the formulation drawing board, but there have been some big improvements, according to head of food innovation at Leatherhead Food Research, Dr Wayne Morley.

One of the main challenges that formulators face in using natural ingredients is ensuring stability in different conditions, including light, pH and heat. Meanwhile, consumers continue to demand natural, clean label ingredients. In 2011, for example, more than three-quarters of shoppers (78%) in a Nielsen survey said they would be willing to pay a premium for foods that were naturally coloured.

Morley told FoodNavigator that there have been advances in the stability of natural colours in particular, with more predictable options available to formulators.

“Generally speaking, I think they are getting better, and the ingredient suppliers are working to improve the stability, but it is still a challenge…It is still a developing area,” he said.

“The challenge is to keep going with those improvements until the colours are as predictable as their artificial equivalents.”

At the moment, product developers often have to make compromises in terms of stability and shelf life.

“As the colours improve, the compromises will decrease. The cost will come down and the stability will continue to improve,” he said, adding that it was uncertain whether natural colours would ever be as predictable as synthetics, although that is clearly the ultimate aim.

Adjusting the entire recipe

Other challenging natural ingredients for formulators include antioxidants, emulsifiers, and preservatives to switch out benzoates and sorbates, he said.

“I think formulators are having to use ingredients that are available to them. If they have to use a clean label ingredient, they have to adjust the rest of the recipe to get the most out of them.

“…A one in, one out formulation often doesn’t work. With these types of ingredients you might have to start again with a blank sheet of paper.”

Leatherhead has several areas of research focus, including using combinations of natural emulsifier ingredients to improve their functionality.

“I have to say, that is proving very difficult,” said Morley.

Natural colour focus

However, Leatherhead researchers’ main focus currently is on natural colours.

“We have been using accelerated testing protocols to track the stability of natural colours in beverages and we are also using chromatography methods,” he said, explaining that his team has recently completed a project looking at the stability of natural colours in confectionery and drinks, among other applications.

Using these techniques, they can examine the product toward the end of its shelf life and determine whether a colour is fading or if a new colour is forming. For example, if a beverage starts as a red colour, and then becomes brown toward the end of its shelf life, the researchers aim to work out whether that is because the red colour has faded, or whether a brown colour has formed, effectively masking the red.

Morley said the team expects to finish this part of its research by mid next year, and then look to extend the project.

“People say they want to be more proactive, and they are looking to us to help them be more proactive in their products,” he said.

Morley will present a session titled ‘Clean label opportunities and challenges’ at FIE on Tuesday, November 19.

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