Cleaner than clean: When natural is not enough

By Caroline SCOTT-THOMAS contact

- Last updated on GMT

Could the meaning of 'clean label' go beyond the idea of 'natural' with better consumer understanding?
Could the meaning of 'clean label' go beyond the idea of 'natural' with better consumer understanding?

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It’s boom time for makers of natural ingredients, from colours to flavours to hydrocolloids…or is it? Despite widespread demand for all things natural, some ‘natural’ ingredients still aren’t acceptable to consumers – so when does ‘clean label’ need to go further than naturalness alone?

While consumers talk about ‘natural’ ingredients, the food and beverage industry tends to use the term ‘clean label’. Both ideas are rather vague and ill-defined, but it is the industry term that appears more nebulous, ever evolving to take into account the vagaries of consumer perception, beyond whether an ingredient is natural or not.

This provides little comfort for food and drink formulators, tasked with ‘cleaning up’ ingredient lists.

Take carmine, for example. It is a natural red colouring made from crushed cochineal insects, which has been used for hundreds of years, and saw a surge in popularity late last century as food manufacturers responded to concern about synthetic dyes. Yet consumer outrage that this natural ingredient was in their foods and drinks led to many high-profile reformulations, including from Starbucks last year​.

The ‘gross out’ factor

From the perspective of an allergic individual, a strict vegetarian, or those seeking halal or kosher foods, an outraged response is entirely understandable, especially considering that carmine often masqueraded as ‘food colour E 20’ or simply ‘natural colour’ on labels. Even when labelled as carmine or cochineal, how many consumers would recognise the word?

It seems obvious that when ingredients are hidden behind unrecognisable or deliberately obfuscating terms, they become a problem.

However, much of the backlash wasn’t from those with ideological opposition to eating crushed bugs – it was from people who thought ‘ewww’ (even though some of these same people probably wouldn’t think twice about natural ingredients like gelatine, made from animal hides or bones.)

You could argue that companies like Starbucks – which has since switched to a tomato-derived red colouring – should have guessed that customers would be grossed out by the idea of bugs in their strawberry smoothies.

But consumer concerns often arise where you’d least expect.

What’s in a name?

Hydrocolloids are among the most clean-label-friendly ingredients out there, but they aren’t immune from criticism either. Xanthan gum, a thickening and stabilising ingredient made from fermented sugars, may not be well-understood by consumers, leading some food manufacturers to reject it altogether.

Speaking with FoodNavigator last year​, hydrocolloid market expert Dennis Seisun said sometimes it’s just the name of the ingredient that exacerbates consumer fears – and ‘xanthan’ is a word with low consumer awareness. Meanwhile, US producers of carboxymethylcellulose (CMC) gum were successful in petitioning for a name change to allow ‘cellulose gum’ on ingredient lists.

Seisun suggested that the industry could do more to improve the image of hydrocolloids, considering that most of them are natural plant derivatives.

However, even seaweed-derived carrageenan has been the subject of a campaign​ to remove it from foods, despite food safety agencies worldwide agreeing on its safety.

So when is natural not enough?

For food manufacturers, understanding what consumers mean by ‘natural’ may be important, but understanding which ingredients consumers trust ​may be even more crucial. In some cases, ‘clean label’ may not be synonymous with ‘natural’ at all – as long as ordinary people understand what they are buying and eating.

The ingredient list should give consumers a window onto what a food contains. If you want to make it look clean, it’s all about transparency.


Stay up to date with the latest developments in the debate over natural and clean label ingredients at Natural & Clean Label Trends 2013​, a FREE-to-attend online event run by and on June 26. 


For full details and to register, click here.

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1 comment

Xanthan gum

Posted by Ingrid Eissfeldt,

The Food Standards Agency has issued guidance for people with severe gluten intolerance to avoid generic Xanthan gum as it is associated with symptons similar to ingesting gluten for Coeliacs. Considering most 'gluten free bread is made with Xanthan gum and aimed at Coeliacs that is a 'natural' ingredient to best avoid.

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