The clean-eating movement is all about foods free from ingredients that today’s consumers find objectionable. It’s about simple formulations made from wholesome ingredients and void of chemical-sounding additives.

 “What we eat and drink each year might not change as quickly as the mobile phones we carry in our pockets, but food and beverage marketers should not take this as a license to rest on their laurels,” according to Darren Seifer, food and beverage industry analyst, The NPD Group Inc., Port Washington, New York. “Change has been brewing for decades.

“In the 1980s and through much of the 1990s, consumers largely tried to avoid certain substances, like fats or cholesterol, as they were thought to be harmful,” Seifer says. “Around the turn of this century, consumers became more concerned with getting more ‘good’ substances, like whole grains or omega-3s, in their diets. Now, in addition to eating more better-for-you foods, new priorities are coming into focus for consumers, like eating foods in their pure form. These new habits will be front-and-center in 2016.”

According to NPD Group data, more than 30 percent of consumers say they are cautious about foods with preservatives, compared to 24 percent just 10 years ago. The trend for additives is following the same progression.

What’s a food additive?

There are basically two categories of ingredients, those the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approves as an additive and those Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS). The latter is a designation that has either been appointed by FDA to commonly used food ingredients, such as flour, sugar, salt, or a company can self-affirm an ingredient as GRAS by making available scientific data and information deeming the ingredient as safe for its intended use.

GRAS or an approved additive, many food ingredients improve the integrity, safety and even nutritional quality of foods. For example, we expect salad dressings to stay mixed once they have been shaken. Emulsifiers such as lecithin from soybeans maintain mixture and improve texture in dressings and other foods. Food gums, a term used to describe additives that function as stabilizers, texturizers and thickeners, are commonly used in cultured dairy products such as sour cream and yogurt, where smoothness is desired. In breads, food gums increase volume and impart fine-grain quality.

Though these additives play a crucial role in manufactured foods, today’s clean-eating consumer has concerns with many of them. When they see a long, unfamiliar name, they often think the additive is a complex chemical—and dangerous--compound. Uninformed consumers might find ascorbic acid offensive, which is the chemical name for vitamin C.

“Marketers would be wise to examine their ingredient labels to understand whether their key consumer targets might find anything objectionable based on media coverage or even simply by how pronounceable an ingredient is to the average consumer,” says. Seifer. Some ingredients can be listed by more familiar names. For example, egg white is much more consumer friendly than albumen.

Free-from labeling is also part of the clean-eating movement. According to market research publisher Packaged Facts, Rockville, Maryland., health and wellness in the current vernacular is defined by what a product doesn’t have, such as artificial ingredients or preservatives, more than by what is in it, according to David Sprinkle, research director.

Linda Gilbert, founder and CEO, EcoFocus Worldwide LLC, Manheim, Pennsylvania., agreed. “No longer satisfied with ingredient labels that tell us what our foods and beverages are made with, shoppers are seeking products with shorter ingredient legends and more information about where those ingredients come from,” she says. “Shoppers are telling us that simpler really may be better when it comes to our health and the health of our planet.”

Free-from additives

Consumers often perceive hand-prepared and packaged sandwiches, salads, wraps and other meals as being fresher, simpler, less processed and even homemade. The truth is, many of these foods are made with commercially prepared food components that contain the same ingredients one would find in packaged foods sold in the supermarket.

But like at retail, there are options. Commissary operators assembling meals for clean-eating consumers need to know the ingredients to avoid and the clean-label ingredients that can assist with ensuring product integrity and safety through shelf life. 

Formulating clean-label foods most often refers to eliminating chemical-sounding additives or any ingredient recognized as being artificial, most notably certain colors, flavors, preservatives and sweeteners. Most ingredients with a name that implies extra processing are also considered unclean, such as modified corn starch. The concept of wholesome complements this definition of clean label.

This is easier with some ingredients than others. For example, flavors are identified as artificial or natural and must be labeled as such on ingredient statements. Similarly, FDA defines chemical preservatives as any chemical that, when added to food, tends to prevent or retard deterioration. Ingredients excluded from this list include common salt, sugars, vinegars, spices or oils extracted from spices, as well as substances added to food by direct exposure, for example wood smoke. (See sidebar for clean-label preservative ingredients.)

With sweeteners, the language is a bit different. FDA does not impose the descriptor of artificial to any sweetener, rather, there are six high-intensity sweeteners—acesulfame potassium, advantame, aspartame, neotame, saccharin and sucralose—that are approved as food additives in the US. Even though they are not legally classified as artificial sweeteners, this descriptor has become common language.

Label claims such as “free from artificial sweeteners” will appear on products sweetened with either of two rather new high-intensity sweeteners: monkfruit and stevia. Both are self-affirmed GRAS, and therefore, acceptable by the clean-eating consumer.

With colors, allowed claims are even more confusing. Basically any ingredient with the sole purpose of adding color to a food or beverage is a color additive, with all color additives requiring approval by FDA as a food additive. FDA classifies color additives as either “certified” or “exempt from certification.” The former is also commonly referred to as artificial or synthetic; and the latter, by default, is often characterized as natural. But again, these are commonly accepted terms, not legal descriptors.

That’s because FDA does not consider any color added to a food as being natural, unless the color is natural to the product itself. For example, a strawberry cream cheese spread colored with strawberry extract could be labeled “all-natural,” providing that none of the other ingredients in the spread were characterized as artificial. Such a description would not be possible if beet juice, an FDA-recognized color additive, was used for a colorful boost. Label claims of “free from synthetic colors” or “colored with vegetable juice” are possible. 

The free-from movement will continue to grow as consumers increasingly try to clean up their diet. The good news is there are clean-label ingredient options to assist with maintaining food quality and integrity.