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An Exclusive Interview: Insights and Innovations of Dairy Foods Clean Label

  •   29 Nov 2017
  • 6945

With no standard definition for the term “clean label,” food and beverage processors do their best to listen to consumers and formulate products that meet their desires in a particular category. When it comes to dairy foods, many consumers look beyond the ingredient statement and believe that processors’ business practices and principles are part of their clean label strategy. This is one of the dairy industry’s greatest strengths — its farm-to-fridge approach to sourcing, manufacturing and distributing dairy foods.

*Nutrition facts: image from Verywell

Still, ingredient selection has never been more important, which is why Food Business News spoke with ingredient suppliers to learn about their approach to clean label dairy and the solutions they offer. What follows are insights into capitalizing on this accelerating trend.

The interpretation of clean label varies by consumer and finished product. What does clean label mean for the dairy category?

Ivan Gonzales, marketing director-dairy, Ingredion Inc., Westchester, Ill.: Ingredion recently completed a global clean label ingredient consumer research study across different food categories. In the research it was identified that the recognition and acceptability of ingredients varies according to the food product where it is being used.

Across the different food categories investigated, dairy, and more specifically yogurt, was the one where consumers showed higher level of attention and awareness of the ingredients and claims used in their products of preference. It was interesting to notice that consumers ranked ingredients differently when they were able to identify the purpose of why some of the ingredients were used in specific products.

Pam Stauffer, global marketing programs manager, Cargill, Minneapolis: According to Cargill proprietary consumer research, more than half of consumers have heard of clean label, but only 1 in 10 is confident they know what it means. Despite that uncertainty, 8 in 10 consumers say they are somewhat likely to seek clean label products. In particular, many consumers set a high clean label bar for dairy products, which they inherently view as healthy. When Cargill asked consumers to identify the products they pay closest attention to, dairy products and yogurt scored high.

Jamie Wilson, director of marketing and culinary, Parker Products, Fort Worth, Texas: Consumers’ expectations for clean label in dairy foods can differ somewhat from other application types. It often has more to do with the presence of high-quality, premium ingredients.

Yashar Shakarami, application technologist-sweet flavors, Sensient Flavors, Hoffman Estates, Ill.: As consumers become more educated with reading labels, the general feeling is less is more. This is true especially in dairy, where there is this perception of wholesomeness. There is also the perception of milk from cows that have not been treated with growth hormones as being clean and simple.

Jessica Knutzon, consumer trends and insights manager, CP Kelco, Atlanta: It is a challenge for food manufacturers to balance between understanding what consumers may believe about various food ingredients, meeting consumers’ demands and preferences, and creating high-quality, good-for-you products.

Jon Hopkinson, senior application scientist, DuPont Nutrition & Health, New Century, Kas.: The clean label issue is a problem for the food industry, but it is a problem that comes directly from the food industry. In attempting to distinguish one’s product from the competition, the industry has spread fear and distrust among their own consumers. The extent of this problem is so huge that consumers now suspect that even a process like pasteurization is suspect and thought to be possibly dangerous.

How does consumers’ prioritization of flavor, appearance and nutrition impact clean label purchase decisions?

Anton Angelich, group vice-president, Virginia Dare, Brooklyn, N.Y.: Many dairy product labels now claim the product contains no artificial colors, flavors or preservatives. This is becoming an expectation for consumers. But because eating is a multi-sensory experience, we cannot overlook that we eat with our eyes. If a dairy product does not look visually appealing, the consumer may not be inclined to actually ever want to try tasting it.

Melissa Muldowney, strategic marketing director-dairy, Kerry, Beloit, Wis.: Today’s consumers want foods they can trust, food that is healthy and made from ingredients they recognize. Consumers tend to shun anything artificial and replacing these with natural alternatives is relatively straightforward. Added sugars in dairy products is also an important concern for consumers that influence their perceptions and purchases of clean label products.

Added sugar in all forms, including high-fructose corn syrup, sugar, artificial sweeteners are under the same microscope. Additionally, ingredients and artificial preservatives with chemical-sounding names are avoided by consumers and may cause them to reconsider purchase.

Paul Verderber, vice-president of sales, Carolina Innovative Food Ingredients Inc., Nashville, N.C.: Consumers are steering away from artificial ingredients, and thus, formulators are looking for natural ingredients that maintain or improve the way their applications look and taste. This has opened the door for innovative ingredient solutions from nature.

April Su, research and development scientist, Milk Specialties Global, Eden Prairie, Minn.: Consumers are doing their research and forming their own opinions on what ingredients they trust and what ingredients they stand firm against. Some of the ingredients that consumers may shy away from are ingredients that sound like chemicals or ones they have a hard time pronouncing.

As a result, consumers will research these ingredients, which tends to make them more concerned. We believe the food industry can do a better job educating consumers on ingredients they don’t understand and let them know why we use them. Also, we can direct them to reputable resources so they can get the answers they’re looking for as they work to better understand their nutritional labels.

Ms. Wilson: Sugar and calorie content remain a big concern, which drives the success of premium, clean labeled dairy brands like Halo Top, Noosa, Chobani and others. Consumers may not shun traditional dairy with its sugar and calorie content entirely, but they certainly gravitate toward more healthful choices when they have the opportunity.

Quill Merrill, principal scientist-dairy, DuPont Nutrition & Health: Consumer research has shown that some consumers base purchasing decisions on emotion rather than logic. An example is ingredients with the letter X in the name, such as xanthan gum. Xanthan gum is derived from microorganisms that grow naturally on cabbage and has no ill effect on the health and safety of those who consume it, yet, they reconsider purchase of a food listing xanthan as an ingredient because of their aversion to the letter X. Xanthan gum is a useful hydrocolloid for stabilizing foods like salad dressing and cottage cheese dressing.

Mr. Hopkinson: The important thing to remember is that most customers have no knowledge at all of the ingredients in food products. For instance, ask a group of consumers if they want α-D-glucopyranosyl-(1→2)-β-D-fructofuranoside in their ice cream, most will emphatically say no. But if you ask the same group of people if they would allow common table sugar that gives sweetness and smoothness to ice cream, I would guess the answer would be different. Nonetheless, the two substances are the same.

What ingredients used in dairy products are the most challenging to replace with clean label alternatives and why?

Mark Rainey, vice-president - global food marketing, ADM, Chicago: When making clean label improvements, the first step is to develop a deep understanding of the role, function and performance each ingredient plays in a product and how it drives consumer appeal.

Brian Surratt, senior scientist, Cargill: Chemically modified ingredients, while highly functional, are sometimes unwelcome on product labels. Their functionality is difficult to replace with minimally modified or native ingredients because they lack the inherent attributes associated with the chemical modifications. It can be challenging to overcome the problems with a one-to-one replacement. Often times, it is necessary to use multiple label-friendly ingredients, processing adjustments and overall recipe reformulation to achieve the same functionality and quality.

*Left Field Farms: image from Food Business News

Traditionally, modified ingredients are cost effective and highly process tolerant. When processors opt to use native ingredients, this typically increases the cost of formulations. Because native ingredients often have lower functionality, formulators may need to increase usage levels, further resulting in higher costs. While it is necessary to provide ingredients that consumers want to see on their labels, it can be a real balancing act to deliver on consumers’ expectations, manage costs and produce a high quality and process-friendly product.

Stephen Cobbe, research and development director-dairy, Kerry: Cleaning up labels by removing very functional ingredients, such as artificial preservatives and emulsifiers, has a big impact on product food safety and shelf life performance. Developers need to carefully assess the microbial risk in removing preservatives, and also design more comprehensive shelf life testing measures to ensure product appearance and performance over extended periods. It is critical that you maintain product taste, texture, appearance and food safety over shelf life.

Judy Whaley, vice-president, new product development, Tate & Lyle, Hoffman Estates, Ill.: There are five common themes to consider when formulating a cleaner label yogurt product: texture, taste, color, stability and process tolerance. Texture is the defining characteristic of yogurt. Myriad stabilizers such as starch, pectin, dairy proteins and cultures, as well as a range of other minor hydrocolloids, can be used to create texture. The development of cleaner label yogurt products can be achieved with the removal of some of these ingredients to shorten the list, as well as with the substitution of certain ingredients for more label-friendly alternatives.

What are some clean label solutions dairy foods formulators should consider in their product development efforts?

Christine Addington, senior dairy technical service specialist, Cargill: Dairy processors rely on emulsifiers to help hold fat and water portions of a system in place. Mono- and diglycerides often filled this role, but increasingly, these chemical-sounding ingredients are no longer welcome on product labels.

Sunflower and canola lecithin are a clean label alternative. They are non-G.M.O. options and do not have to be declared as major food allergens.

Jon Peters, president, Beneo Inc., Parsippany, N.J.: Next-generation functional native starches often perform similar to modified starches and can assist with cleaning up labels. For example, native rice starches provide stability during shelf life, freeze-thaw stability and a very delicate texture. They are also known for their hypoallergenic and gluten-free properties and easy digestibility. Rice starch is also unique in its structure, as its small granule size may benefit mouthfeel by functioning as a fat replacer. It creates a fat-like texture in the product that is indulgent, palatable, creamy, process stable, spreadable and has no off-taste. 

Mr. Gonzales: We have a new native potato starch that replaces cellulose as an anticaking on shredded cheeses and new functional tapioca flours and starches that can replace modified corn starch. The latter provides excellent mouthfeel and body in regular yogurts as well as texture stability during shelf life. Functional tapioca starches can also replace carrageenan and xanthan gum in ice cream applications.

Ms. Whaley: Non-G.M.O. thickening starch delivers stability under high processing conditions in applications like yogurt and processed cheese, while providing manufacturers the ability to make clean label claims.


*Gelitagelatin: image from allforbaking

Lara Niemann, marketing director-Americas, Gelita, Sioux City, Iowa: Gelatin acts as a gelling and binding agent, as well as a builder and stabilizer for foams and emulsions. These are the most important features for dairy processors. Using a rather simple hydrolysis process, gelatin is derived from native collagen that occurs in large amounts in animal skin and bones.

Commercial gelatin is a dry, pale yellow, highly purified protein powder that is free from fat, cholesterol, purines and additives. Dosed in typical quantities, it exerts no negative impact on taste and even though it is a protein, it has low allergenic potential. Due to its foam-building properties, gelatin can also be used to reduce fat in certain dairy applications. Further, the texture and consistency of yogurt can be set from firm to creamy with the help of different gelatins.

Thom King, president and chief executive officer, Icon Foods, Portland, Ore.: Carrageenan has long been the go-to hydrocolloid in frozen dairy as well as yogurt and flavored milk. The tide has turned because of consumer sentiment regarding the safety of carrageenan. Finding suitable hydrocolloids presents a challenge.

Additionally, sugar remains a challenge to replace. We have found, for example, in a high-protein, low-sugar frozen dairy dessert, erythritol, stevia and monk fruit together address clean label sugar reduction. Further, the use of allulose addresses the increase depression point level that the polyols may cause. And to create mouthfeel, tara gum and locust bean gum are helpful.

Ms. Knutzon: Pectin is one of the most consumer-friendly hydrocolloids on the market. It stabilizes to extend shelf life, helps provide consistent appearance, protects proteins to make them smoother to consume and pectin is considered label-friendly for consumers.

Mr. Verderber: Sweet potato juice concentrate has the benefit of being a naturally orange or amber color, which is the same color as many cheese spreads. Whether it’s a cheddar, pimento or other variety of cheese spread, sweet potato juice concentrate is a nutritious replacement for up to 25% of the cheese in the formulation, creating an end product that is lower in fat, calories and cholesterol. It’s a versatile and viscous ingredient that complements — or enhances — the flavor and consistency of cheese spreads.

Additionally, clarified sweet potato juice concentrate adds natural sweetness and nutritive benefits to formulations, but doesn’t impact color. So, for color-sensitive dairy products such as certain fluid milk formulations, smoothies and ice creams, it is an excellent ingredient for formulators to consider.

*Alternative sweeteners: image from spaindex.com

Mr. Rainey: Our dairy flavor and taste ingredients, blends and systems are made from real milk, cream, cheese and butter. They allow for “dairy only” labeling. When it comes to sweeteners, consider fruit-derived ingredients. There are options made using physical extraction without the use of enzymes or chemical additives. The resulting ingredients deliver sweet taste and neutral flavor, making it easier for developers to sweeten their products, reduce added sugar and round out overall flavor and mouthfeel.

Ms. Wilson: Alternative sweeteners can help inclusions have a cleaner ingredient deck. We can use maple sugar or agave nectar to supplant corn syrup or conventional sweeteners in coated nuts and seeds or granola clusters. Puffed quinoa coated with agave nectar adds a pleasing crunch to ice cream while maintaining a clean label.

We also make many different premium granolas using ancient grains and alternative sweeteners, which can be used as a sidecar inclusion for premium yogurts. Some of our recent flavors include sea salted toasted coconut granola, peach granola, and honey and spice granola.

Ms. Su: Dairy ingredients, namely protein, may effectively replace functional ingredients in dairy products. Dairy proteins are usually accepted by the consumer and are well perceived on the label. Also, nutritionally speaking, dairy proteins are far more superior to other proteins due to containing the essential amino acid profile. Milk and whey proteins have a wide range of functional properties such as whipping, emulsification, browning, water binding and more. 


  • This article was first published by Ms Donna Berry with the title of Formulating clean label dairy foods: Insights and innovations on Food Business News.

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Donna Berry

Ms Donna Berry is an Editor, Consultant and Food Guru at Dairy & Food Communications, Inc. She has been writing and speaking on product development, marketing and trends in the beverage, dairy, food and ingredient industries since 2001.