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Taking a whole-label approach for cleaner labelling

23 January 2017

Dr Aidan Craigwood says it is important to analyse all the ingredients on a label at the same time to see how their function might be achieved in other ways. Chemical, biological and physical processes can provide fresh solutions to old challenges relating to colour, preservation and texture. 

Many brands today are looking to reduce the number of ingredients on their labels to boost consumer confidence and decrease the potential for allergens. This can be problematic as many additives are used to improve colour, prolong shelf life or improve texture and so perform an important role in the product that can be difficult to replicate with ‘natural’ products. 

Using the example of natural colours, Craigwood said: “Although desirable, natural colours are inherently unstable. Anthocyanins, for example, are a group of chemicals responsible for purple-blue and red colouring in blueberries and cherries. They are powerful antioxidants with other preservative functions such as the inhibition of fungal growth. However, anthocyanins are sensitive to pH and temperature, which is a major obstacle to their use in food.

Craigwood continues: “Stabilising these natural colours and being able to keep the ingredients as ‘natural’ as possible is an issue for food manufacturers. It can be achieved by looking at how the colours are created in the living system. “In a fruit, the colour is reinforced by a process called co-pigmentation, in which another colourless pigment or flavonoid is present, together they create a complex and this ‘locks in’ the colour. Phenolic acids, such as rosemary extract, can be used to preserve the colour of grape extract.”

Looking into the science behind natural interactions can reveal new options for food preservation. “Investigating the techniques used in nature to break down structures or counter decay can give food manufacturers new avenues to explore when seeking alternatives to artificial colouring and synthetic preservatives.” Craigwood gives the example of fermentation as a useful process step. He said: “Bioprocessing can be used to make new ingredients such as xanthan gum which is produced by fermentation. However, they have often been purified and labelled like a ‘chemical’ ingredient. 

“Food scientists are now waking up to the possibility of using fermentation to deliver cleaner labels. The ingredient Verdad, for example, is based on natural fermentation and can be labelled as ‘fermented sugar’ or ‘cultured beet sugar’ and used to replace ‘chemical’ preservatives such as sodium lactate or propionic acid. 

“Careful selection of the right cultures in yoghurts and cheeses can potentially eliminate thickeners like carrageenan, or antifungals such as sorbic acid. By borrowing emerging metabonomic and screening techniques from biotechnology, food scientists may have the choice of many more functional fermentates in the future.”

The ‘free-from’ challenge
The fermentation route is good if you are looking to create small molecule ingredients. For larger compounds, for example improving the physical structure of a protein, it is often best to start from the process conditions. Pea protein, for example, is simultaneously a flavour sponge and a structural element. There is much interest in using pea flour as a gluten-free alternative to wheat, but aldehydes that provide much of the ‘pea flavour’ can be physically bonded into the protein. “To be useful as an ingredient, the undesirable pea flavour needs to be removed and the protein textured by extrusion. This can be achieved through the use of enzymes which can restructure carbohydrates to trap the pea flavour, while others simultaneously cause the protein to ‘clump’ together and create a high-molecular weight structure like the one gluten would normally provide.”

Craigwood says that looking at the entire ingredient list is the way to go, not the piecemeal approach that is often currently being used. “It is hard for brands to gain a systematic perspective on how to improve the labelling because the subject is generally looked at one ingredient at a time. However, to improve an ingredient line sustainably, you need to look at the function of all the chemicals on the list and then pick the correct technique or approach to address all of the issues at the same time.” This system level approach can also reveal areas where processes can be improved or rationalised and more consumer acceptable substitutes made. 

Dr Aidan Craigwood is a consultant for Innovia Technology.


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