Speaking at Baking Tech 2014 in Chicago this week, which was hosted by the American Society of Baking, Theresa Cogswell, founder and president of BakerCogs Inc., said: “In case anyone in the room has had your head in the sand last few days, I’ll start out with the media punch we’ve taken in the last few weeks.”
She showed a series of clips highlighting the current wave of press—from national news media reports on Kraft pulling artificial preservatives from some Singles and artificial colors from certain macaroni and cheese products, and Subway phasing out azodicarbonamide (ADA) from its breads, to a promotional video of the Food Babe Vani Hari taking a bite out of her yoga mat to suggest Subway is feeding Americans the same chemical that’s used to make rubber products.
What links all this coverage together, Cogswell said, is that no one asked the follow-up questions that inevitably impact manufacturers and suppliers. “These are all credible sources in the media world, but none of them asked follow-up questions, like, ‘What are the downstream effects of taking this ingredient out?’ or ‘Could there be a food and an industrial source of ADA?’ So now we have a tsunami.”
But what does clean label actually mean to consumers?
“Based on my research, if it sounds like a chemical, it’s not clean. If it’s not something in their cupboard, it’s probably not clean label; if it’s something they don’t know or have never heard of, if they can’t spell or pronounce the ingredients, they shouldn’t eat it,” Cogswell said. Ultimately, though, it’s going to be defined by the what the customer—be it Walmart or Harris Teeter—and the consumer shopping those retailers will buy, she added.
For bakery manufacturers, the two areas most affected by the clean label push are preservatives (e.g. calcium propionate) and dough conditioners (e.g. mono- and diglycerides, potassium bromate, ADA and enzymes).
No such thing as a drop-in solution
Among the more common natural preservatives Cogswell cited are raisin juice concentrate; vinegar; citric acid; natamycin (which Kraft is now using instead of sorbic acid in its Singles); and cultured products (which consumers largely accept given the term’s association with yogurt), including wheat starch and wheat flour, whey and dry acid whey, corn syrup solids, dextrose and maltodextrin.
And yet, using examples ranging from Flowers Foods' Nature’s Own to Portland, OR-based Dave’s Killer Bread, Cogswell demonstrated how many manufacturers rely on more than one solution to compensate for a single artificial preservative (in the case of commercial bread, a combination of raisin juice, cultured wheat flour and vinegar).
This ironically results in far longer—albeit “cleaner sounding” ingredient labels, she noted. “Oh and by the way, you also have to figure out how to keep the product from molding,” she added with a laugh. “Bakers want a quick-fix, drop-in solution. Unfortunately, that may not be the best way to go about it.”
That’s why for many large manufacturers, it may be easier to launch a clean label line of products rather than reformulate an existing product.
“Looking at the corporate approach to clean label, does it make sense to make clean label Wonder Bread? Or any other brand that’s been around for a long time that might not have a clean label type of heritage? You don’t want to take a valued brand and valued product within that brand and lose quality, consistency or customer expectations. You really have to think about what kind of approach you want to take.”
Don’t want to lose quality, consistency or customer expectations on a valued brand
For one, the management team has to weigh ingredient options and how that will affect price, often changing production cost expectations as a result. “The bowl cost is not going to be same, and as a result the price isn’t going to be the same. The bread aisle is incredibly competitive; we can always tell what caused a spike in bread sales—whether it was a snow storm or Buy One, Get One. If the cost goes up, you need to recoup and get the payback you need.”
From an operations standpoint, the new ingredient inventory also presents dough handling challenges. “If there’s no more ADA, they want to know what they can do? You have to work with operations to make dough handling characteristics are understood and that you have answers for concerns about flour quality, gluten and dough tolerance.”
For sales and marketing, the challenge is determining if the brand can support clean label demographically, and communicating effectively with customers.
“Is your clean label product skewed to a higher income, more educated bracket, since those are the ones who will pay a premium price? On the other end of the spectrum, those struggling to feed their families, I’m not sure clean label is in their realm of concern,” Cogswell said. “It’s important to work with marketing, understand your target audience and make sure you're focused on those customers that want clean label. Price doesn’t necessarily always drive sales. The loaf of bread I buy every day never goes on sale. I know that, but I’m willing to pay the price. Make sure the customer understands that.”
Clean label here to stay?
Based on experience with past trends, Cogswell thinks clean label likely isn't going anywhere.
“We’ve been through the Atkins Diet. Did it ever fully leave us? I’d say no. We’ve been through ‘carbs are evil’, too. Both of those trends continue to perpetuate,” she said. “Overall, I see a shift happening. The Food Babe got an enormous amount of publicity—an amount that we as an industry couldn’t have afforded to pay for. And we can’t pedal enough to keep ahead of those. Clean label may be in your future. It may take a different brand, it may take a different mindset, a different perspective on bowl cost and it may change the demographic you go for with your product line. But I think we’re trending that way.”