As demand for clean label products increases, choosing a supply chain partner is paramount to ensuring full transparency and provenance of food ingredients
Hands holding scoop of coffee beans

The clean-label consumer is demanding brands switch from synthetic ingredients into natural, organic or plant-based options while reducing their ingredient lists as much as it is technically and economically possible without sacrificing taste and appearance.

Due to this demand, the plant-based ingredient sector is growing rapidly. In a Euromonitor forecast, global clean label food sales are expected to reach $180 billion this year, up from $165 billion in 2015.

Among the categories experiencing significant growth are natural colours and colouring foodstuffs, plant-based antioxidants and preservatives, natural sweeteners, natural surfactants, emulsifiers and texturisers.

The natural ingredient market is young and segmented, hence differentiating ingredients in the crowded clean label market requires skill and knowledge.

Clean label beyond regulatory compliance

The Clean Label Project, a US-based not-for-profit organisation, is helping consumers make the right choice by evaluating finished goods using testing standard based on strict regulations and testing to protect consumers from contaminants and chemical concerns.

“At the Clean Label Project, we believe that sometimes what’s not on a label is what matters most,” said Jaclyn Bowen, executive director of the Clean Label Project.

For Bowen, the long-term threat of cancers and reproductive disorders linked to industrial and environmental contaminant exposure has largely gone unnoticed, untested, and therefore unregulated in food and consumer products, until now. “Clean Label Project Certification addresses that gap by building on the strictest regulation in the US by evaluating products to protect consumers from contaminants and chemicals of concern,” she concluded.

A question of trust

In this context, consumer trust remains the cornerstone of supplement and food and drink products.

More and more consumers want food brands to be transparent because it inspires confidence in the integrity of the products they buy. Consumers know that opaque supply chains can hide adulteration and contamination issues.

Such problems are widespread. A 2019 study by Mihael Cristin Ichim found that 27% of 5,957 tested products were adulterated. We all know too well that selling adulterated products damages reputation, leads to fines and creates the risk of public health incidents.

The clean label movement demands that the grower, producer, supplier, processor, retailer, and even the consumer double down on responsibly growing, producing, distributing, processing, marketing/educating, and consuming without negatively affecting health or environment.

To answer those demands, brands must enhance their oversight of the entire supply chain to improve traceability and transparency. Providing details of how an ingredient is extracted or produced goes a long way to fostering trust and loyalty, especially as shrewd consumers begin to observe and understand if and when environmentally friendly solvents are used.

How to capture the growth potential of clean label

The plant-based ingredients market is very attractive in the context of clean label requirements, and although very fragmented, consolidation is under way. Last year, an average of 15 food and drink acquisitions were recorded every week, according to Zenith Global. The ingredients sector was the most active with 65 transactions listed worldwide.

There are many factors to consider when investing in the plant-based ingredient space, but two are key: the robustness of the plant-based ingredient supply chain and its consistent quality.

Plant-based ingredients are very much subject to contaminants as these could be added for economic adulteration, absorbed from the growing medium (heavy metals) or applied to the plant during harvesting such as pesticides, fertilisers, plasticisers, and residual solvents, among others.

These are issues consumers care about and they will reject products that fail to meet their clean label expectations.

Food manufacturers should evaluate the risks in the plant-based ingredients supply chain based on the country of origin, the cultivation and harvesting conditions, the supply chain intermediates and the manufacturing steps.

Quality issues such as contaminants, chemicals and adulterations are major concerns and mastering the supply chain is a key winning component for a plant-based ingredient manufacturer. Why? Because even though routine tests are performed to ensure ingredient purity, the risk is still there.

Some manufacturers can be very creative when trying to tamper with pricey ingredients and only very specific tests, which are not run routinely, can unveil counterfeit materials.

The turmeric extract market is a prime example. Carbon-14 analysis has proved to be an accurate tool for detecting adulteration of natural curcumin against the petrochemical-derived synthetic version. Unfortunately, this very technical and expensive test is not available everywhere, and is not performed on a routine basis.

Why supply chain transparency is hard to achieve

China is a major source of many botanical ingredients, which creates challenges for food brands. At a time when consumers are scrutinising the provenance of ingredients, the established importance and benefits of China often lead brands to source botanicals from complex supply chains featuring small, remote farms, with many intermediates and inconsistent practices.

The transparency and consistent high quality that consumers demand is very hard to achieve in this environment. Recognising that, Better World Naturals is applying a new, innovative model to the challenge.

Founded in 2018, Better World Naturals is a joint venture of Mitsui, one of the largest general trading companies in Japan, and Huabao, a global manufacturer of flavours, fragrances, and tobacco raw materials.

Better World Naturals has implemented a vertically integrated supply chain called Prevent4Trust. The goal is to prevent quality issues by proactively raising standards and mitigating threats from the field to the formulated ingredient. 

The joint venture works with farmers in the field to ensure consistent standards while shortening supply chains to improve quality control. The model benefits all stakeholders, with farmers getting guaranteed revenues and brands receiving consistently high-quality ingredients.

Date published: 16 September 2020

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