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Emulsifiers and the clean label trend

There’s renewed concern as to whether the clean label trend might influence consumers to reject processed foods without a strong scientific basis for doing so.

Palm Oil Health, a blog that focuses on the health and nutritional benefits of Malaysian palm fruit oil and palm fruit oil bioactives, features a January 18 post by nutrition expert Roger Clemens and toxicologist A. Wallace Hayes titled: “Scientists Speak Out on the Clean Label Trend”.

The two scientists are concerned by what they see as the beginnings of making ‘clean label’ a movement, driven by millennial consumers. Their grounds for this concern are that consumers and the businesses who serve them will make their purchasing decisions without a clear, scientific definition of what ‘clean label’ really means – and that ill-informed attempts may be made by regulatory authorities to establish a way of telling consumers which foods are more highly processed (and therefore, whether it’s scientifically founded or not, should be considered less healthy) than others.

The Palm Oil Health post’s authors cite two rather disturbing statistics:

  • “While 25 percent of U.S. products now claim clean label, 78 percent of consumers don’t understand the meaning of this approach to food labeling and ingredient declaration.” 
  • “About 65 percent of consumers are confused by the difference between organic and non-GMO. In fact, most of these consumers are unable to really define either of these categories that are clearly defined in U.S. food regulations and guidance documents.”


Safe choices

In the world of sustainable emulsifiers, we watch such clean label trends with interest. After all, emulsifiers are found in most processed foods – making them a possible target for clean label lobbyists. But is that attention really justified? And what does the science tell us?

Most people have a basic knowledge of what food additives are, regularly seeing them on food labels and even reading about them in the news. Many don’t realise, however, that all additives, including emulsifiers, are subject to intensive scientific and regulatory scrutiny aimed at identifying any health risks and developing safe limits for their use in foods and beverages. In Europe, helping to ensure that additives are safely used is the task of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). And in the US, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is charged with their regulation.

To date, overwhelming evidence indicates that consuming the food emulsifiers and stabilizers on the market today, within the limits prescribed by European and US guidance and legislation, is entirely safe for the world’s consumers.

An amusing insight into consumer perceptions of food additives in general is provided by the post’s authors when they write:

“The public might steer clear of a product containing the hard-to-pronounce octadecatrienoic acid or perhaps methyl butanoate. Yet, these and other substances that may be equally challenging to pronounce by the typical consumer occur naturally in kiwi fruit and strawberries.”


Solving new challenges

Rejecting sustainably sourced and produced emulsifiers in the context of a clean label movement also ignores the fact that this is a technology that is sorely needed for the challenges we are currently facing in the food supply chain – and for the even larger challenges that are soon to come.

For example, around one third of food is lost or wasted throughout the supply chain and in the hands of consumers, amounting to around 1.3 billion tonnes annually. But if just one fourth of the food currently lost or wasted globally could be saved, it would be enough to feed 870 million hungry people in the world*. With the right blend of emulsifiers, stabilizers and know-how, food manufacturers and their distribution chains can extend shelf life stability, alleviating a significant portion of this waste.


Looking good for longer

Another way to reduce food waste is to make sure that packaged food appears fresh and attractive on display in supermarkets for longer. Surface fogging in packaged food such as salad, vegetables, fruit and meat reduces the visibility of the product, makes packaging less attractive, and the presence of water droplets may cause deterioration of product quality. But conventional additives to counter these problems are likely to migrate into the food itself. Plant-based, sustainable polymer additives, which have recently been approved as food contact materials worldwide, present a far healthier solution for a broad range of food packaging.

*Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 2016

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