HEALTH AND WELLNESS
Cleaning up Labels
By Megan Pellegrini, contributing writer
Consumers are requesting fresh, new flavors and ingredients delivered in clean, safe and convenient applications.
How natural are natural products, anyway? It’s not just foodies who are raising this question, as all consumers take a closer look at their product labels, particularly on their meat and poultry items. Shoppers want to know what exactly is in those “natural flavors,” and processors will need to be prepared to answer.
Meat and poultry processors have the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to thank for what is generally considered to be a confusing definition for natural products. Because natural items can contain flavor enhancers that come from natural sources or occur naturally, food manufacturers do not have to list the reviled monosodium glutamate (MSG), for example, in their products. In addition, it is OK for them to include hydrolyzed vegetable protein, autolyzed yeast, hydrolyzed yeast and soy extracts, even though they may contain or create the free glutamic acid component of MSG during manufacture.
Shoppers clearly don’t want to bring chemistry books with them to analyze the ingredients listed on their natural products. So many ingredient and flavor suppliers are working to provide more natural ingredients as the market for organic certified products has raised the bar for consumers’ expectations for natural products.
“To meet the USDA’s definition of natural,” notes Dwight Grenawalt, vice president and general manager, Summit Hill Flavors, based in Middlesex, N.J., “each individual ingredient and process used in the manufacturing of the natural meat and poultry food products must be evaluated to confirm compliance to the USDA’s standards for natural — no artificial ingredients, minimally processed,”
Summit Hill’s latest offering, MinPro Natural Meat and Poultry Flavors, is specifically designed to improve the flavor of natural meat and poultry products. These natural flavors are made from real meat and poultry materials that contain no antibiotics, hormones, synthetic or artificial materials or genetically modified ingredients.
In addition to organic ingredients, suppliers are offering allergen-free and ultra-clean or minimally processed products, says Jason Dumo, director of marketing, Griffith Laboratories USA and Innova, a global manufacturer of food ingredients, based in Alsip, Ill. He notes that processors are also providing humanely treated product and improved traceability due to recent product safety concerns.
Consumers are requesting “fresh, exciting new flavors delivered in clean, safe and convenient applications where claims for promoting positive health and wellness are a plus,” he says.
Functional ingredients are also being used in meat and poultry items, but remain a niche trend, says Tom Katen, technical service specialist for Minneapolis-based Cargill Texturizing Solutions, a global supplier of texturizers and emulsifiers to the global food and beverage industry, as well as pharmaceutical and cosmetics markets. Many ingredients highlight cardiovascular benefits, with some lines featuring Omega-3 or lycopene content. Low-, no- and reduced-fat is also a leading claim for ingredients, catering to increasingly health-conscious consumers who are worried about their weight and increasing obesity levels.
“The consumer drive toward zero trans fat oils is making its way into processed-meat formulations and batter and breaded products,” notes Joni Ford, advertising and promotions manager for Kalsec Inc., a producer of colors, seasonings and extracts for food, beverage and pharmaceutical applications, based in Kalamazoo, Mich. “And the low-salt trend that started in Europe has made its way to the U.S. meat and poultry processing industry, as well.”
Often times, ingredient trends are driven by the current nutrient interests of consumers. As they try to reduce their intake of sugar and the much-maligned high fructose corn syrup, they are turning to brown rice syrup, honey and agave as natural sweeteners for barbecue sauces, ethnic dishes or other sweet marinades, says Michelle Barry, Ph.D., president of Tinderbox, the trends division of The Hartman Group, a health and wellness marketing and research firm, based in Bellevue, Wash. Consumers are also beginning to show interest in ginger, pepper and cayenne spices because they are good for the heart and increasing circulation.
Balancing health with taste
“Consumers are focused on the story of what’s in a product, particularly with natural, local and clean meats,” she says. “As they continue to increase their experiences with flavors from other countries, such as Brazil, Germany and Thailand, berries, herbs or cane have a certain lure or quality to them. If flavors or spices have a connection to a place, they are even more compelling to them.” Whereas, “smoked flavor” on a label doesn’t mean anything to them.
Barry points out that Jidori chicken, the poultry equivalent to Kobe beef, is a new trend that uses its narrative to appeal to consumers. Bred from two precious, pure breeds of chicken, Jidori chickens are raised cage-free on vegetables and clover. Once these chickens are slaughtered, they are shipped unfrozen and delivered to customers within 24 hours.
But even premium chicken buyers will cite price as a limiting factor to purchasing, preparing or consuming more chicken (38 percent), according to Tinderbox consumer market trends data.
“Consumers are balancing their interest in health and wellness, with the need for convenience, taste and cost,” says Katen. “Cost-conscious consumers are on alert due to higher-priced meat products.”
Changing food culture
While consumers are influencing meat and poultry flavor trends, they are certainly not always focused on health and wellness. But, says Barry, they are part of a much broader movement to “real” food — with ingredients from the ground, not the lab.
“Real can mean natural, organic, local and nutritionally functional,” she says. “It’s more about the flavors and ingredients being based on real foods that have the health and wellness halo and quality effect.”
If it looks like a product is made with ginger, not ginger flavor, consumers will be more inclined to give it a try. She notes that this change is due to a larger shift in our food culture. Consumers today know more about food ingredients and have more access to them.
“They are becoming obsessed with the minutiae of ingredients,” she says. In the past, they may have watched their fat content, but now they can break fat down in five different ways.
The meat and poultry industries are working to give consumers the kind of clean protein they want. According to Barry, certain manufacturers, such as Hormel, Boar’s Head and Tyson, are leading the charge. “The mainstream processors are trying, but they are not successful across the board yet,” she says.
In focus groups and testing, consumers have been telling Summit Hill that they don’t want anything that’s “chemical sounding” on their labels, says Grenawalt. The move to “clean labels” is driven by consumers concerned with hormones, antibiotics and other artificial ingredients that could be present in their food products.
“With regard to natural flavors, the technology is available to improve the flavor profiles of natural meat and poultry products, but the industry needs to understand the USDA’s definition of natural,” he says. “The industry is on the cusp of getting natural products out there, and [ones] that taste good.”
Studies suggest that consumers are especially concerned about pesticides in their food. One way to potentially avoid them is to push for more natural and organic products. “This perception of healthy and better for the environment is translating into ‘better for you’ products,” says Ford.
She notes that seasonings are a relatively simple way to create interest in established products and brands. “Spice extracts can offer specific benefits in line with recent trends by offering a natural flavoring label, strong flavor impact and reduced salt opportunities,” says Ford.
Indeed, consumers’ desire for good-tasting products outweighs their other preferences. But they also want them to be easy to use and prepare, contain good fats and provide a quality protein source, says Katen.
“The lifestyles of the different demographic groups have different needs such as precooked, small portions, single servings, lower sodium and fat [but not fat free], all the way to comfort foods like we had as a kid at Grandma’s house,” he says.