Today's consumers want food they can trust and ingredients they can understand. They're checking package labels for artificial flavors, colors and preservatives, certain dough conditioners, GMOs, partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), added sugar and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS).
Replacing such ingredients can be much trickier than it sounds. While formulators are facing pressure to swap-out ingredients that consumers are avoiding, ingredient suppliers are managing to come up with label-friendly, even natural ingredients that are making the substitutions easier.
But it's not always easy. "When three or four highly effective ingredients are replaced with various alternatives, there's somewhat of a compounding effect," says Troy Boutte, principal scientist-bakery at DuPont Nutrition and Health (www.dupont.com), New Century, Kan. "The result can be that processing efficiency goes down even with additional vital ingredients added, causing the overall costs to go up."
Azodicarbonamide (ADA), which improves dough and bread texture, has been removed from many bakery products largely because it's also used in yoga mats and packaging components. Despite FDA assurances that it's safe as used in food, Food Babe blogger Vani Hari called out Subway restaurants for ADA's presence in the chain's breads, and Subway removed the ingredient in 2014.
"We replaced ADA using other ingredients relatively easily, but at much higher cost," Boutte points out. "The groundwork for ADA replacement has been done over the past 20 years, but wasn't implemented because the cost of replacement was higher and functionality wasn't quite as consistent. There are ways of replacing most ingredients either by using alternates, combinations, process changes or as a last resort by changing the specifications of the final product." Gelatin, an animal byproduct, and some modified starches, also are being replaced to pacify some consumers. But they provide cling and a mouth coating difficult to achieve with other ingredients. Cargill "can provide solutions via a single ingredient or a custom, tailor-made functional system," says Drew Kleven, manager of functional systems and hydrocolloids at the Wayzata, Minn., firm (www.cargill.com). "For example, we can replace modified food starch and gelatin using one ingredient or a functional system based on corn or tapioca starch, pectin and agar."
Sugars in the crosshairs
With added sugars destined to be called out in the new Nutrition Facts Panel (with compliance due in 2018), more processors than ever are looking for non-nutritive replacements. But workhorses aspartame, acesulfame potassium and sucralose all have their detractors. Switching among those three is little help. In the face of consumer concerns about aspartame, PepsiCo replaced that sweetener with a blend of sucralose and acesulfame potassium (ace-K) in Diet Pepsi in late 2015. But already declining sales of Diet Pepsi only got worse, and by the middle of this year PepsiCo returned aspartame to a new diet cola, Diet Pepsi Classic Sweetener Blend.
Fortunately, two natural replacements have come to the fore. Stevia is slowly taking hold, and monk fruit also is beginning to make a dent.
Stevia received generally recognized as safe (GRAS) status from the FDA at the end of 2008, thanks to petitions from Whole Earth Sweetener (a division of Merisant, and backed by PepsiCo) and Cargill (which teamed with Coca-Cola). And monk fruit, also called luo han guo or Buddha fruit, was called GRAS in January 2010. BioVittoria was the petitioner, but Tate & Lyle quickly allied itself with that company and became the dominant U.S. supplier.
"The biggest challenge we face is flavor masking, since some natural high-intensity sweeteners have a slight off note," states Thom King, founder/CEO of Steviva Ingredients (www.stevivaingredients.com), Portland, Ore. But Steviva and other stevia suppliers – prominently Apura Ingredients, Blue California, Cargill, Ingredion, NiuSource, PureCircle, Sweet Green Fields and Wisdom Natural Brands – all offer masking agents and are working on purer extracts of stevia to reduce the bitter or metallic taste.
Tate and Lyle's Purefruit monk fruit extract has found application in a range of food and beverage applications. Monk fruit has been used in coffee drinks from Starbucks and Nestle, in a Yoplait Yogurt & Juice beverage, in Chobani Simply 100 yogurts and many other products.
HFCS is another matter. The workhorse sugar got a black eye based on some sketchy science, but consumers nevertheless called for its removal. However, most processors who trumpeted its removal saw no sales pickup, so many, like Hunt's ketchup, went back to HFCS.
"Replacing HFCS has presented a slight challenge, but we've addressed this with a stevia-infused agave nectar called Nectevia," King continues. Nectevia emulates DE 42 HFCS while delivering a 75-percent sugar reduction and the mouthfeel and the sweet flavor of HFCS.
Matsutani Chemical Industry Co. Ltd.'s (www.matsutani.co.jp/english) Astraea allulose-based sweetener, launched last year, is a monosaccharide, the simplest form of sugar and one of approximately 50 varieties that exist in nature in small quantities, observes Tomokazu Okazaki, director of application R&D.
"The most challenging ingredient to replace is sugar," he says. "Astraea has 70 percent of the sweetness found in sucrose. It's a more natural-image, low-calorie sweetener that can replace sugar without changing food's original good taste. We see success combining Astraea with other sweeteners, like stevia. Allulose can act as a masking agent, and aid in bulking and browning. But most important is taste."
Breakfast cereal maker Seven Sundays LLC (www.sevensundays.com) removed conventional honey from its formulas in favor of organic honey, due to the potential impact of GMOs. "We start with is real, unprocessed ingredients," says Hannah Barnstable, president and founder. "The [higher] costs can be challenging, so it's important to stay flexible. As the price of certain dried fruits has gone up, we've replaced them with other dried fruits or even coconut to add sweetness, texture and flavor."
No to PHOs
Used since the 1950s, PHOs increase the shelf life in most bakery products and allow bread dough to rise. The process of partially hydrogenating vegetable oil rids it of many unstable fatty acids and causes it to solidify at room temperature – but PHOs also are the major dietary source of industrially produced trans fat in processed food. And trans fats recently have been proven to be more injurious to the heart and coronary system than the saturated fats they replaced. So in June, the FDA revoked Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) status for PHOs, giving the food industry three years to eliminate them from products.
Food processors in certain categories say PHOs are very difficult to replace. The two most common PHOs are partially hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oils.
"When trans-fatty acids issues intensified, many food companies searched to replace PHOs, but the complexities and functionally of PHOs has not made the switch easy," relates Frank Flider, oils expert at Qualisoy (www.qualisoy.com), a collaborative program of the soybean industry that promotes the market development of enhanced soybean oils.
The good news is plenty of PHO alternatives are being developed to provide similar, and in some cases better, functionality at a similar cost. Qualisoy and the United Soybean Board have focused on evaluating enzymatically interesterified (EIE) high-oleic soybean oils as replacements for PHOs. "EIE high-oleic soybean shortenings contain zero grams of trans fat and have proven to be effective replacements in baking, especially for doughnuts and icings," Flider says.
The costs of these ingredients will decrease as supply increases, he notes.
Cargill's Regal PHO-free bakery shortenings, launched at October's IBIE 2016 expo, include non-hydrogenated, reduced-palm and all-purpose shortenings that create brilliant white icings, fresh donuts and cakes and various products that require excellent plasticity and creaming properties.
ADM's (www.adm.com) vast supply of ingredients includes several PHO replacements for baked goods that have challenges maintaining dough handling, shelf life or mouthfeel attributes. Identifying oil and shortening systems with the right solid fat content to overcome dough handling issues, or blending tropical oils with stable oils such as high oleic soybean oil and high oleic canola oil, the company helps formulators improve oxidative stability and shelf-life issues.
For foods needing a certain degree of solids, palm oil-based shortenings or palm/liquid oil blends provide different functional attributes, explains Mark Rainey, vice president of marketing for ADM's Wild Flavors business unit (www.wildflavors.com). "Other replacement options in bakery applications include enzymatic interesterification of soybean oil and fully hydrogenated soybean oil blends." When solid fats aren't needed, commodity oils such as soybean and canola oil are good alternatives, he says. If greater oxidative stability is needed, high oleic soybean, high oleic canola, cottonseed oil and mid oleic sunflower can be used to replace PHOs.
Simpler flavors, colors
What can clearly be called "natural" alternatives to synthetic flavors and colors officially remains subject to clarification. The FDA has not defined the term natural, but it's trying to – the agency in May closed a year-long comment period on a possible definition, which could come next year. Consumers clearly want natural products and recognizable ingredients on labels, so processors, with the help of their ingredient suppliers, are responding.
Simply-processed or less-processed flavors can be derived from herbs, vegetables and botanicals. But these natural flavors can be challenging because their flavor components are vulnerable to fading and can disappear rapidly when exposed to air, light or heat. Bell Flavors & Fragrances (www.bellff.com) offers myriad flavors that counteract this, such as its Sweetech line. Sweetech flavors can help reduce sweetness and enhancing texture and mouthfeel, says Aaron Graham, Bell's director of creative services, flavors. "A good flavor replacer addresses flavor, color, texture and mouthfeel, while ensuring functionality, shelf life and processability," he says.
Natural colors are equally challenging. Many synthetic colors have been replaced with natural ones in recent years, but blue was one of the last because of its unique difficulty – it doesn't occur often in nature. Indigotine (a.k.a. Blue No. 2), which once gave blue M&Ms their vivid, brilliant hue, is a synthetic version of the plant-based indigo, which has a history as a textile dye. Blue No. 1 or "brilliant blue," originally was derived from coal tar and is now made from an oil base. Consequently, both are often replaced. The FDA requires they be listed by name on ingredients decks.
But a milestone was reached in 2013 with the help of Mars. The FDA approved a petition from Mars to use spirulina as a blue color source, although only for use in candies and chewing gum (it has since been approved for other food uses). The algae-like bacteria already had been used as a colorant and food additive around the globe. It's particularly effective at creating blue shades, so a number of colorant companies immediately began developing blues based on spirulina.
ADM’s Wild Flavors has a patented process for a natural blue color ingredient provides a blue that's acid- and heat-stable. "This plant-based ingredient is sourced close to the Amazon river," Rainey points out. "Colors derived from nature rather than synthetic sources are a big trend."
While the 2015 Dietary Guidelines didn't come down on salt as hard as some feared, it's still an ingredient most processors are working to reduce. Reducing rather than replacing salt is best for many recipes. Salt equals taste and functionality. For thousands of years, it enhanced food and beverage flavor, structure and performance.
Nestle, Campbell Soup, General Mills and others have eagerly responded to the FDA’s voluntary draft guidance on sodium reduction and the updated Dietary Guidelines, which recommend that Americans reduce sodium intake to 2,300mg/day, down from levels of 3,400mg/day. Increased sodium intake is linked to high blood pressure, which can lead to heart disease and stroke.
Ingredient cost is always a major factor, the experts agree, and salt is possibly the least expensive ingredient to use, making processors reluctant to switch. But as long as some portion of consumers are concerned about sodium's connection to hypertension, some processors will reformulate. And many processed foods have a well-deserved reputation for being heavy on salt.
"Potassium chloride is a popular alternative, but has taste and label challenges that prevent it from being a comprehensive replacement," Bell's Graham says. "We help formulators mitigate negative bitter and metallic tastes using flavor modifiers like ReduxSo."