Making Foods Transparent

Consumers want transparency; retailers are demanding it. Food processors who deliver it gain trust. But what is transparency?

By Lauren R. Hartman, Product Development Editor

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“Customers want transparency.” When someone like Walter Robb, co-CEO of Whole Foods Market, says that, food and beverage processors listen.

But what exactly does he (and his customers) mean? What is transparency? It’s one of those means-different-things-to-different-people issues. It certainly includes a clean and clear label. A clean label typically means foods with fewer ingredients, preservatives or artificial flavors, colors or sweeteners. Consumers also crave authentic, ethical, simpler alternatives to conventional fast-and-mass production processes. Transparency in the food chain involves many different domains.

Replacing artificial ingredients with clean ingredients is just the beginning. Food companies realize this is heading to a new level of communication. Processors need to tell consumers their story, whether it’s how they created a shorter ingredient statement with fewer chemical-sounding names, a code of ethics, being on a first-name basis with farmers or concern for the Earth.

Greenridge Farm, Elk Grove Village, Ill., in March relaunched its deli products by touching on several elements of transparency. “Hand-crafted, featuring traditional European recipes and spices, Greenridge Farm products are now carefully curated down to the last detail: free of nitrates, nitrites ... artificial flavors, artificial colors, phosphates, MSG, gluten and soy [using] only the highest quality ingredients available, including sea salt rather than iodized salt, and are sourced locally whenever possible,” reads a company announcement.

Consumers have begun to learn quite a bit about where their food comes from and and what’s in it. Last year, General Mills, Nestle and Kraft Heinz began replacing artificial flavors and colors; more breads, crackers and cookies are going allergen-free (think Udi’s, Enjoy Life, even Keebler) and beverages are available in organic versions (PepsiCo just came out with an organic Gatorade). Such moves to reformulate have begun to pay off for some processors.

We have to embrace the consumers’ right to know and give them the information they want.... increasing transparency in farming, food production and processing will increase consumer trust.

– Charlie Arnot, Center for Food Integrity

Simpler ingredients may be reversing sales losses at General Mills. Chairman and CEO Ken Powell reports seven General Mills cereals that were reformulated to remove artificial colors and flavors saw a 6 percent upturn in sales as of January, regaining a 6 percent drop in sales they suffered last year.

“It’s definitely important to inform consumers about the food they are buying,” affirms Londa Nwadike, consumer food safety specialist for Kansas State University Research and Extension and the University of Missouri Extension. According to Nwadike, there are many misleading and non-regulated terms such as “local,” “sustainable” and “artisan,” and the FDA also doesn’t have any definition for the widely used term “natural,” she notes.

At least not yet. The word “natural” has been controversial and difficult to define in terms of food, but the FDA currently has an open comment period until May that allows consumers and food businesses to comment on whether there should be a definition for natural and what that definition should be.

Transparent, clean-label attributes were one of the top five U.S. food and drink market trends listed by Mintel Group for both 2015 and 2016.

Clean eating has inspired a back-to-basics approach to product development, points out Innova Market Insights’ Top Ten Trends list for 2016. “Interest in a return to food processing the natural or old-fashioned way, the search for permissible indulgence and the re-establishment of links to ‘real’ food are some of the emerging trends this year,” says Lu Ann Williams, director of innovation at Innova.

The GMO saga

One hotly contested call for food transparency is about labeling products that contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs). In January, Campbell Soup Co., Camden, N.J., was the first major food company to call for mandatory national GMO labeling of food products, but a handful of big firms followed in the past month.

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