The whole truth: Formulators finding success with clean label inclusions

As consumers pass on processed and artificial ingredients, brands and formulators find success with whole-food inclusions like fruits, nuts and vegetables.

Melissa Kvidahl Reilly, Contributing writer

March 2, 2020

13 Min Read
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Though “clean label” is a term that encompasses many attributes, one thing is certain: artificial ingredients aren’t welcome. Instead, food and beverage manufacturers and brands are increasingly relying on whole-food inclusions to enhance texture and taste in a variety of product categories. And brands are motivated for many reasons, especially as clean label becomes a baseline rather than a bonus.

First, a turn away from artificial ingredients is driving interest in whole-food inclusions. “No longer accepting fruit- or vegetable-flavored ingredients, consumers are demanding whole foods without added sugars, carriers or allergens,” said Andrew Wheeler, vice president of marketing at Van Drunen Farms and FutureCeuticals. “Functional foods and beverages made with whole foods allow consumers— especially those with on-the-go lifestyles—feel like they’re making healthier, better choices.”

Whole-food inclusions also hit the mark for consumers prioritizing ingredients they can find in their own pantries. “Consumers equate health and quality with ingredients that are recognizable and minimally processed,” said Mollie Woods, executive director of the Cherry Industry Administrative Board (CIAB) at Montmorency US Tart Cherries. In fact, ADM’s proprietary consumer research found that 60% of consumers say recognizable ingredients influence their purchase, and 66% say they’re looking for labels with the shortest ingredients lists possible.

Of course, the whole appeal of short and natural ingredients lists is that they’re perceived to be healthier. So, fruit, vegetable, grain and legume inclusions with health attributes like high fiber or protein will also resonate with consumers and elevate the health profile of the product. For example,  black beans are an inclusion that the average consumer can intuitively understand is healthy for them, said Julio R. Lopez, global business manager, botanical extracts, health, and wellness at ADM. “Seeing black beans on the label signals to the consumer that a product contains natural, minimally processed ingredients with added functional benefits like fiber,” he said.

The health benefits of whole-food inclusions are even more valuable for brands that cater to plant-based consumers, especially as meat alternatives grow in popularity, noted “Whole Veg Can Win As Consumers Question Faux Meat,” an October 2019 Mintel proprietary report. While plant-based meat alternatives carry many perceived benefits—namely, that they’re more eco-friendly, are free from cholesterol and other animal-based ingredients, and taste pretty good—consumers are starting to demand more. Mintel stated consumers take issue with the fact that these alternatives can be high in sodium and saturated fat and are often highly processed. This is a huge problem, as many of the consumers driving sales in this space are looking for plant-based foods because they want a healthier option.

Enter whole-food inclusions, which Mintel reported have a huge opportunity to give consumers the natural, healthy and tasty plant-based foods they seek. The market research firm found 61% of U.S. consumers said whole-plant foods are healthier than processed meat substitutes. Plus, they will appeal to a wider swath of consumers, including vegans and vegetarians who can be turned off by the meaty taste and texture of some alternatives. Thus, foods based on whole fruits and vegetables are gaining steam, from cauliflower steaks and potato-based shawarma popping up in restaurants to lasagnas featuring butternut squash instead of ground meat appearing on retail shelves. Mintel reported the most successful foods will feature whole-food ingredients front and center, drawing attention to the health benefits as well as the flavor profiles they provide.

This is great news for inclusions like nuts, which not only carry a healthy halo as a snack in their own right but are increasingly important in foods aimed at consumers making the switch from a conventional to a plant-based diet. “Almonds, in particular, deliver essential nutrients that may be lacking from a plant-based diet, such as protein and calcium,” said Jeff Smith, director of marketing at Blue Diamond Almonds’ global ingredients division. As such, they can be a valuable inclusion for any product positioned as healthy, natural or plant-based.

Serving up a serving size

In addition to meeting clean label trends, brands would be wise to highlight the fact that whole-food inclusions can up consumers’ fruit or vegetable intake. The truth is, despite decades of food pyramids, eating recommendations and better-for-you trends, consumers still fall short when it comes to getting the right amount of fruits and vegetables. According to “The Organic and Clean Label Food Shopper, 2nd Edition,” a September 2019 report from Packaged Facts, 97% of consumers are trying to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables. And while they can certainly do that by shopping the produce aisle, more packaged food and beverage brands are helping meet this demand with whole vegetable and fruit inclusions.

Utilizing freeze-dried fruit inclusions is one avenue, as these options retain most of their nutritional benefits and can help consumers reach their target intake of fruit per day. High demand remains for intermediate-moisture blueberry products, such as dehydrated, infused-dried, crumbled and other formats for use in snacks, bakery and confectionery, said Alicia Adler, vice president of the US Highbush Blueberry Council. That said, other formats are growing in popularity as whole-food inclusions appeal to more product categories than ever. “Over the past three years, low moisture (4% or lower) products such as powders, fibers and flakes have become extremely popular in extruded products such as cereals, snacks and powdered beverage mixes,” Adler said.

It’s no surprise, then, that a major trend in whole-food inclusions is verified fruit and vegetable servings, Wheeler explained. “For example, the whole-food nutritional equivalency of a daily serving of greens can be added to a bar, smoothie or a variety of other applications,” he said. “If a consumer sees a serving claim on a food label, it prompts enthusiasm, curiosity and makes them feel good about what they’re eating.” Plus, providing this functional benefit is a serious differentiator for brands as consumers become wise to low inclusion rates. “Adding small amounts of fruit or vegetables into an application does not offer the full benefits of a complete serving, and consumers know that,” he added, noting that formats like bars, baked goods, smoothies and prepackaged meals are especially poised for opportunity.

High-fiber fruits are on the radar of Paradise Fruits CEO Kurt Jahncke. In response, the company created a high-fiber blend, providing less than 40% of the naturally occurring sugar that standard fruit ingredients carry, as well as almost 40 g of fiber per 100 g. “This recipe is available as fruit granulates, pastes, drops and shapes, and is ideal for manufacturers looking to create products that respond to an increasing demand for high-fiber snacks, cereals and baked goods,” Jahncke said.

Montmorency tart cherries, available in an array of formats, are another way formulators can appeal to health-conscious consumers in search of fiber. Indeed, such ingredients can provide beverage formulators with a differentiator as they “add fiber elements that beverages otherwise lack,” Woods said.

While products featuring whole-food inclusions can certainly capitalize on clean label and health trends, formulators also value them for their flavor and texture benefits, said Jennifer Williams, marketing director of the California Walnut Board and Commission. Nuts are finding a home in plant-based meat alternatives, thanks to their texture. “In many of these products, texture and flavor are the most difficult product attributes to mimic,” Williams said. “Walnuts help with both. The ingredient’s nutty flavor complements savory products, and its texture provides the perfect bite and surface for adhering seasonings.” Plus, California walnuts [provide] a significant source of healthy plant-based omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) at 2.5 g per ounce, further appealing to healthy eaters.

Almonds are also valuable for the texture they can provide a finished product. “Many U.S. and U.K. consumers are influenced by texture when buying food and drinks, and even more say they rely on it to create a more interesting food and beverage experience,” said Harbinder Maan, associate director, trade marketing and stewardship, at the Almond Board of California. Because they’re available in more than 15 versatile forms, almonds can support a range of textures, from creamy to crunchy.

Jahncke concurred people appreciate food complexities. “We are increasingly finding that consumers want to gain more of a taste and texture experience when eating their favorite treats or snacks, which can be provided by inclusions that offer multiple consistencies. Freeze-dried fruit, for example, adds both flavor and crunch, but when coupled with pastes creates a multitextured product,” he said.

The good news is these inclusions are suitable for many applications from chocolate and candy to baked goods, beverages, bars and more. According to Jahncke, the snack category is largely where whole and cut fruit inclusions shine with no end in sight; this includes specialty chocolate and confectionery, as well as functional and better-for-you snacks and baked goods.

Woods agreed, “Busy, health-conscious consumers are looking for snack options with ingredients they immediately recognize and feel good giving to their children or enjoying themselves.” Along these lines, Smith added, opportunity exists to include whole-food ingredients in sports nutrition products, as consumers look for more natural sources of fuel and nutrition throughout the day.

That said, consumers will still pass on a snack if it’s lacking in taste. “The clean label consumer is looking to maintain a healthier, cleaner diet without having to sacrifice the food products they know and love,” Smith explained. “They, too, are interested in new and exciting flavor experiences, crave-worthy snack items and indulgent desserts.” This means whole-food inclusions can help developers not only create healthier alternatives to conventional foods and beverages, but also innovate completely new products that adhere to today’s leading flavor trends.

Woods indicated consumers are veering away from super-sweet taste profiles. In response, tart cherry inclusions can offer a “trendy and unique sour flavor pairing to both sweet and savory products,” she suggested.

Leading up to the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, an increased interest in Japanese and East Asian flavors will emerge. “We created the new Taste of the East range to provide food and drink manufacturers with innovative solutions to meet this demand,” Jahncke said. “The range is available in a variety of flavors including Mandarin and Yuzu, lychee and raspberry, apple and green tea, lime and matcha tea, and ginger and plum, as well as bespoke combinations which can be developed to suit customer requirements.” Taste of the East is also available in a number of formats, including irregular cut granulates, standard granulates, fruit pastes, juice drops, and standard and custom shapes.

Formulation challenges

For all the opportunity they bring, whole-food inclusions also pose some challenges for food and beverage manufacturers and brands. First is maintaining a hold on what exactly clean label means and being able to offer the type of inclusions that fit. “Clean label criteria are multifaceted, with constantly shifting consumer expectations,” Woods said. That’s why Smith recommends food manufacturers get ahead of the game by delivering products that meet a range of dietary needs, “including gluten-free, soy-free, dairy-free and vegan diets.”

At the same time, whole-food inclusions still need to compete with artificial flavors. “At the end of the day, people want to eat food that tastes good,” Wheeler said. “Formulators of the past responded by adding sugar and other artificial ingredients.” Today, formulators who choose whole-food inclusions over artificial ones need to get creative. “For example, if utilizing a carrier seems unavoidable, try using a dehydrated fruit or vegetable powder as a carrier rather than something that will ‘dirty’ your label,” he said. “The possibilities for innovation are endless but require thinking outside the box.”

Finally, unlike their artificial counterparts, whole-food inclusions are costly. “The main challenge formulators face when working with whole-food inclusions is striking a balance between nutrition, sensory experience and cost,” Lopez said. That means that foods in this category must offer value to the consumer through nutritional benefits, taste and texture, while also remaining affordable. The good news? In-house research by ADM showed 30% of consumers are willing to pay a premium for products made with highly nutritious ingredients that offer fiber, protein, whole grains and vitamins. The key is for brands to communicate this value, so consumers loosen their purse strings. “Emphasizing the functional benefits of whole-food inclusions on packaging is a clear way to demonstrate value,” Lopez noted.

Future opportunities

Looking at 2020 and beyond, suppliers and brands relying on the popularity of whole-food inclusions enjoy a number of opportunities for growth.

Wheeler suggested future inclusion innovation will revolve around the overall sensory experience. “Consumers are drawn to products that have unexpected textures,” he said. In the past, these have come from unnatural or artificial sources; however, Wheeler explained that opportunities exist for brands to deliver on this trend with “unfamiliar texture sensations created by natural whole-food inclusions.” Some examples include experimenting with spiralizing, which can deliver unexpected twists to familiar snacks; or, adding a visible piece of whole fruit or vegetable, which can deliver crunch or chewiness, and “allow the consumer to know what they are eating.”

Future opportunities also exist in product categories that haven’t yet reached their potential when it comes to whole-food inclusions. One is the dessert market, Woods pointed out, since consumers are increasingly health-conscious even when they indulge. “Brands should begin looking into how they can incorporate clean label practices and whole foods into sweets to stay on par with this growing market,” she said. The opportunity lies with changing the perception of these sweet indulgences by incorporating natural inclusions and the nutrition halo consumers crave across the board. “This is especially true of Millennials,” she said, “who are looking for healthy product attributes whether they are eating dessert, a snack or a more traditional meal.”

Another product category yet to fully take advantage of whole-food inclusions is beverages. “Whole fruit juices, smoothies, carbonated water and other low-sugar soft drink and alcoholic beverage alternatives have great potential to grow in this space,” Woods added. “As healthier soda and liquor alternatives continue to trend, beverages with whole-food inclusions offer busy, health-informed consumers an easy, tasty and portable way to incorporate whole-foods beyond their plates and into their cups.” Specifically, she is seeing new products incorporating Montmorency tart cherry juice and concentrate among the beer, cider and liquor segments since they provide not just a healthy halo and on-trend taste, but also a pop of color.

Jahncke agreed visual appeal is important to consumers, and that products that look as natural as possible will continue to increase in popularity. As far as foods are concerned, opportunity abounds for whole or irregularly cut freeze-fried fruits that are non-uniform in shape, he said. Adler noted all the better if these are featured prominently on the packaging. She’s seen labels list claims like ancient grains, real fruit, no preservatives and other statements, but recently, the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council launched a “Real Blueberries Inside” label to make it even clearer.

Ultimately, at the root of all these trends is an increasingly aware consumer—one that’s driving transparency and making way for further innovation in whole-food inclusions. “Consumers want their families to meet their daily recommended needs for fruit and vegetables,” Wheeler said, and are willing to shop packaged foods to get it. “They are looking for and expect a clear, simple label with ingredients they know and trust.”


Melissa Kvidahl Reilly is a freelance writer with 10 years of experience covering the natural products industry, from food and beverage to personal care, from research developments to market trends. Her work appears in a number of industry publications, including Natural Products Insider, Food Insider Journal, Natural Foods Merchandiser, Delicious Living and more. She lives and writes in New Jersey.

About the Author(s)

Melissa Kvidahl Reilly

Contributing writer

Melissa Kvidahl Reilly is a freelance writer and editor with 10 years of experience covering news and trends in the natural, organic and supplement markets. She lives and works in New Jersey.

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