Introduction

Some consumer eating trends may come and go, but a preference for food and beverage products made from natural ingredients looks set to stay – particularly in the nutrition category. Such is the scale of interest, that this lifestyle choice has successfully made the transition from niche to norm.  

Of course, there are a number of related issues which are helping to drive the ‘natural’ agenda, such as environmental concerns around sustainability, as well as the soaring popularity of vegan, vegetarian and flexitarian diets. But although these wider developments are certainly creating a buzz – and supporting the conversation – their impact on everyday dietary choices is only just beginning.

Just take a look at the figures. The number of people in the U.S. claiming to be vegan reportedly grew by an impressive 600% between 2014 and 2017, but currently stands at 6% of the population. While in the UK, vegans make up just over 1% of the population, despite having quadrupled in size from 2014-18.  

When it comes to choosing natural or clean label foods, however, the story is very different.  Research consistently supports the view that this is now an established way of life for a much broader audience. Our own worldwide food trends survey among industry leaders, for example, saw “natural” take the top spot (narrowly beating food safety). Yet perhaps even more compelling is the fact that 73% of consumers are reportedly now willing to pay more for a food or drink product made with ingredients they know and trust.

 

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Informed approach

This is a huge opportunity for manufacturers but, as always, aligning the product concept with consumer expectations is critical for long term success. A key part of this approach is understanding the labeling implication of different ingredients – and the impact this will have on overall on-pack messaging.  Get it wrong, and you not only risk running afoul of regulators, such as the FDA – but you may also alienate an increasingly skeptical consumer audience which is turned off by ingredients perceived as artificial or synthetic.

With no harmonized regulatory position on natural product claims in place as yet, formulators must work with the existing complex framework to ensure concepts remain within current boundaries.  This means exploring different ingredient options and evaluating each against the desired on-pack messaging to ensure compliance.

So what does this situation mean for one of the world’s most popular flavors – vanilla?

Traditionally used to impart a rounded profile or creamy texture in a range of applications, from yogurt to chocolate, more recently it has found a demanding, and increasingly important, role as a masking agent. In particular, proving an effective way to counter the off-notes of many protein-based nutrition products.

But if a natural label is an important part of the brief, formulators need to consider the different regulatory, technical and cost implications of different ingredients before launching into product development.

 

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Vanilla versus vanillin

When it comes to creating the vanilla flavor consumers crave, there are two basic categories; vanilla extract, vanillin and flavors/formulations.  But rather than a simple choice, the impact of selecting one over the other (or variants thereof) has far-reaching implications – not just in terms of technical functionality and performance, but also overall product positioning and regulation.

For those looking for a natural label in a nutrition product, vanilla derived from vanilla beans is considered the “gold standard;” 100% natural, it is the only source that can be labeled “vanilla flavor” on the packaging.  But limited capacity (and environment situation) in the main growing region of Madagascar means it comes at an increasingly high cost. Prices reportedly tripled to $450 per kg in just two years recently (2015-2017) and achieved up to US$515/kg before a recent decrease, that now tends to fluctuate between US$200-400 per kg.

So, with many leading food companies pledging to phase out artificial ingredients, attention is strongly focused on finding cost-effective, alternative natural sources for this enduringly popular flavor.  And this is where vanillin comes into play.

As the primary flavor molecule in vanilla beans, vanillin has long been produced on an industrial-scale and still have a well-established market. But with artificial raw materials being shunned on new products by consumers and brand owners alike, it is vanillin produced from natural sources which are now in demand. And this might not simply a question of substituting one form for another. Rather each needs to be evaluated against a complex set of criteria including:

Target Country/Region: Where do you intend to sell the product? Relevant regulatory bodies in individual markets need to be consulted to ensure ingredient labeling and associated on-pack messaging are compliant. Forward-thinking suppliers already provide a portfolio of ingredients/flavors, specifically tailored for this purpose. U.S. concepts, for example, will benefit from vanillin formulated from natural-sourced eugenol or guaiacol, which allow for a natural flavor label. Europe, where even stricter standards for natural are in place, equivalent flavoring ingredients need to be produced from a natural raw material (such as rice bran) that is converted into vanillin through a biological process (known as biofermentation).

Food Category:  What is the product what you intend to deliver? Different food category products have different ingredients restrictions (which can be a prohibition to be used or related to the amount present on the final product). A high protein content chocolate or bakery product, or a shake or protein bar have different restrictions that need to be considered.

Application suitability: Are you creating a protein bar, a protein shake or something else?  This will determine whether powder or liquid ingredient is required, so you need to be sure that the chosen vanillin solution is available in the right format before flavor development starts.

Production method: Does the product need to go through a critical process, such as pasteurization for a Ready To Drink (RTD) beverage? This type of extreme temperature can compromise flavor formulation; meaning some ingredients may need to be used at higher dosages to have any impact or may not even be suitable for the specific application. Remember, we are talking about natural molecules which may not have the required resistance.

 

Step by step strategy

The bottom line is that formulators can no longer only rely on synthetic vanillin and must instead embrace the growing availability of natural versions which are specifically formulated to meet modern dietary preferences, as well as commercial realities.

So whether the goal is to create or enhance flavor, round out bitterness or mask unwanted off-notes, vanillin can do all this – and support a clean label. A clear label may also be an important point of interest, which bring to the desk the discussion between using the pure ingredient or a formulation. It’s simply a question of having the technical insight to work through the available options – only then, will you arrive at the most appropriate solution.

 

Takeaways:

  • The natural and clean label trend has made the transition from niche to norm.
  • Formulators need to understand the labeling implications of different ingredient options.
  • Consumers are turned off by ingredients perceived as artificial or synthetic.
  • Natural vanillin is a cost-effective, high-performance alternative to natural vanilla.

 

For more background and guidance on this topic, take a look at our new eGuide: “Nutrition product labeling: What you need to account for before formulation.”  Download it here.