Clean Label Development: A Young Product Developer’s Take…

Both Jaime Reeves and Sherrill Cropper talk about Clean Label and Non-GMO and how it can difficult be to formulate and source ingredients. Dr. Reeves and Dr. Cropper also have Ph.Ds, which means that their knowledge of food functionality exceeds most people.

I might have mentioned the curse of knowledge before. Basically, having so much in depth knowledge in one specific subject can cause you to become disconnected with the rest of the world’s general knowledge. What ascorbic acid means to them might be completely different to what the general public think.

This of course, created the clean label movement. Where consumers want nothing to do with things that sound weird and that caused old time food scientists to freak out and become defensive.

As a 25 year old man who has a BS in Food Science, I find Clean Label far less complicated to formulate and far less confusing in a documentation standpoint. Though I do have my own crazy demands (working in a health and wellness company), I’d like to share some recipes and perspectives that I find helpful when developing Clean Label Products. Whether these are effective or not, I’d love to argue on the internet about it.

Product Development Perspective

If I make a bar with 2 ingredients, how much harder is it to create a bar using 20? Well, I’d say 5 to 10x as hard! With more and more focus on trace-ability, documents become an important deal when it comes to making products. Especially when you get to ‘claims’, like Non-GMO, or Organic, this becomes even harder.

As long as you really understand what it takes for your product not to degrade and a good estimate on shelf-life, you should be able to make a product. This means having a very firm understanding on your product’s properties such as moisture and shelf-life. If your team wants a longer shelf-life, you have to list the trade-offs and have your team make a choice whether to add an ingredient to increase the shelf-life or well, not to.

If not, you can always go to someone to create an all-natural non-dairy whipped cream. But be ready to fork over a lot of money.

Marketing Advantage

During the 2016 Supply Side West show, I attended a lecture where one of the slides did a survey about what Clean Label meant to consumers. The 3rd biggest response is that people have no idea.

It’s even better when your company has no idea what clean label is. As a food scientist, you can leverage what the company needs to focus on in terms of clean label. Power Bar, for instance, has sugar alcohols in their bars and call it a clean label bar. Are sugar alcohols clean label? There is no universal answer.

Overall, the best advice I can give is use consumer data from your user-base to find out what people want. If your customer feels like your product can be improved by being preservative free, then that is what you can work with, and leverage against your marketing department’s demands on what needs to be done. Though we as product developers like to over-value products and add extra features, in terms of formulating clean label, try and use reasoning and communication to shape your company’s goal of Clean Label.

Pitfalls and Logistics

The cool thing in the 60’s was that scientists had to put as much as possible into a product to make it last longer. The longer a product lasts, the more money you indirectly make. So clean label will shorten your shelf-life significantly, especially from a quality perspective. For example, natural colors will degrade fast, and that lovely natural red will fade fast under certain, incubator-like conditions. Luckily, the natural color industry is really kicking butt and there are so many innovations coming out year after year.

The lower shelf-life perspective brings a lot of changes to your perspective as now your team members must figure out how to either make less, sell more, or sell faster. Unfortunately, this only gets more difficult the larger your company grows. I don’t have an answer to this unfortunately, but I would say investing in packaging and atmospheric manipulation is the best way to preserve your products for mass scale. But that might be out of your zone.

We’re all in this together

The ‘Clean Label’ trend will not go away because it makes too much money. Every year, the food ingredient companies get more innovative in their quest for the perfect ingredient. As a young developer, there are so many options to make clean products that satisfy your science-mind and your consumer.

If you’re a new product developer like me, there is no better time to make products in this industry. Consumers more than ever are actually interested in how we make the food they eat. The resources you have can be overwhelming, but organize them well and connect the dots and you will become one of the best product developers in the world.

Written by Adam Yee.  Adam is a product developer by day and podcaster by night. He loves talking about his job and giving career advice for anyone in need. If you’re looking into careers in the food industry and kind of want a sample of what it’s all about, check out all 50+ interviews ranging from product developers, food safety auditors, sales managers, and CEOs at

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