Establishing consumer confidence in processed foods

Recent bacon bashing has sparked new questions among retailers: will consumers start fleeing from processed foods altogether or be willing to consider other alternative more natural options?

It so happens that consumers are ahead of the game. They’ve been demanding transparency in processed food labelling for a while now, and it spans beyond bacon and processed deli meats.

The Hartman Group, a food and beverage research company in Washington, explains in their 2014 Organic and Natural Report that American consumers have actually lost trust in processed foods labelled as organic. When it comes to packaged or processed foods, consumers are looking for simple ingredient lists with items they recognize.

Similarly in Europe, global consumer and market research group MMR collected data between 2011 and 2013 that shows a definite trend in consumers leaning towards what MMR is calling a “clean label movement.”

According to MMR’s consumer surveys of nearly 3,000 people from 9 European countries, consumers favour short ingredient lists that reflect foods found in their pantry, not those that potentially could be found in a chemistry lab. Across the board in all 9 countries, only 2 additives were identified as acceptable: natural colours and natural flavours. The participants in all 9 countries also deemed just 2 additives as unacceptable: caseinate and carboxy methyl cellulose (CMC).

The next question is, how much better are natural preservatives and additives than the alternatives we commonly see in processed foods?

Nitrites and nitrates have taken much heat recently. They’re a common preservative found in many processed deli meats and when combined with stomach acids and food chemicals nitrites form nitrosamines that have been questioned for their carcinogenic properties in animal studies.

Now animal studies don’t necessarily guarantee the same results in humans, but when consumers heard the news they cried out for change.   And manufacturers started producing nitrate-free products using celery salt over nitrites as a preservative. The clincher is nitrites and nitrates naturally occur in celery salt—so the potential to form nitrosamines in the body still exists. In cases like this, natural isn’t always an improvement.

This doesn’t mean that all natural additives and preservatives are unhealthy. As consumers continue to follow the clean label movement, there are other options to consider that may not have the same health concerns. Here are three examples of natural preservatives that can re-establish consumers’ confidence in processed foods:

Rosemary extract is effective at fighting certain bacteria, molds, and yeasts. Rosemary extract can also preserve freshness and colour. Rosemary and other botanical extracts do have the potential to overpower other flavours but will work well in boldly flavoured products.

Vinegar powder is effective at fighting listeria, E. coli and salmonella and could be used in deli and fresh meats as well as fish. Vinegar powder can be used in place of acetic acid and may appear on product labels as “buffered vinegar,” “vinegar powder” or “cultured corn sugar.”

Mustard extracts kill pathogenic E. coli bacteria and will be more commonly seen as a preservative in strongly flavoured cured meats.