I get calls from lots of start up companies asking me how they can keep their label “clean” and ensure that their product has no preservatives, is all natural and uses fresh local ingredients—oh and they also want it to be affordable and shelf stable too!
Everyone wants their product to hit all the current trend buttons (natural, clean label, locally sourced, GMO Free, etc) – but sometimes you have to compromise in order to ensure that you are creating something that is both safe and affordable- and it also helps to understand that just because something sounds like it is not natural, doesn’t mean that it isn’t!
Lets start with mold inhibitors- anyone who wants their somewhat moist baked good to last on the shelf is going to have to keep the fuzzy stuff at bay –and there are a wide variety of natural and synthetic versions. Potassium Sorbate for example is a great yeast and mold inhibitor that is inexpensive and works in a wide variety of pH’s and food bases- it’s not natural but it does the job! Sodium benzoate is also cheap, synthetic and keeps the bad bacteria at bay! There are more natural options that you can use- and they are called cultured dextrose- (Danisco sells a trademarked version of this) – It’s a cleaner label bacteria inhibitor that is created via fermentation of milk and sugar with probiotic organisms and works in a wide variety of applications like salad dressings and cured meats, soups and dairy products. They cost more but allow you to maintain a “natural” statement on your label (assuming all other ingredients are natural as well). Of course you can always cook your product (IE canned foods and jarred shelf stable sauces often just rely on heat as a the preservation method) or dump in tons of salt or sugar- those too can inhibit bacteria by lowering the water activity of the product.
What about flavorings? No one in the specialty food industry wants to put artificial flavor in their products and that is understandable but keep in mind that natural flavors are more expensive and less concentrated than artificial so you need to use more of them to get a flavor impact. If you want to flavor up a lemon cake- you may only need 0.02% artificial flavor but would have to use 2 to 3% of a natural flavor to get the same effect—AND that natural flavor is going to cost you more money. So what can you do? You can use a flavor called WONF (with other natural flavors) which is a blend of similar flavors used to make up the flavor you like but at a slightly reduced cost- you can tell your supplier that you want an “off the shelf” flavor that they may already sell to several companies (a stock flavor) that they probably produce in bulk at a cheaper price. Talk to your flavor supplier about options!
Even starches can fall in the natural or not natural category—If a starch is referred to as a “modified food starch” it is not a natural thickener—you need to ask your supplier to provide you with a natural “unmodified” food starch. There are also other ways to thicken a product like via dehydration or evaporation of water—using tomato paste (if your product is tomato based), or experimenting with gums and hydrocolloids. There are always natural alternatives in the world of food ingredients, it’s just a matter of balancing out what you need with the right price point.