“Over the last few years, we’ve seen an acceleration in consumers actively looking to eliminate unrecognizable and artificial ingredients from their diets by seeking products with cleaner, shorter labels—i.e., fewer ‘chemical’ names they perceive as potentially unsafe, unhealthy, or of low quality,” says Melissa Sheridan, Strategic Marketing Director, Applied Health & Nutrition, Kerry. “The outbreak of COVID-19 has led people to feel even more vulnerable, and focus on the foods they eat as an area of life they can control. Many people have more time on their hands at the moment to read ingredient labels and research products, and the likelihood is that the practice will continue to influence purchase decisions far into the future.”

And being able to label something ‘healthy’ won’t get suppliers the sales, if they can’t also meet clean label demands. “Consumers are not willing to compromise on aspects like great taste and texture or a clean label for added health benefits,” explains ADM’s Ana Ferrell. “To win with consumers, manufacturers must deliver high-quality, great tasting products without sacrificing an appealing label.”

The area under the most clean-label scrutiny? Meat, according to Sheridan. “Meat is ranked as the top category in which consumers, seeking to remove artificial chemical ingredients, look for ‘free from’ claims on product labels. In particular, nitrates and nitrites, traditionally used as meat preservatives, are increasingly viewed as ‘no-no’ ingredients by consumers and instead consumers seek out meat that contains no artificial preservatives. According to a recent Kerry research report entitled ‘The Top Consumer No-No Ingredients for Meat by Generation,’ baby boomers and seniors aged 54 and over are more likely than millennials to reject these additives; this is an important metric, as these two groups are the highest consumers of hot dogs, sausages and lunch meat.” Kerry offers fermentation metabolites, vinegar-based protection solutions, protective cultures, and functional plant extracts.

Jeannette O'Brien, GNT USA Vice President, says that plant-based foods are also coming under fire—"Plant-based alternatives to meat, cheese, dairy and fish are becoming increasingly popular, but many of the products on the market fail to match modern consumer expectations on clean labeling. As a result, we’re now approaching the ‘plant-based 2.0’ era, with manufacturers taking steps to clean up their ingredient lists." She says that GNT's EXBERRY range of colors is plant-based, making it a clean-label match for plant-based products. "No matter the challenge, our approach is to offer a solution that is made from fruits, vegetables, or plants, without chemical solvents or selective extraction methods, to ensure widespread consumer acceptability."
Some flavors the experts point to as being in-demand:

Alcohol:“In beverages, an emerging trend is increased consumer demand all around the world for low- or no-alcohol beverages that taste more like real alcohol instead of soft drinks or mocktails,” says Melissa Muldowney, Strategic Marketing Director, Taste, at Kerry. “To that end, Kerry has recently developed and released its extensive Collection ZERO range of exciting botanical flavors that provide the taste foundations for beverage producers to develop and commercialize great-tasting drinks for this specific demographic of consumer.” This has added value, too—“Kerry is also finding that consumer interest in botanicals and botanical extracts is growing, possibly due to the drive to more fully embrace the health benefits of consumables. Our Kerry Collection ZERO range of low- or no-alcohol botanical extracts provides the foundation for beverage producers to produce great-tasting non-alcoholic drinks.”

Citrus: “ADM’s vast citrus portfolio allows developers to meet consumer demands for great tasting products featuring natural ingredients,” Ferrell says. “Citrus is often perceived as a healthy choice, containing natural sources of vitamins and minerals. Citrus brings exciting, refreshing flavor to products for a taste experience that will please consumers, and works in applications where a clean label is desired. Many consumers consider citrus fruits an immunity-booster bolstered by high levels of naturally occurring vitamin C, which has grown in popularity amid the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Vanilla:“In recent months, cooking and baking are on the rise as consumers are spending more time at home,” says Ferrell. “Worldwide vanilla sales have doubled as social distancing mandates have taken hold. Vanilla is one of the most popular flavors in the world, and vanilla extract serves as a key ingredient in comfort foods and baked goods like cakes, cookies, ice cream and more. ADM is a global leader in the vanilla industry with a responsibly sourced, traceable supply of pure vanilla extracts, cured vanilla beans, natural flavoring, and customized solutions. ADM has time-tested partnerships with over 3,700 vanilla farmers in Madagascar and contracts with suppliers in India, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Uganda.”

And while these may all be specific trends, there are plenty of companies out there providing innovative flavors—Mack Flavor Ingredients, for instance, has a Beverage Flavors section that covers everything from strawberry and banana to sweet potato and black walnut. Applied Foods Sciences sells PurGinger, PurTurmeric, and CoffeeNectar, all produced sustainably and ethically.
We can’t stop at flavor, though—we also have to look at color. For some customers, color can be a dealbreaker—back in 2017, for instance General Mills was faced with a problem: Having pledged to remove artificial colors and flavors from its products, it ended up having to bring back the original version of Trix, after customers complained that they didn’t want the radish and turmeric coloring; they wanted the artificial colors and the corn syrup, according toThe Wall Street Journal(1). “It is often said that we eat with our eyes first because we begin evaluating a product based on color and appearance before even taking a first bite,” says Ferrell. While posting pictures of food on social media has been a rising trend recently, she tellsWholeFoodsthat it’s only getting stronger: “In the COVID-19 era, consumers are increasingly using social media as a tool to connect with others, and they’re turning to visual platforms like Instagram to document exciting moments for friends and family. As online communication has become the new norm, individuals are even posting about the foods and beverages they consume. Research found that 30% of consumers say that unique food presentations motivate them to post on social media while at a restaurant. Product developers can use vibrant colors derived from nature to provide unique experiences worthy of sharing while still upholding the clean label today’s consumers prefer.”

ADM provides some of those colors. Ferrell focused on the blues: “ADM’s color platform uses leading and proprietary technology to offer our customers a complete range of Colors from Nature that are stable and vibrant. We are the only company to offer natural blue color derived from the huito fruit which is sourced from Peru’s Amazon region. We use proprietary extraction technology to create this blue color which stands up to high heat processing and maintains its vivid blue coloring even in acidic environments such as in beverage applications. Huito can be blended with other colors to unlock unique shades of blue, purple, green and brown.”

GNT offers a wide range of colors—O'Brien says "Our range of EXBERRY colors covers the whole rainbow and can provide solutions for almost any food and drink application. Nonetheless, we continue to create innovative new options for our customers while remaining 100% committed to our philosophy of coloring food with food. For example, we recently introduced new powder and oil-dispersible formats for our Brilliant Orange product. We already offered a Brilliant Orange liquid, but these new formats provide a more effective option for certain applications, making it even easier for manufacturers to replace artificial colorants and additives with a clean-label alternative." She notes that the powder is useful for non-aerated confectionery, bakery, and savory products, while the oil-dispersible product works for compound coatings and fat-based applications.

Another option for warmer colors: Lycored, which has a non-GMO line of yellows, oranges, pinks, and reds, sourced from tomatoes, certified kosher and halal. And, for those worried about a repeat of consumer reactions to Trix, Lycored researched consumer impressions and reactions to better understand how the company’s colors are perceived. The results were summarized in a video—and reported in a PDF—available onwww.Lycored.com.