If you were to summarize into one sentence the results of food industry consumer preference surveys from the past year or so, it would be this:
The clean label trend, which has now moved from niche to mainstream, is driven by an overall push toward healthier foods. In general, when people go to a grocery store to purchase processed foods, they want those foods to look and taste like what they could make at home — and have an ingredient list that contains only things they recognize as “real food.”
The trick for food processors is that the term clean label can mean many things. A study earlier this year showed that different consumers have very different ideas about what constitutes “clean.”
Here are some of the definitions consumers identified:
That’s quite a list of demands for processors to meet!
Especially for companies that make ready-to-eat (RTE) foods, which have traditionally contained high levels of sodium and preservatives to extend their shelf life. The names of those preservatives alone are generally enough to exclude a product from meeting more than half of the “clean label” definitions.
The short answer is: technology.
In the Global Food Forums’ “2015 Clean Label Report,” Jeffrey Andrews wrote:
“Technology is one of the best tools food processors have in their arsenal to meet these [current market] demands, especially technologies that help produce foods that have clean labels and/or appear fresher. When one steps back and looks at how the food industry has grown, there is a direct correlation between the development and implementation of new technologies and getting new and more desirable products to market.”
Andrews identifies several technologies that have helped processors produce better food:
For RTE food processors, one answer to the clean label conundrum lies in a method that is both a thermal processing technology and an in-package technology for pasteurization or sterilization: sous vide cooking.
Sous vide cooking is a simple technique. First you prepare the product, then you vacuum-seal it into a plastic bag, and place the bag in hot water for a certain amount of time.
However, this simplicity is deceptive when you look at the variety of benefits of this cooking method. Sous vide cooking results in better taste (since products like meats can be cooked in their own juices), higher yields (everything stays in the bag), and enhanced food safety.
It also extends the product’s shelf life by eliminating the chances that the food will be contaminated during storage. Since the product is cooked and pasteurized all in one step, all in one bag, there’s simply no opportunity for bacteria and other contaminants to get in.
This means that there’s no need to load RTE foods down with extra sodium and preservatives. Without the necessity of chemical-sounding ingredients, it’s a lot easier to meet the clean label goal. As Unitherm VP of Sales Adam Cowherd puts it, “There’s nothing more organic than hot water.”
The road to clean labels may seem uphill. But with the right technologies, even RTE food manufacturers can meet consumer demands for better, healthier, and more natural foods.
Unitherm Food Systems’ AquaFlow Water Cooker is an elegant, effective sous vide cooker for a wide variety of products, including RTE foods. Check out the AquaFlow in action with sous vide carnitas and beef.