The lines of what constitutes a clean-label product are murky. Does it mean a product is “free-from” unwanted components such as GMOs or artificial ingredients? That it has a short ingredient list? Or does it just mean the product is considered “healthy”?

“Confusion exists, in part, because there are no federal clean-label regulations defined,” notes Lisa Jackson, director of marketing for Kalamazoo, Mich.-based FlavorSum.

According to Nathaly Baroud, South Europe sales manager for Hull, England-based Chaucer Foods Ltd., some dairy processors are finding difficulty meeting consumer clean-label flavoring needs when the term has such a blurry definition.

“The blurred lines between ‘clean label’ and ‘free from’ are a challenge for formulators because consumers’ perceptions of what it means are subjective,” she points out. “Clean label usually means a short, easy-to-read ingredient list, and this can be hard to achieve in dairy product applications that rely on a variety of flavor and color additives.”

While clean-label products were popular before, expect to see even more importance put on this space in a post-pandemic world, says Philip Caputo, marketing and consumer insights manager for Virginia Dare, New York.

“The pandemic has undoubtedly placed a greater emphasis on clean labels and wellness-oriented ingredients, especially those that promote immune health,” he explains. “We expect that the pandemic has solidified the clean-label trend as a now permanent fixture of the dairy industry.”


Many requests

With an unclear definition of clean label, Ryan Neeb, director of flavor division and Canadian sales for Osage Flavors — a Washington, Mo.-based subsidiary of Osage Food Products — says he’s seen a range of requests for dairy processors on the flavor front.

“Depending on the scope of the project, dairy processors are seeking anything from natural, organic and Non-GMO Project Verified flavors,” he notes. “In the clean-label space, Osage Flavors has shown the greatest amount of growth in Non-GMO Project Verified and organic flavors.”

However, a lot of customers that are looking to purchase clean-label products are searching specifically for ones free from artificial flavors or colorings. And processors are taking note.

“North American dairy product launches calling out ‘free from artificial flavorings and colorings’ increased 2.5% in the past year,” Jackson notes. “The growth in the claim aligns with consumer beliefs that these ingredients are less healthy.”

She adds that “across dairy launches from 2018 through 2020, ‘free from artificial flavorings and colorings’ ranked in the top five claims after kosher, low/no allergen, gluten-free and GMO-Free. Mintel data shows that 46% of the more than 1,600 new products called out the ‘free from artificial flavorings and colorings’ clean-label characteristic.”

ADM’s Outside Voice research has shown a consumer preference for better-for-you products with short ingredient lists, notes Brad Schwan, vice president, category marketing for Chicago-based ADM. And this impacts the types of flavors and extracts that dairy processors are selecting.

“Shoppers seek out offerings that live up to their better-for-you product positioning by using natural or environmentally friendly ingredients, including flavors,” he explains. “The more natural and comprehensive the labeling for these extracts, distillates or maskers, the more appealing to consumers.”

Dairy processors are exploring multiple ways to be able to use the claim “free from artificial flavorings and colorings,” notes Rebecca Davis, flavor scientist for FlavorSum. Some are looking to remove artificial colors from natural flavors. Others are assessing the costs of moving to only natural ingredients.

“Depending on budgetary constraints, some may ask about Natural WONFs [with other natural flavors] options, which give them a cost-effective solution that enables them to use specific front-of-package claims defined by the FDA such as ‘naturally flavored with other natural flavors,’” says Davis.

Another clean-label request that ingredient suppliers are getting is for supply-chain transparency, notes Melanie J. Breitner, director of business development for Beverly, Mass.-based Prova North America.

“Consumers are demanding more information on the source of their dairy,” she explains.

In response, Prova offers a range of origin-specific natural extracts and flavors.

“Prova offers origin-specific extracts that create appeal for our customers’ clean-label products — Ghana cocoa extracts; Madagascar vanilla extracts and WONFs; [and] Brazilian-origin, Ethiopian-origin and Columbian-origin coffee extracts and flavors,” says Breitner.

Whichever definition of clean label that dairy processors are looking to meet, they rely on ingredient suppliers to be knowledgeable about what’s trending in this space, explains Caputo.

“With a large segment of the market paying attention to both function and label, dairy processors are counting on their suppliers to be aware of the negative associations with artificial ingredients, food technology and processing methods,” he continues.


What’s trending

Within the natural flavors space, flavors that have a health halo or immunity-boosting qualities are particularly popular right now, notes Caputo.

“Functional flavors or wellness flavors refer to the characterizing flavor profiles inherent of healthy, functional ingredients from botanicals to fruit,” he explains. “The flavor popularity of turmeric, matcha, elderberry and ginger are established examples. Current influential ingredient categories include antioxidant-rich superfoods/berries, super-powders, teas, medicinal mushrooms and ingredients with healthy fats.”

These flavors overlap with another trendy area: an “adventurous sensory experience,” which many consumers are seeking, says Baroud. This includes flavors inspired by “global cuisines, alcoholic beverages, tea, botanicals and spices.”

Botanical flavors are a fit here, too, says Caputo.

“Many botanical extracts fall into the ‘functional flavors’ category … such as cayenne, chamomile, cinnamon, eucalyptus, elderflower, green tea, hibiscus, mint and rosemary,” he points out. “Botanicals are emerging across all dairy categories such as coffee creamers and ice cream.”

Mashups and hybrid flavors are a way for processors to mix creativity with a potential wellness claim, Caputo says, pointing to flavors such as “a chia almond butter and elderberry carton of ice cream, mocha mushroom creamer and spiced vanilla turmeric avocado ‘oatmilk’ latte meal replacement.”

Baroud also has seen these flavor combinations come up, particularly in ice cream and frozen desserts.

“For example, pairing strawberry and cardamom together offers consumers a sweet, classic flavor with a kick of unexpected complimentary spice,” she notes.

Some processors add flavor creativity to their line of dairy products by introducing seasonal products. And Breitner says many are looking for natural variations of traditional seasonal flavors.

“Dairy companies are looking for innovation [and] seasonal flavors that touch on clean-label themes — for example, featuring honey or maple instead of sugar,” she notes.

Not only do certain natural flavors allow processors to make wellness claims, but they also can add a “premium feel” to an everyday dairy product, notes Walter “Smokey” Waters, director of culinary innovation for Pecan Deluxe Candy Co., Dallas.

For its part, Chaucer offers a selection of freeze-dried fruit powders that can create “sophisticated flavor profiles” in ice cream and other frozen desserts while meeting consumer clean-label demand, Baroud says.

“They also provide natural color and are a natural, clean-label ingredient that can replace artificial flavorings and high-sugar components,” she adds.


Don’t forget the classics

While some consumers yearn for flavor exploration, many others want to stick with the classics — albeit in a natural form.

“Examining the flavors launched in dairy under the ‘free from artificial flavorings and colorings’ claim shows the leaders are vanilla, strawberry, chocolate, blueberry and banana-strawberry. Since these flavors track with consumer favorites in dairy, it’s not surprising that dairy manufacturers are offering natural versions,” Jackson says. “Notably, 21 new flavors and flavor combinations emerged in dairy in 2020 with the ‘free from artificial’ positioning, with variations of coffee, apple and cranberry topping of the list.”

Flavor offerings such as vanillas, chocolates and most fruit flavors that already have a base in the natural world are much easier to produce without any artificial ingredients, says Neeb.

What can be more challenging to convert are the “flavors with a fanciful feel” such as tutti frutti or cotton candy, explains Davis.

“After considering consumer expectations, you can translate almost any flavor to a natural solution,” she says. “There are some artificial ingredients that aren’t nature-identical, but the industry has evolved enough to find natural replacements.”


Pay attention to formulation

The biggest hurdle to moving to natural and/or organic flavors often is cost, notes Davis. However, there also are some formulation issues that can come up when converting a recipe.

“Dairy processors may need to use more of a natural flavor to create the taste intensity delivered from the artificial or natural-and-artificial form,” she explains. “Since adding more flavor can affect product characteristics like consistency, flavor partners may need to explore options for increasing the flavor’s concentration to deliver taste while maintaining product quality.”

Including a greater amount of a natural flavor to create the desired taste profile also can lead “to space issues in the ultimate serving size, which can further lead to increased inclusion cost,” explains Neeb.

Formulators also should pay attention to how a natural flavor’s inclusion plays into the recipe as a whole, says Sudarshan Nadathur, chief flavorist, dairy and protein for ADM.

“Formulating flavors or maskers to be clean label while still modulating off-notes can be a challenging task, as it requires understanding the subtle nuances of flavor notes coming from each ingredient,” he points out. “To achieve the best-tasting product possible, formulators must take a balanced approach to using maskers and extracts while also understanding the inherent changes that happen to a formulation while implementing them.”

Additionally, Nadathur says natural flavors must be able to withstand the harsh processing conditions such as pasteurization that some dairy products require.

However, using high-quality natural flavors also can solve problems that arise when processing clean-label dairy products, says Breitner.

“Many clean-label dairy products are subjected [to] ultra-high temperature processing,” she says. “And a quality vanilla extract or flavor can be designed to sustain its taste and aroma during these processing steps.”

Vanilla flavors and flavor maskers also can be helpful in reducing off-notes if a processor is formulating with certain non-nutritive sweeteners or adding in adaptogens, she notes.