From Chemical to Clean: New Antimicrobial Options

natural antimicrobials

Clean Label. Natural. Non-GMO. The list of consumer food ‘requirements’ goes on and on. Everyone in the food and beverage industry is familiar with these topics, and Martec has researched and written about them extensively. But how do products we buy at the grocery store get the ability to write ‘natural’ or ‘clean’ on their label? And, how is the food and beverage industry meeting consumer expectations while maintaining shelf-life and food safety? This is where food scientists come into play.

Products ranging from meat to granola bars to milk and butter all contain ingredients that act as antimicrobials. These ingredients are added by food scientists to prevent food spoilage and keep the food safe prior to eating. There are several pathogens that antimicrobials protect against including e-coli, salmonella and listeria, as well as protecting against mold and yeast spoilage in your food. These antimicrobials don’t sound so bad, right? Well, the traditional types (that have been used for years) are commonly referred to as “chemical antimicrobials”. As we know, anything chemical-sounding, especially within the food and beverage industry, may not be so consumer friendly.

Examples of chemical antimicrobials are:

  • Acetic Acid
  • Benzoic Acid
  • Natamycin
  • Nisin
  • Nitrates
  • Propionic Acid
  • Sorbic Acid
  • Sulfites and Sulfur Dioxide

Challenges for scientists

These ingredients are often difficult for consumers to pronounce and they are not what consumers want to see on the ingredient list of their favorite mid-afternoon snack. Now, with the growing obsession over clean label and natural food, scientists are being challenged to find natural, consumer-friendly solutions to the problems “chemical antimicrobials” were solving. Scientists have been working to reformulate food and beverage recipes using the new natural antimicrobial products such as: salt, rosemary extract, cultured milk, vinegar, and others. Aside from the demand for natural antimicrobials, there are all different levels of the clean label movement further complicating this reformulation.

food scientist lab antimicrobials

Other challenges include:

  • Strict Ingredient ScrutinyMost grocers are implementing “no-no” lists, or lists of ingredients they will not allow in the products sold in their store. Further, products face limitations on the number of actual ingredients in them, with most companies stating 5 ingredients or less as ideal.
  • Ingredient Volume Scrutiny – Customers are expecting to see lower numbers of grams, ounces, etc. of the negative ingredients in their food.
  • Antibiotic-Free Meat
  • Food Activists spreading ‘shock-value’ information – The activists elevate negative claims on certain ingredient safety, even when these claims are far-fetched or elaborated.
  • Regulatory Problems – In 2020, new label laws are being implemented meaning further expenses for companies to format and print new labels. The new labels will call out things such as total amount of added sugar.

What are the consequences?

In a recent study commissioned by PR agency Ingredient Communications, 44% of US respondents stated they would pay 75%, or more for ingredients they recognized and trusted. This was the highest willingness to pay of any country surveyed. It should come as no surprise, then, that there are extensive R&D efforts to find natural antimicrobial food and beverage products with the same shelf life as their chemical counterparts. Unfortunately, since the natural solutions are not a known or exact science when it comes to their food protection properties, the scientists we have spoken with are still struggling to find innovative ways to formulate their products without a noticeable difference to consumers (aside from the addition healthful ingredients and removal of chemicals). Not only do scientists face the problem of a shortened shelf life, but there are also taste, smell and texture issues with the natural recipes.

Because of these obstacles, the recipes are continuously being changed and reformulated in an effort to find ones that work. Scientists hope those R&D efforts will pay off in the long-run. Until a solution is found, multiple brands are still electing to supply their traditional ‘chemical’ antimicrobial products to grocers. We are anxious to learn more about the customer expectations of natural and clean label products as these new products develop – and ready to taste-test these new, natural antimicrobial recipes as they hit the shelves.

Contact us to discuss your next research project in the Food & Beverage industry.

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