By Kelsey Casselbury 2017-08-08 22:39:14
Clean label products aren’t new to the market, but with consumer demand on the rise, many school meals operations aim to be proactive on this hot-button issue. IT WOULD BE A SURPRISE if you hadn’t heard anything about the clean label movement in K-12 foodservice by now, mid-August 2017. Some of you may be wildly advocating for the transition to clean labels. Others may endorse the concept in theory, but remain skeptical that it can be implemented effectively for K-12 menus. More than a few might be quietly rolling your eyes, waiting for the trend to pass. The point is—everyone seems to have an opinion. After all, this isn’t a new trend. In a December 2014 School Nutrition article, “Coming Clean,” author Susan Davis Gryder introduced SN readers to the concept of clean labels in food manufacturing, processing and service (also referred to as “clean eating,” “whole-food eating” and numerous other terms). The goal: Eliminate—not merely reduce—the use of certain ingredients, additives and/or processing techniques to produce food items that are as close to “natural” as possible. Initially, the movement was relegated mostly to the specialty food retail market and high-end restaurants; not surprising, given that the greatest zeal was shown among those in higher-income demographics. In the three years since, however, persistent advocates have driven the demand for change across all areas of the food business. The food industry responded to that consumer demand. In 2015, Food Business News declared clean labels to be the “trend of the year,” in recognition of a number of progressive and impressive initiatives. For example, Campbell Soup launched a website, www.whatsinmyfood.com, to provide greater transparency about product ingredients. Panera Bread announced plans in 2014 to remove artificial colors, sweeteners, flavors and preservatives from its menu, and then followed up in 2015 with a “No No” ingredients list. Kellogg’s is on the record with a pledge to remove artificial colors and flavors from its cereals by 2018. Now, in 2017, the clean labels movement has inched its way into the school cafeteria. How will your operation respond? After all, it’s a classic “white hat issue” that’s hard to argue with: establish policies to use your purchase power to prioritize minimally processed menu items. Concept, however, is not always reflective of reality, and there are many thorny realities—budget, product availability, food safety, performance and acceptability among them—that complicate whether you can implement a clean label policy. And here’s the thing: It doesn’t look like this trend will go the way of, say, the cabbage soup diet. So we invite you to join us on a renewed exploration of this timely topic. IS MY FOOD DIRTY? The term “clean label” has no official standard or definition. In late 2015, a London-based consumer insight firm produced a global survey consisting of more than 27,000 respondents answering the query: “What does ‘clean label’ mean?” More than one-third (36%) said it means that the food is free from artificial ingredients. Another 34% claimed it means it’s natural/organic. Another 34% admitted they didn’t know. In the United States, other studies find that consumers have been even more in the dark on the concept, with roughly 45% of respondents stating that they don’t understand the term’s meaning. Other answers to the question include, “No pesticides/chemicals/toxins,” “Free from allergens,” “No GMOs,” “Simple ingredient list” and even “Transparent packaging.” While some might attempt to apply the maxim infamously used to describe obscenity (“I don’t know how to define it, but I know it when I see it”), that’s not helpful when trying to determine policy that will direct action. One school district’s clean label requirements could look very, very different from another. (And, indeed, one district’s standards may not satisfy all the advocates in their own community.) “This trend is interesting, as it does not have any one definition or one regulation behind it, making it even harder for manufacturers, suppliers and school food administrators to align on a single approach for incorporation into school food programs,” muses Emma Gregory, RD, senior manager of scientific and regulatory affairs, American Frozen Foods Institute. Gregory co-presented a session on this topic at SNA’s Annual National Conference (ANC) last month in Atlanta. Further complicating the matter, she says, is the perception that heavily processed food items are inherently unsafe for consumption. “Just because we can’t pronounce all the names does not mean that they are not safe or have not been added for a specific beneficial purpose,” Gregory remarks. Take “ascorbic acid,” for example—it sounds a little scary, but it’s simply a scientific term for vitamin C. It comes from plants and helps foods maintain their color, flavor and texture—it’s as natural as can be. (There is a synthetic form of ascorbic acid, but it’s chemically identical to the natural version.) Additionally, the very concept of “processing” food is often misunderstood. For example, did you realize that you process fruits and vegetables when freezing them? Or that wheat is processed when it becomes flour and is used to create whole-grain breads? Packaged foods may have added ingredients that work to ensure the food remains safe to eat throughout a defined period for distribution, sale and storage in your pantry or kitchen. In the absence of a standard definition, where do clean label advocates draw the line? Some balk at additives solely intended to improve eye or taste appeal, such as artificial coloring or flavors. Others feel uneasy about additives that facilitate a particular cooking process, such as those used in microwave popcorn. In general, most supporters of clean labels are seeking ingredient lists that are short and easy to understand. They want minimal food processing. “Clean label, to me, means simplicity,” says Daniel Ellnor, Nutrition Services Center manager, Jefferson County (Ky.) Public Schools (JCPS), who presented at ANC on this topic alongside Gregory. “[It should be] the least number of ingredients required to make a food wholesome, safe and tasty.” CLEAN LABELS IN SCHOOLS Located in the Louisville, Ky., metropolitan area, the JCPS Nutrition Services Center is a large production kitchen facility, and under Ellnor’s management (and the watchful eye of JCPS Director of School and Community Nutrition Services Julia Bauscher, SNS (SNA President 2014-15), procurement prioritizes clean labels—within limits. Ellnor has a list of ingredients they are working to reduce and eventually eliminate from foods served in their programs. This includes: artificial colors, artificial flavors, artificial preservatives, artificial sweeteners, MSG, flour conditioners, trans fats and unnecessary added sugars and salt. Ellnor understands that it’s not something that’s going to happen overnight. In fact, at present, trans fats are the only ingredients the team has been able to eliminate completely. “I would express our work as a philosophy, rather than a policy,” says Ellnor. “We make decisions one at a time, based on a variety of factors. It’s difficult to draw a line in the sand when trying to feed 118,000 students a day with hundreds and hundreds of product specifications.” At first glance, that line in the sand may seem like an insurmountable obstacle, given the challenges faced throughout the chain, from procurement to budget to student acceptance. Don’t forget to factor in nutrition standard compliance. There is no other foodservice segment that faces as many hurdles to serve meals to customers. Gary Vonck of KeyImpact Sales & Systems, former Industry Representative on the SNA Board of Directors, poses a pragmatic question: “Do foodservice directors have the bandwidth to spend time on this, with all the other items on their plate?” But another question is—do they have a choice? Every school nutrition director knows that those outside the cafeteria and central office walls have opinions, too—from the parents to the school board to at-large community members—and the pressure from these stakeholders can be substantial, although the opinions and positions may not always be accurate. High-fructose corn syrup has come under fire in recent years, yet researchers have not concluded any significant difference between the sweetener and plain ol’ sugar. Still, a klaxon call played out in the media prompted many directors to take a look at their product specs. Becky Domokos-Bay, PhD, RD, SNS, supervisor of School Nutrition Services, Loudoun County (Va.) Public Schools, and SNA’s immediate Past President, was gratified to discover that manufacturers wasted no time in responding to consumer concern. “We found that removing this item was not as big of an issue as we had first thought,” she recalls, adding it to the list of other products, such as artificial sweeteners, that she’s never okayed for her program. Still, going clean label (even partially) isn’t something that’s happening in every school district in the United States. There’s debate that it’s not financially feasible--and, in many communities, directors simply aren’t getting the same public pressure to make changes. In fact, Sean Leer, CEO of Gold Star Foods, notes that most of the districts that are asking for clean labels are ones in communities with greater affluence, “Which is really the tragedy of it,” he asserts. Leer also finds that the disparity in definition and standards isn’t helping the clean label movement to catch on with any sustainable traction. “There would be a tremendous opportunity if things were more coordinated,” he remarks. Leer may be unusual in his view of clean labels as representing a potential positive. Other companies serving the K-12 foodservice market are understandably weary of yet another hoop to jump through after recent spates of product development and reformulations. “Manufacturers need to have production runs that will be cost-effective for them, and if few people ask for [clean label] products, there is no incentive to produce these,” Domokos-Bays recognizes. Nonetheless, the customer is king, as the saying goes. And directors of major city districts, or those leveraging cooperative purchasing power, can help to drive that demand. Bertrand Weber, Culinary Center director, Minneapolis (Minn.) Public Schools, has been passionate about simplifying children’s food ever since his son was diagnosed with diabetes at age 6. He remembers having a conversation, some years back, with a global manufacturer about creating a more natural potato chip and the dismissive response he received: That’s not something we do for schools, only for retail markets. So, he stopped buying the product and began serving a pita chip. “Some [companies] say, ‘No, we’re not changing our formula,’ and then we personally move away from it,” Weber says. But because he and his staff have persisted—and because the size of their operation gives them purchasing power—some manufacturers have conceded and made changes in product formulations. “Their first reaction was…‘we can try to do it for you guys, but it’s probably going to be a lot more money,’” Weber recounts. “To their surprise, in a lot of cases, it’s not a lot more. It’s not at all.” That’s not to say that it isn’t challenging for industry to constantly be modifying recipes—it is. Karen Wilder, RD, MPH, LD, senior director of health and wellness, Schwan’s Shared Services, LLC, points out the challenges of responding to conflicting standards and requests from districts across the country. Of course, to stay prominent in the market, “It’s important for us to be responsive in providing resources to schools that meet these requests when possible,” she says. Leer agrees. He describes a contract his company has with local farmers for wheat to make bread. Although they pay a little more for locally grown wheat, “We work on our own efficiencies,” he states, to bring the cost down. Why go this route? “Foodservice directors are under tremendous pressure,” he explains. “In the course of their day, they have a million things to deal with. If a school board member asks why they used red dye, then everything stops.” In short, Leer suggests, cleaner products can make things easier in some ways. Weber concedes that districts have to do their own part in creative menuing to afford higher price tags for cleaner products. Consider what his Minneapolis team does when it come to buying and serving poultry products: “Sixty percent of the chicken we serve is fresh, raw chicken from a company that raises them without antibiotics,” he notes. “Only 40% is processed chicken. The raw chicken is substantially less expensive than the processed chicken. So, I’m able to pay a little bit more for my chicken chunks, which is an all-white, whole-muscle breaded chicken nugget, because it’s balanced out by using more raw chicken.” CLEAN UP ON AISLE SEVEN! There’s no doubt that, from SNA national meetings to school nutrition department central offices to corporate conference rooms, discussions about responding to clean label demands continue. “I don’t see this trend going away, as Americans today care more than ever about the food they eat,” Emma Gregory expresses. “I don’t see a federal agency adopting a formal definition for ‘clean label,’ but I know the industry will be making changes, regardless.” Weber agrees that consumers won’t let this trend fade with the decade. “For the kids with parents who shop at Whole Foods, we’ve already made the shift,” he asserts. But it shouldn’t be limited to that demographic, he insists. “It’s a moral issue—the higher the free and reduced [eligibility in the district], the more committed you should be.” Kelsey Casselbury is a contributing editor for School Nutrition and its former managing editor. She is based in Odenton, Md.
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