You may think that, after trawling food industry websites for many years to earn my crust, by now I’d be desensitised to how these folks conduct their advertising, much like a seasoned undertaker, who has long since stopped flinching at the sight of the mangled corpses that pass through his premises. After all, it’s business-to-business communication replete with technical details aimed at food technologists rather than at the end consumer. However, since I’m also a consumer of food, I can’t completely switch off that part of my brain, and I thought it might be fun to share a few precious examples with you…
I bet you’ve always wanted one of these:
Oh, what could be more heavenly than the smell of freshly baked bread or the buttery doughiness of croissants still warm from the oven… And isn’t comforting to know that there’s somebody behind the scenes, who worries about all this stuff:
Ignorance is bliss, as they say. We definitely DON’T want to know the secret. EVER! Regarding the “friendly labelling”, there’s an explanatory rant coming up. Hold on to your seats. And your queasy stomachs.
But before we get to that, let me ask you this: what makes marshmallow so delectably fluffy and chewy at the same time? Sugar mixed with beaten egg whites in optimum proportions, right? Trouble is, them eggs is expensive – we desperately need something… erm… “innovative” to please our cost-conscious clientele. Ingredients supplier
Wacko Wacker has just the ticket:
What the heck is a “Clean Label”, I hear you ponder…? Does it involve some hapless trainee scouring the ketchup splodges off the front of the bottle with a soft toothbrush before he puts it on the shelf…? Not quite. The “clean label trend”, as it’s known to industry insiders, is a topic that could probably fill the British Library twice over. I shall attempt to illustrate briefly.
The whole shenanigans started nearly two decades ago, when it slowly dawned on the industry that consumers didn’t find terms like “dioctyl sodium sulphosuccinate” and “butylated hydroxyanisole” on food packages all that appetising.
Essentially, the mission was (and still is!) to replace anything that sounds remotely like a “chemical” with something that Martha Stewart would keep in her pantry.
Sometimes, ingredient substitutions are required to produce a sparkling clean label, but a lot of the time, it’s simply a word game. I mean, why call something “hydrolysed starch” when “potato starch” will do nicely? Or is it “Monosodium glutamate” (MSG) that’s scaring the punters off your products in droves? No worries, just switch to “yeast extract”, which is virtually identical and does the same job.
“E-numbers”, in particular, are known for striking fear into European consumers’ hearts. They’ve been suspected of giving kids autism and poor ol’ granny pancreatic cancer, not to mention throttling the life out of strutting Frenchmen’s sperm… the list of their E-vil doings is endless. Thing is, most E-numbers are, in fact, harmless substances, and so manufactures have simply reverted to calling them by their first names, like vitamin C (instead of E300) and calcium (aka E170). Label space on food packages is at a premium and E-numbers provided a convenient short hand, but the mood has turned, and if, as a food manufacturer, you’re still bent on sticking to them, you may as well be slapping the radiation warning sign on your chocolate biscuit packets for all the good it’ll do your sales.
As for colourings and flavourings, a great big slew of them can just be referred to as “natural”, no need to give an E-number or a long-winded chemical name. The label will be clean, and everybody will be happy. Luckily, the average shopper doesn’t realise that you can make strawberry flavouring out of wood chips and still call it “natural” without breaking any laws. Nobody needs to know that the flavours don’t come from actual fruits.
You may be left with the impression that the food industry views you, the consumer, very much like this:
But at least they’ve a sense of humour about it…