The problem with a clean label without methylcellulose
Many European consumers are wary of E-numbers. The fewer E-numbers or charged ingredients on their food labels, the better. “Within TOP, we have the expertise to design food with the cleanest possible label,” says food technologist Babet Waterink. “But there are limits. Some food additives are simply necessary.”
Suspicion of the use of additives in food is not new. “For years, some consumers have been concerned about the use of glutamic acid (E620) and glutamic acid compounds such as monosodium glutamate (E621),” says Waterink. “Glutamates provide a savory, ‘umami’ taste. Like other E-numbers, the safety of glutamates has been studied. Experts from the European EFSA have concluded based on those studies that producers can safely incorporate glutamates into their products within intended quantities.”
However, not all consumers are convinced. Some report experiencing headaches, stomachaches, insomnia, and eczema from foods with added glutamates. This group avoids products with the E-numbers assigned to these flavour enhancers. “There is even a group of consumers who want to avoid all E-numbers,” says Waterink. “Even when it comes to numbers assigned to substances like citric acid (E330), lactic acid (E270), and vitamin C (E300).”
Against this backdrop, it’s not surprising that many food manufacturers strive for a ‘clean label’ – without E-numbers or other terminology that might deter consumers. A clean label gives consumers confidence that they have an honest food product. “There is no clear definition of what a clean label is exactly,” Waterink explains. “Generally, a label is considered ‘clean’ when the ingredient list is short and easy to understand.”
Sometimes, producers add alternatives to E-numbers. For example, yeast extracts contain relatively high concentrations of glutamate and can replace E621. Producers may also choose to use the chemical names of substances instead of E-numbers. Replacing E300 with ‘vitamin C’ might have an effect, but for many other additives, the value of such a replacement is questionable. In any case, the optimal clean label is not only small and straightforward but also consists exclusively of natural ingredients.
Not Without Reason
The world of experience for consumers for whom companies develop clean labels differs from the world of experience of food technologists. “When we design food, we try to create something that nourishes consumers and can be enjoyed with pleasure,” says Waterink. “We will never create anything that can harm consumers. At every step in the design process, we consider the safety of our product.”
Each ingredient in a food item has a function. “We don’t add something without a good reason,” says Waterink. “If we know that consumers don’t want a certain ingredient in a product, we can always look for an alternative. Often, we can find that alternative. Because we have experience with various types of products within TOP, we know very well what is possible. But sometimes it is simply not possible to replace an ingredient without drastically reducing the quality of the product.”
In the design of many meat and dairy substitutes developed by Waterink and her colleagues, additives are essential. “The proteins we use, for example, taste like plants, not like meat,” illustrates Waterink. “To give them the desired taste that we know from meat products, we need flavourings. If we also want meat substitutes to have a meat colour, we need colourings. Fortunately, we can achieve all this with natural ingredients. This way, meat substitutes can get a colour thanks to beetroot that is indistinguishable from that of meat.”
However, there are also ingredients, including E-numbers, which cannot be replaced. One that is present in numerous food items is methylcellulose (E461), and precisely methylcellulose came under fire recently during an episode of “Keuringsdienst van waarde” broadcasted by the public broadcaster on September 26, 2023. Waterink watched it with increasing amazement.
The episode focused on the use of methylcellulose – “it’s also in diapers” – in food items such as custard, fruit juice, and vegan hot dogs. A reporter visited a producer of fruit juices, who explained that methylcellulose provided a better and fuller mouthfeel. Then an anonymous commentator suggested that by adding methylcellulose to juices, ‘the bottle was filled faster.’
Another reporter visited a producer of methylcellulose, who explained that by adding this substance, the amount of fibers in food increased. This allowed manufacturers to put ‘source of fiber’ on their products.
The use of methylcellulose in food comes close to deception, suggested the episode. Vivera, a Dutch producer of meat substitutes, posted a response on its website in response to the broadcast. In it, the company explained why it uses methylcellulose. Not “because of an intended higher content of dietary fibers or as a cheap filler,” but “to achieve a pleasant structure in our products.”
Waterink can relate to this. “A good meat substitute needs a firm texture,” she says. “But plant proteins alone can hardly give you that texture. You can achieve a lot with protein from eggs, but you can’t use it if you want to make a product that is also suitable for vegans.” Moreover, egg protein is expensive.
An alternative is gluten, but a relatively large group of consumers is allergic to it or does not react well to it. “Then methylcellulose remains,” says Waterink. “It forms a firm texture, giving a meat substitute a bite. Without methylcellulose, many fully vegan meat substitutes would be mushy. Consumers would ignore them.”