Methodology to Clean Label: Replace—Retool—Rebuild

Originally Published: October 6, 2020
Last Updated: February 4, 2021
An image of baked gratin casserole chicken with mushrooms with cheese

Clean Label Methodology: Replace—Retool—Rebuild

ULTIMATELY, products have to be consumer acceptable in appearance, texture, flavor, cost and shelflife when developing any food or beverage, explained Webb Girard, MSc, Director of Research & Development, CuliNex, LLC, in his presentation titled “Rethinking Formulation Approaches for Simplified Ingredient Statement and Cleaner Labels,” prepared for the 2020 Clean Label Conference. Yet, the ill-defined and ever-expanding clean label market makes this goal even more challenging, he emphasized, as he provided sage advice for clean label methodology.

In determining what is clean, Girard posed various questions for consideration. “Is it the brand owner who determines what is clean? How much is consumer purchase intent driving the design of these products? Do the ingredients need to be found in a typical consumer’s kitchen? If an ingredient requires a lot of processing for extraction, whether fractionally or chemically, to achieve a desired functionality, is it clean? And, furthermore, how simple does a process have to be? These are questions that must be considered when making decisions about the clean label status of an ingredient,” he averred.

Once a clean label project has been initiated, it’s important to fully understand the project guardrails and parameters to be able to deliver on the brand promise. Girard provided a model example of a multi-component King Ranch Casserole and worked through each step, beginning with a Product Profile Sheet.

A well-written concept statement is key to understanding the individual components in the dish. In this case, it is a hearty, one-dish Southwest-inspired casserole with roasted chicken, Monterey Jack and Cheddar cheeses, onion/pepper blend and creamy sauce—layered between corn tortillas with a medium heat level from spices and green chilies. Other information provided in the Product Profile included key product attributes; target shelflife; packaging format, distribution (i.e., fresh, refrigerated); nutritional targets (i.e., excellent source of protein); free-from criteria (i.e., artificial color, no added sugar); ingredient restrictions (i.e., simple ingredients); and claims and certifications (gluten-free).

Girard described the methodology of clean label product design as follows: Use whole food and naturally derived ingredients to create a culinary vision on the bench that is backed up by food science; balance flavor, function, cost and shelflife; map the translation of concepts across platforms; then translate those concepts into multi-component products.

The label clean-up development strategy involves taking each component and determining whether to replace, retool or rebuild. “Replace” entails a one-to-one ingredient swap, but it’s not always that easy, noted Girard. “Retool” requires cleaning up formula redundancies; adjusting a process step; or looking at different ingredient systems. A “rebuild” is the most complicated choice, as it entails “taking the formula completely apart, down to its bare bones and reconstructing it with different materials…to get the same finished product,” explained Girard.

In the example above, beginning with the chicken, the development process follows each subsequent component, as the current ingredient statement is evaluated and decisions are made as to whether to replace, retool or rebuild in order to meet the requirements of the project as delineated in the profile sheet. It’s a complicated process, overall, with component rebuilds; shelf life, food safety and spoilage considerations; and packaging decisions to make.

“A rebuild may require capital investment—additional equipment, line extensions or other materials. Feasibility depends on return on investment, but you can’t rebuild or reformulate in a vacuum without understanding how that’s going to carry on to production processes,” said Girard. “You have to build the supply chain, which may not be there initially. Non-GMO Parmesan, for instance, has a 9- to 12-month aging cycle, so in order to use that in your production and meet all your volumes, you’re backtracking 9-12 months to get your supply built up, in order to get your product launched,” he added.

Clean label formulation methodology can be a complex process from beginning to end. “The initial formula fits together in harmony. Every ingredient is balanced for form, function and flavor,” said Girard. The clean labeled product must do so, as well. But, will consumers accept the product as clean label?

Therein lies the ultimate challenge.

“Rethinking Formulation Approaches for Simplified Ingredient Statement and Cleaner Labels,” Webb Girard, MSc, Director of Research & Development, CuliNex, LLC,’

This presentation was given at the 2020 Clean Label Conference. To download presentations from this event, go to

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