Firmenich launches Natural and Clean Label platform as traceability evolution at major flavor houses accelerates

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11 Jun 2018 --- Firmenich, the largest privately held flavor and fragrance company in the world, has launched its Natural and Clean Label platform to create “great tasting, natural and traceable food and beverage experiences.” Combining its mastery of taste and naturals, with its world-class science and consumer understanding, Firmenich is focused on creating the most authentic flavors. Committed to full traceability, Firmenich is going far beyond today’s labeling requirements to provide its customers and their consumers with information they can understand and trust.

“With our new Natural and Clean label platform, we are putting our world-class science to work to create high-intensity taste profiles drawn from nature in a sustainable and traceable way,” says Jerome Barra, VP Innovation & Design. “We use a range of techniques, from soft, solvent-free and CO2 extractions, all the way to “kitchen techniques” leveraging culinary arts, as well as innovative bio-based approaches like fermentation to offer the best of nature sustainably.”

To mark the occasion, the company hosted a customer event at its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland to showcase the unique breadth of its clean label and natural capabilities. The two-day event culminated with a gala dinner created by 2* Michelin Chef Claude Legras, featuring natural products from Firmenich’s Clean Label portfolio.

“Our goal is to go far beyond the label to offer consumers the authenticity, familiarity and transparency they expect. It’s all about providing end-to-end traceability in a format that consumers can understand and trust, from the source of the ingredients and country of origin, all the way to the production process,” says Stephanie Salord, Head of Natural & Clean Label Platform.

Click to Enlarge
Stephanie Salord, Senior Director
for Clean Label at Firmenich

In a detailed interview with FoodIngredientsFirst, Stephanie Salord was quick to clarify that this is not a business unit per se, but rather a platform in the tradition of the company’s successful Taste concept around taste modulation. “A platform is really a group that is in charge of connecting the dots in the company. It is more a cross-functional team rather than a business unit that would work in isolation,” she explains. “In this case, the ambition is really to expand the scope of our current natural solutions and give this the focus that it deserves. It is really the future of our flavors division. This is how it has been conceptualized and we are launching it after more than a year of reflection over what the key trends affecting the food & beverage industry are. We understand where consumers and customers are going. We need to set ourselves up for the future,” she adds.

Clean label as a concept is broad and vague in itself. Salord notes that Firmenich’s approach is therefore quite holistic in nature. “It is really about how we convey trust at the consumer level and responsibly do things. It is not a very precise definition, but the way we interpret it in terms of our business evolution is really the fact that natural flavors today, they are not always saying what they really are, how they are made or where they come from,” she notes. 

For Salord, there is no universal definition of natural, no independent certifying body and no clear meaning for the consumers in place. This is where the consumers are expecting more. “For us as a company, it means that we have to evolve beyond the natural flavor type of products and move into ingredients that have more specific labeling. They should have more detail. So, we are expanding our scope into this field because we are already operating here with natural extracts and seafood powders. The clean label space is an evolution of our portfolio. We will still be playing on taste and really be delivering taste to food and beverages but adding dimensions that will support trust and responsibility,” she explains. 

In February 2018, Firmenich completed the acquisition of US-based Natural Flavors, Inc., a manufacturer of high-quality organic certified natural flavors. Headquartered in Newark, New Jersey (US), Natural Flavors developed and commercialized the first organic certified flavors in North America during the late 1990s. Today, Natural Flavors offers an extensive range of organic certified and natural flavor solutions to meet the needs of food and beverage customers in high growth, in-demand categories. 

The integration of this company under the Firmenich banner will offer additional organic capabilities, but this is just one aspect of the Clean Label platform. “The idea of the platform really comes from a long process. It started a year and a half ago, really understanding the consumer demand changing and researching the future. The Natural Flavors acquisition is more a consequence of this focus on naturals and clean label because organic is a very interesting certification that helps consumer trust. In this context, we are also looking at and expanding our palette of raw materials that bear certification that convey this trust. This is why we acquired Natural Flavors because they have a strong organic palette,” she explains. 

Firmenich already has a strong portfolio of extracts and this type of business move expands the range. “The idea is to operate on both sides: both internally and externally. Internally by, setting up a complete innovation chain related to clean label and natural activities. We are putting, at the core of the research and innovation teams, specific targets towards the development of new types of prototypes that will become our future clean label ingredients. We have been building these new competencies for a year and a half in terms of processing, mastering the source and making the best out of nature,” she adds.

Of course, the move also comes amid a period of consolidation in the flavors sector where several major flavor houses have diversified beyond their base. Symrise acquired Diana, Givaudan is in the process of gaining full control of Naturex and most recently IFF moved for Frutarom. For Salord, the background to this dynamic is the evolution towards full transparency, which can be a major challenge when offering flavor cocktails that consist of dozens of compounds. 

“We have products that contain more than fifty different ingredients, so if we had to release this on to a label, it would make it very complex. This is a challenge to us as an industry, as we are conveying a lot of information to our customers, but to, in turn, bring that to the consumer is very challenging. So, moving more into the food ingredients business can bring taste and flavorful ingredients, this is a nice way to overcome this issue,” she says. “Then you can bring a complex flavor that will drive the taste preference and the end product, but in a way that the consumer can understand what it is and where it is coming from. I Click to Enlargethink that the whole flavor industry is taking the same stance,” she adds. 

The other background to this business dynamic is the drive for investment in natural. “Generally, on the market, natural flavors are growing two or three times more than synthetic flavors. So, with respect to natural, we have of course lots of issues around sustainability and supply. We know that there is an increasing competition over source too, so we need to be present at source to secure our supply as well,” she adds. 

Salord does not believe that all of these moves into extracts will lead to a cannibalization of the traditional flavor business, however. “It is an evolution like you have clients switching from synthetic to natural. You are selling a synthetic flavor then you sell a natural flavor, but it is an evolution of the portfolio towards different types of products,” she notes. Plus she also stresses that not everything will move to clean label anyway as there are too many constraints involved in the first place. 

Key to Firmenich’s new Clean Label platform will be the assessment of technology. One area of interest relates to fermentation and biotransformation. “We have partnerships in place to build up our competency that we already have internally, but build it up further to food fermentation and biotransformation. This could include fermented cereals, milk and those products that may become building blocks that we can either blend together in a creative process or use to drive a particular taste in food,” she says. A further area is everything related to thermal food processing. “This is also an important way of enhancing the flavor from foodstuffs. Here we are looking at toasting and roasting, for instance. We could generate more flavor from foodstuffs with this,” says Salord.

The Firmenich extracts palette encompasses everything from citrus extracts to infusions and botanicals. “Here we need to ensure that we master the supply, by collaborating with the farmers. Our interest here is that we really have a story to tell. We have the quality differentiation and we have the story and sustainability behind the extracts. They are really an important area for us today and we will continue investing in this type of product,” she stresses.

The focus for the new venture will be global, with emphasis on the more developed markets of Europe and the US, but also a keen interest in assessing potential in China (which will be a research hub) and elsewhere. “Europe and the US are the two biggest markets for natural and clean label and will get most of the initial focus, but ideally we should be globally represented and we will network with all the regions as we see this demand evolving in Asia, Latin America. We are really a matrix organization with a global footprint. Even if our critical mass is in China, Europe and US, there will be dealings with all the regions,” she notes.

The general belief has been that Asian markets are less open to the clean label and natural trends as consumers in the region tend to believe that processed food cannot be natural anyway. But Salord sees an evolution there too, particularly on the back of several food scares in China in recent years. “There is a big mistrust of the food industry there and today the Chinese government is not ready to allow ‘natural’ claims as they don’t have the tools to control marketing. So, as a consequence, we see middle-class consumers jumping from potentially flavored products and moving towards more specific declarations to extracts that answer this consumer demand. This is already in place with premium products, and it is coming quite strongly,” she explains. 

The role of biotechnology and sustainable sourcing will be key in ensuring that enough raw material is available to cope with the surge in demand for depleting resources. Biotechnology holds strong potential for identical nature replication. “Instead of using citrus extracts in a synthetic or natural flavor, we are going to develop further natural ingredients that are natural molecules that we do not extract from natural but make through the use of biotechnology. In this way, they are more sustainable and you are not wasting the ‘noble’ biomass or citrus oils to put in a natural flavor, but rather using them as clean label ingredients,” Salord says. 

Firmenich already uses biotechnology to produce some of their green notes. “We start from linseed oil and use the enzymes to make that into aldehyde, esterClick to Enlarges and alcohol. This is another way to gain access to green notes that is very effective and natural. It is also sustainable and linseed oil is an easily sourced and scaled product,” says Salord.

Secondly, to overcome supply issues, responsible sourcing efforts will be required to protect the future of finite natural raw materials. “There are lots of natural raw materials we use that are coming from smallholder farmers. Because of urbanization, these people are leaving the countryside and harvesting jasmine flowers for example. We need to engage and protect these natural resources and secure them. So, moving forward, we can still harvest them sustainably and ethically. It is all about engagement with the farmers and responsible sourcing,” she adds. 

The Clean Label program is quite a long-term commitment that the company is making in this area with a 2025 vision in mind. “The idea is to position ourselves as the best in the industry and the reference point on natural. It is quite a transformational platform because it’s moving away from certain ways of working and training into new spaces. These are also spaces that are not completely defined from a regulatory perspective,” says Salord.

But programs are in place that should yield some real innovations from the new platform very soon, with a new generation of extracts expected in the next 12 months. “We also have a longer time program in place that will yield some results in 18 months from now. That program will be for putting on foods, for instance. We have a few activities around fruit tonalities and also the savory area, with some solutions that will be clean label,” she adds. 

While few specific product details are being revealed at this stage, Salord did note how Firmenich is really investing in sustainable extraction processes, whether in the form of ecological extracts or new generation extracts. “These techniques comprises three major aspects. One is the protection, so it’s about preserving the biomass authenticity and improving the extraction of the active materials. The second is ecological, so using no solvents and embedding the waste rejuvenation in the process design. Lastly, it is about efficiency. Making a reduction of energy consumption and reducing the carbon footprint,” she concludes. 

A fusion of cutting edge technology to deliver flavorful solutions that come as close to nature as possible, and a look right back to the origin of the raw material itself, with an eye on sustainability, will be vital to delivering the clean label foods that tomorrow’s consumers demand. 

By Robin Wyers & Laxmi Haigh

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