Take a look at the ingredient list on a jar of SKIPPY® natural creamy peanut butter spread or a package of Applegate Naturals® no sugar bacon. Each has only four ingredients, and you’ll recognize all of them. The bacon includes nothing more than pork, water, sea salt and celery powder, while the peanut butter has only roasted peanuts, sugar, palm oil and salt. There are no chemicals with unpronounceable names or ingredients with unknown purposes.
These products are part of a wider clean-label initiative that has been underway at Hormel Foods for over a decade. It involves using only those ingredients that are familiar to consumers and not utilizing any artificial colors or flavors, resulting in a cleaner label.
The effort to strip out unfamiliar and unnatural ingredients was partially driven by a desire to be transparent with consumers and partially driven by consumers themselves, according to Melissa Bonorden, a research scientist with Hormel Foods. “They want to understand what they’re eating,” she said.
When a product is targeted for clean labeling, the process takes over a year to complete. First, every ingredient is examined to determine its functionality within the recipe. Team members ask, “Can any of them be deleted entirely, replaced with a natural alternative or given some context on the label to inform the consumer that it is used as a preservative or for coloring?”
A small-scale batch of the new version of the product is made at a research and development facility. After it is honed there, a full-blown plant trial is undertaken. Then the manufacturing costs are scrutinized, while the marketing department examines the product again to make sure it meets expectations in regard to flavor and color. “We want it to taste just as good, if not better,” said Bonorden.
Before it hits shelves again, the labels of the products may be redesigned to highlight natural and organic attributes.
Hormel Foods initiated 47 clean-label projects in 2016 and another seven in 2017. Those completed in 2017 included Hormel® Natural Choice® snacks and Stagg® chili. Additionally, the company rolled out a number of innovative products – including Hormel® Fire Braised™ meats, Hormel® Natural Choice® meats and Hormel® FUSE™ patties – which are 100 percent all-natural with no added preservatives, no artificial colors, no nitrites or nitrates added, and have no gluten-containing ingredients. Some of these initiatives include products that are for the foodservice channel and are being served in restaurants, hotels, hospitals and more.
Alongside these efforts is a companywide sodium-reduction initiative that has been in place for approximately 30 years. This is a supplement to the company’s efforts to offer sodium-reduced alternatives to many of its most-loved products. However, Hormel Foods has stepped up its oversight in the last decade by building a computerized system to track the amount of sodium in each product, working to monitor changes over time. “We can now track it and report on it in a more objective way,” said Bonorden.
Currently, there are eight product categories undergoing sodium reduction, and there are plenty of success stories to tout. CHI-CHI’S®, Herdez® and La Victoria® tortillas have had their sodium reduced by 28 percent, Hormel® Canadian bacon is down 27 percent, and Hormel® Compleats® microwave meals have dropped 19 percent.
The goal is to reduce sodium by 15 percent in select product lines. At the end of the day, though, flavor trumps all else. “Taste is always the driver,” said Bonorden. “And sodium does drive taste.”
However, with products as good as SKIPPY® natural creamy peanut butter spread and Applegate Naturals® no sugar bacon, nobody is missing the excess sodium or the ingredients with unpronounceable names. Well-loved brands such as these are proof that sometimes less is more.