Market Snapshot: Natural Foods

We got 27 clean-label natural foods from the grocery store and ran them through a gauntlet of moisture tests. Some passed, some did not. This is what we found.

In this market snapshot, we examine the clean-label natural food industry. We ran 96 food products from 27 natural food brands through comprehensive moisture testing to see which brands got it right, which didn't, and how making the right moisture choices for your product can improve quality, safety, and dividends. 

Keep reading to tap into the moisture secrets that will produce fresher tasting products, improve shelf life, and help you avoid the high cost of moisture inconsistency.

Natural product categories we tested

Dried fruit

Our dried fruit analysis showed that dried fruit products tend to have more variability due to naturally high sugar levels that bind water and high fiber that create different structures, making it harder to predict outliers. 

A wide range of drying methods can also create variance in moisture levels. Fortunately, the acidic nature of fruit allows for safer, higher water activity levels. 

The end-game goals for dried fruit also differ depending on how it will be used, but it's essential that dried fruit manufacturers create moisture sorption isotherms for each dried fruit product so they can pinpoint the sweet spot where their products have the perfect balance of moisture content and water activity. 



Generally speaking, nuts experience less moisture variability than dried fruit, but as with all food products, water activity affects the yield, texture, and time to rancidity of nuts. 

As with dried fruit, there are different criteria for nuts when produced for a snack versus nuts used as an ingredient. Water activity ranges will also change if the nuts are mixed with other products due to moisture migration, though the greatest impact comes from roasting. 

Again, creating an isotherm allows far more precision in identifying the necessary water activity levels for success.


Cold-pressed granola bars

Due to the multi-component nature of granola bars, it's crucial to consider the pH and water activity levels of each ingredient. When ingredients are found to have water activity levels beyond the limits for microbial growth, they will need to be pasteurized before processing. Moisture migration will also need to be managed, as the varying ingredients will likely have different water level activities. 

It is also helpful to predict the effect temperature abuse will have on the product. Monitoring moisture content and water activity levels through isotherms is the best way to predict the effects of moisture migration and temperature abuse. 


Using isotherms to manage moisture migration

Understanding water activity is essential to managing moisture migration in food products. If we didn't understand and control moisture migration, we couldn't have products such as Raisin Bran or cream-filled cookies because of the different moisture levels of each component of the final product. 

So how can moisture migration be managed?

First, it's essential to understand that moisture migration is driven by water activity and not by moisture content. It also helps that water activity measurements are 6x more precise than moisture content measurements. When we correlate the two in a moisture sorption isotherm, it becomes possible to pinpoint precisely when your product will experience problems caused by moisture, such as textural changes, oxidation rates, or mold growth. 

Let's take a look at blueberries and almonds. Since the water activity is higher in blueberries than in the almonds, there would be a moisture transfer from the blueberries to the almonds, which could change the texture of the almonds. If the water activity levels were opposite and the almonds transferred moisture to the blueberries, that would have a more negligible effect. If they each had the same water activity level, there would be no moisture migration or changes to either product. Creating isotherms for each product would allow you to know which potential changes would occur and precisely when they would happen.

The impact of reducing moisture inconsistency

Moisture inconsistency can lead to quality issues in natural food products like texture changes and microbial growth. But it can also lead to problems with production and revenue. 

For example, although over-drying can be seen as a way to reduce safety and recall risk, it can also cause significant revenue loss in product weight. Tightening up moisture processes improves consistency and can lead to more production efficiency and profit

A real-life examination of a prune producer showed that the prunes could safely hold more moisture, resulting in increased production of 1,500 tons and generating an annual yield increase of $487,000.

Big brands vs. small brands

Our examination showed a lot of variability in the moisture processes between more prominent brands and smaller brands. It didn't show any definitive winners, although smaller brands showed a slight edge with cold-pressed granola bars. This could be because smaller brands work with smaller batches of ingredients, allowing them to control the process better. However, our analyses showed that more prominent brands lead the way in packing consistency, limiting overfill and underfill. Most importantly, our results prove there is room for improvement in all areas for both big and small brands and that improving moisture processes can yield positive dividends.

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