Clean Label Culinary Innovation, an Interview with Charlie Baggs

Since its founding in 1999, Charlie Baggs Culinary Innovations has strived to be a leader in innovation. By balancing culinary artistry and experience with proven science, they create novel and practical solutions for their clients.

Charlie Baggs is an expert saucier and master of all cooking techniques with over 25 years of culinary experience. Although he is the president of his company, he still refers to himself as “just the chef.” His reputation as an expert has led to him to sharing his knowledge at the Annual Conferences of the National Restaurant AssociationThe Research Chefs Association, and numerous Institute of Food Technologists events. Since Charlie is one of the top culinary developers in the US, we turned to him to get his perspective on clean label culinary innovation.



How long has “clean label” been on your radar?

“The definition changes by client, but I’d say clean label has been on our radar in different forms for the past 3 years.” 



How long has Charlie Baggs been developing clean label and natural products?

“We have always been rooted in natural product development. Over the past 2-3 years we have invested in a deep understanding of clean label formulation.”

“We’ve seen interests changes from: organic to natural to clean label. Our company was really tight with organic — we even hired an organic expert who could certify factories and get them ready for organic inspection. And then it broadened into ‘all natural’ and eventually project verified non-GMO.”

“When I was the Corporate Chef at Gerber®, I designed the Tender Harvest® line — back then it was all about organic. It seemed like organic was going to take over the world. But there’s not enough certified organic ingredients to fulfill all products being 100% organic. The principles behind ‘organic’ don’t simulate the massive quantifiable yields that conventional farming produce. There’s a lot of disadvantages with organic, which makes organic difficult to scale. It’s important to work with the right partners.”



Certain “non-clean label” ingredients, such as: butylated hydroxytolune, have very compelling functionalities, how do you stay up-to-date on clean label alternatives to continue to provide quality, clean label products to clients?

“Clean label alternatives can be ‘processing’. We have a relationship with a large HPP company. So when it comes down to creating a clean label product with good shelf life, you can assess: processing techniques and alternative options, pH, water activity, salt, etc.”



Do you see the consumer demand for cleaner labels going away anytime soon?

“Minimal ingredients on a label will never change. Keep it simple. Transparency, authenticity, local. I don’t just mean ‘local’ as a marketing word, but regarding local greenhouses around the country. I think we’re coming to the critical time when we’re realizing that transporting a tomato 3,000 miles in the middle of the winter for your salad is not going to happen forever. Either we’re not going to use tomatoes when they’re out of season or we’re going invest more money in local, community greenhouses.”

“Greenhouse operations are huge in Canada, but they haven’t proliferated the US market yet. But I believe politics will spur this. When it comes to clean label, if your fruits and vegetables are grown locally, maybe you they don’t need to be sprayed chemically for shelf life extension.”


Since culinary skills set research chefs apart from chemistry-driven food scientists, have you found difficulty in sticking to a narrow selection of clean label ingredients — opposed to the industry’s historic ingredient carte blanche?

“Trying to replicate xanthan gum’s viscosity, mouthfeel, and clingability in a dressing with a clean label gum is difficult. Yes, there are other hydrocolloids,blends, different pieces of equipment, higher-sheer and emulsification — but xanthan is not easily replaced.”

“Clean label answers to gums are not all there yet. We need more advances in technology. Technology has to intersect with a clean label definition — from collaborative communication with the FDA, the [food] industry, and consumers. A clear definition will help guide decision makers to create solutions that meet consumer demand for clean label.”


Technology has to intersect with a clean label definition — from collaborative communication with the FDA, the [food] industry, and consumers. A clear definition will help guide decision makers to create solutions that meet consumer demand for clean label.


“Now more than ever, it’s essential for product developers to know the target consumer in project briefs, because the target markets changes the development. For example, Baby Boomers don’t care about ingredients that Millennials care about, while Gen X may have a wildly different opinion — they have diverse food perspectives. Trying to keep all demographics happy right now is extremely challenging.”




What do you think the future of “clean label” is?

“Minimal ingredients and more local processing. I believe that smaller manufacturing divisions around the country will make distribution more nimble and efficient — which is just the opposite of what has happened in the past twenty years. With less transportation time involved in the food system, we will become less dependent on chemical preservatives and synthetic ingredients of that nature…and many more things.”

“Not only will supporting and re-opening small manufacturing facilities be good for our food system, it will also help revitalize American rural areas, and ultimately support local communities. No more abandoning facilities and devastating hardworking, American people — we need to revitalize our small towns. And hopefully the USDA will get involved with this.”