In a bid to be more conscious of what they are putting in their bodies, consumers are increasingly seeking clean label products. This challenges industry to deliver a certain type of natural product without there being a clear definition of clean label to begin with. Nonetheless, the trend intersects with other current F&B demands, from healthy offerings to the attention on provenance. Speaks to key companies in this space to find out what exactly it means to have a clean label offering.
“Clean label is a complex matter and there is no universal definition. From a legislation point of view, different regulations are in place related to food and labeling, but nothing that clearly defines clean label. Nonetheless, industry defines clean label as removing artificial additives, ingredients and preservatives. Meanwhile, consumers relate the term to foods made from natural, recognizable and safe ingredients. Matching all these different expectations is challenging for the industry,” explains Gaia Saccani, Senior Marketing & Business Development Manager at Chr. Hansen Natural Colors Division.
Lisa Drawer, Director of Marketing at Edlong, also notes the massive scope of clean label, stating that because it is not a scientific term, it can be interpreted in a number of different ways. “These range from having fewer ingredients or ingredients that are easy for consumers to understand, all the way to Certified Organic ingredients and products that have absolutely no artificial preservatives, sweeteners, colors or flavors. In many cases, a clean label can also mean all of the above.”
For Maartje Hendrickx, Market Development Manager at GNT Group, clean label is about consumers being able to understand and feel comfortable with everything that’s in their food and beverage products. That means familiar, reassuring ingredients described in a straightforward way.
Notably, the definition of clean label has undergone a significant shift. Dr. Dorotea Pein, Head of Product Management at Hydrosol, notes that when the term first emerged over ten years ago, the initial focus was about having as few additives or E numbers as possible.
She notes that this has since changed and that people are now focusing on the broader topic of being “free from.” In addition to clean label solutions, this also includes food that is free from ingredients, such as soy, lactose or gluten, which can cause allergic reactions or intolerances.
Proposing alternative terminology, Connie Sandusky, Global Marketing Director at DDW, The Color House, prefers the phrase “simple label.” She states that it feels like a more accurate and respectful term for the category.
“A simple label is generally defined as one on which the ingredients are recognizable or understandable by the consumer and have a ‘kitchen cupboard’ sounding origin, such as flour, salt and sugar. Clean label implies that other ingredients are dirty or unhealthy, which can easily take the category in an unintended direction,” Sandusky explains.
However, she also feels that defining the term would be too restrictive. Many ingredients may not sound “clean” to consumers but are commonly used in the food industry for creating safe, shelf-stable products – which is not always understood by consumers.
“Even if you could standardize a technical understanding of this, there would always be different interpretations of ‘clean’ based on religious and ethical beliefs or even just nutritional goals,” she continues.
“Rather than worrying about defining trends, we should be focusing on truth in labeling. This allows our diverse population to understand what is in their food and why, so they can make judgments about whether a product aligns with their own compass,” Sandusky states.
Provenance and sustainability
The clean label trend is also tied to consumers being increasingly captivated by the stories behind their F&B products. This phenomenon holds a notable influence on purchasing decisions and has resulted in companies increasingly paying attention to storytelling in branding strategies. As a result, Innova Market Insights crowned “Storytelling: Winning with Words” as its Top Trend for 2020.
“The demand for clean label is being fueled by consumers’ desire to know exactly what goes into their food products. Recognizable ingredients are increasingly important and consumers are also seeking greater transparency over where those ingredients come from. Sustainability is a big part of that – shoppers want to know their products are environmentally responsible,” explains Hendrickz of GNT.
She also notes that the company has always had a vertically integrated supply chain, which means they know precisely where their raw materials come from. “We’ve worked with our farmers over the years to control the use of pesticides and fertilizers as well as promoting sustainable practices,” she adds.
Saccani of Chr. Hansen also points to the importance of transparency and simplicity. Within her industry specifically, she explains that color impacts the way people choose food and instantly signals safe from unsafe. “Color affects our taste experience and it ensures that food is recognizable, appealing and appetizing. It provides a lot of conscious and unconscious information and influences the purchasing decision.”
Intertwined with sustainability is the plant-based revolution. Dr. Pein of Hydrosol notes that the rapidly growing demand for plant-based alternatives has also presented the industry with new challenges. As a result, the company is researching trend-oriented solutions that are free from animal proteins, but that still meet clean labeling needs. She adds that both trends will “continue to be closely linked in the future.”
Meanwhile, Hendrickx notes that while carmine – which is made from the cochineal insect and processed with chemicals – is considered to be a natural coloring within the industry, it is classified as an additive color by the EU. “With consumers paying more attention to ingredient lists, including carmine could alienate people who might otherwise purchase a product.”
The road ahead
According to Drawer of Edlong, clean label is more than just a trend. “Instead, it is part of a larger consumer movement that reflects a growing preference for healthier F&B options. Our view is that in this space, brands that best meet the consumer where they are, and where they will be, are the ones that will succeed.”
Saccani further explains that more and more manufacturers are developing ways to remove ingredients such as invert sugar, citric acid, ascorbic acid and tocopherol. “We are fully aware that the clean label movement is evolving and reshaping year after year. Manufacturers who work with us gain a partner who can anticipate market challenges and will work with them before, during and after the development process.”
Finally, Sandusky sees a “fork in the road” in the future of clean label. “In one direction, it is a gateway to bigger, more ethical eating concerns. Beyond a label, some consumers also want to know that the land was nourished, the animals treated fairly and no dolphins, birds or bees were harmed. This consumer expects a cooperative, long-term view of their food and their planet.”
“However, in the other direction, the plant-based products formulated to imitate the flavor and texture of meats, for example, often contain over 20 ingredients – many of which are unpronounceable and highly processed. To someone looking to reduce meat consumption for health or environmental reasons, these products may seem clean, but farmers and food product developers are likely just scratching their heads,” she concludes.