Clean label is non-negotiable – but what does it mean?

10 Nov 2019

Food brands once were able to stand out on shelf by avoiding artificial ingredients and highlighting natural ones. Now this approach is common, but while the concept of clean label may have entered the mainstream, there is still confusion about what matters most to consumers.

Part of the problem for food manufacturers is that the concept of ‘clean label’ has never been properly defined. Indeed, it is primarily an industry term, with other vaguely defined words like ‘natural’ and ‘healthy’ more widely used among consumers. In the European Union, flavourings are the only ingredients subject to an official definition of the word natural.

Clean label is non-negotiable – but what does it mean?
Clean labels still offer an opportunity to differentiate

Ingredient suppliers have done their own research into what clean label means to consumers, with some surprising results. A recent global poll from Kerry, for instance, found that 48% of respondents rated nutrition as more important than taste. That is what they say at least, but their assertion has not been demonstrated; the fact remains that if a product does not taste good, the chance of repeat purchase is low, no matter what consumers might say. Kerry suggests that consumers do actually expect food to be tasty, but they now are less willing to trade nutrition for taste. That is, they believe healthy food can be delicious too.

Despite the mainstreaming of clean label foods and drinks over the past several years, it is still possible for manufacturers to differentiate themselves in this regard. Clean label must go beyond the removal of artificial flavours, colours and preservatives – although this is usually an important step – and take into account other ideas associated with purity and naturalness. Kerry’s research suggests an ongoing shift from unacceptable ingredients toward ingredients that have a definite purpose in a food or beverage, whether functionally (like fish oil or probiotics) or in terms of their inherent nutrition (like wholegrains or seeds).

According to a recent global survey from ingredient supplier Beneo, consumers also are combining their other priorities under the clean label umbrella. It found that low sugar is linked to natural products for 39% of respondents, while ‘pure taste’ (44%) and food safety (40%) were also top expectations.

Ethical claims have become a mainstay of clean label products, too. According to Mintel, more than one in five (22%) new foods and drinks launched in the year to August 2017 made ethical or environmental claims, up from just one per cent a decade earlier. Kerry’s research found 41% of consumers prefer to buy ethical products, rising to 52% among Millennials, while locally produced foods were also a top priority for 69% of respondents.

This fits with Innova Market Insights’ description of the trend as ‘clear label’ rather than ‘clean label’, which it has been using for a few years now. This refers to consumers’ desire for transparency, encompassing everything from what is in the product, to how the ingredients are sourced, to the kind of packaging used.

For manufacturers, the idea of ‘clean label’ may be difficult to define, but for consumers, it generally translates as meaning they can buy a product with a clear conscience. Deciding what will achieve that aim should be straightforward – as long as product developers begin by considering their target consumers’ core values.