Clean living: the ever-shifting definition of clean label

14 Mar 2018

The definition of clean label has expanded to include ‘free from’ – not just in terms of allergens, but also meat-free, GM-free or palm oil-free. How can food and drink companies keep up?

Clean living: the ever-shifting definition of clean label
Clean label now includes free from

Manufacturers have been striving to answer consumer demand for natural, clean label products – but a definition is difficult to pin down. Originally, the clean label movement was about simplified ingredient lists, and removing artificial ingredients. This was challenging enough, considering that European regulators have no definition of what is natural and what is not, except in relation to flavourings.

These days, the definition of clean label goes well beyond preservative-free, or even allergen-free. It encompasses a notion of wholesomeness, minimal processing and home pantry ingredients. A clean label is one that a consumer can translate into a broader concept of clean living.

What is certain is that the drive toward clean label ingredient lists is here to stay, but the idea continues to be refined. ‘Natural’ claims have fallen in recent years, while the number of new products carrying a ‘free from’ claim more than quadrupled from 2012 to 2017, according to Mintel data. Claims have become more specific too: about a third of new products launched from September 2016 to August 2017 claimed to be organic, or free of additives, preservatives, or GMOs – up from 17% a decade earlier.

Ethical claims soar

Meanwhile, more than one in five products (22%) made ethical or environmental claims during the same period, up from just one per cent in 2006-2007.

Innova Market Insights refers to ‘clear’ labels, meaning transparency about what is in the product as well as how the ingredients are sourced. The problem for manufacturers is that what consumers consider acceptable is highly subjective. Quite apart from natural vs. synthetic, any attribute could be considered, from animal welfare, to the kind of packaging, to where ingredients are obtained. For the consumer, often a ‘clear’ label means a clear conscience.

However, while the claims themselves continue to proliferate, there is still little data on whether such claims make a big difference to consumers’ purchasing decisions. Shoppers say they want more sustainable and ethically produced foods, but this doesn’t necessarily translate into action. Taste, price and nutrition remain consumers’ biggest purchase drivers.