Clean Label: What it Means for Processors & Manufacturers
The “clean label phenomenon” has evolved from a trend to an established classification for both consumers and food processors. The definition of what makes a food or beverage “clean label” has also altered over the past several years.
The continued efforts to formulate packaged foods and beverages with consumer-friendly ingredients is growing globally. Its influence can be seen in all segments of the packaged foods industry. In fact, according to Mindy Hermann, MBA, RDN, Innova Market Insights, clean label formerly meant organic, natural, no additives, vegan, and free from preservatives. Today, this is no longer true.
In a Clean Label Conference presentation, Hermann noted that the classification of clean label has become more well-defined. It has expanded to include minimally processed, dairy alternatives, meat substitutes, and sugar/salt/fat reformulations, as well as all the above attributes.
Consumer Awareness Fuels the Clean Label Movement
“Today, human and animal welfare, supply chain transparency, sustainably sourced, and plant-based nutrition are top contenders that define this space,” suggested Hermann. Ethical claims, including animal and environmental, also are rising in importance, and plant-based claims are up 68% from 2014 to 2021. (Innova’s database contains 130 million records; 500,000+ products from 90 countries are added each year.)
Hermann noted emerging claims now include natural, gluten-free, BPA-free, and non-GMO. “Consumers consider ’gluten-free’ to be a clean claim; ‘BPA-free’ is a clean claim in the environmental space.”
Consumer perceptions about the healthfulness and safety of additives and other food components are a major driving force in the formulation of products. More recent survey data gathered by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) showed consumers’ ingredient awareness is on the rise. Anthony Flood, Sr. Director, Ingredient Communications, IFIC, emphasized this point in a webinar titled “Consumer Perception of Food Ingredients,” presented in a 2021 Clean Label Webinar.
Clean Label and “Negative” Ingredients
Growing consumer demand for clean label foods and beverages has caused the entire industry to develop more clean label offerings. From ingredient suppliers, to grocery chains, to food manufacturers, the number of clean label launches has doubled in the last 10 years and is expected to continue growing at a fast pace, stated Philippe Rousset, Ph.D., Global Clean Label Strategic Network Leader at the Nestlé Product Technology Center, in Orbe, Switzerland.
The concept of creating “simple” clean label products is one thing. In reality, the processes needed to create those products is not at all simplistic. Consider an entire food & beverage portfolio of existing products—and developing “clean” versions of everything. Customers expect products to conform to a company’s brand in sensory profile, cost, functionality, and shelf life—but they need to be produced with traceable, sustainably sourced, and recognizable ingredients. This is no easy feat.
Retailers have developed “negative lists” which contain so-called “forbidden ingredients” for a range of products that might be on their private labels. Touting the benefits of products that do not contain forbidden ingredients helps many retailers promote their own private labels. Kroger, for example, has strict requirements for its line of natural, organic Simple Truth® private label, with more than 100 undesirable ingredients listed. Whole Foods created a list of “unacceptable ingredients” that essentially paved the way for everyone else with regard to unacceptable food ingredients.
Grocery shopping online has also changed to accommodate consumers’ clean label desires. Raley’s has created various symbols to indicate foods with specific attributes, like vegan or no added sugar. Consumers can use the categories to filter their food choices when doing online shopping.
Food manufacturers, in a similar and more limited way, have committed to move towards cleaner label products. The rising demand for clean label has inevitably made its way down to the ingredient supplier level. “Ingredient suppliers have started to develop a range of clean label ingredients and additives with the functionality needed to replace existing artificial additives,” commented Nestlé’s Rousset.
Just as consumers tend to avoid certain ingredients, they also seek out others. There is no regulated definition for “superfoods,” but they are generally thought to be foods that contain high levels of desirable nutrients (think blueberries, avocadoes). Popular superfood ingredients that can be incorporated into a “clean” ingredient profile also include green tea, kale, cinnamon, coconut oil, and ginger.
Conclusion: Formulation Challenges
The growth of the clean label concept spans different demographics—all of whom have their own concerns and specific nutrition/food purchasing needs. Food processors need to examine consumer drivers and address the varied food formulation challenges when contemplating a shift to clean label formulation. In our next blog, we’ll take a look at some of those formulation challenges and how to address them.