The drive toward cleaner labels – meaning fewer and more recognisable ingredients – has been the food industry megatrend of the past decade. Industry has sometimes struggled to understand how consumers define the concept, especially as food companies and consumers have tended to use different terminology.
“One thing that is clear is that it is important to consumers,”
said Dr Rachel Cheatham, Founder of Foodscape Group, speaking at the recent Fi Europe CONNECT event.
She explained that while clean label was an industry term, consumers were far more likely to talk about ‘eating clean’, referring to concepts like simplicity, naturalness and organics. Some are linking it with the pandemic, she added, as more people are cooking from scratch and even growing their own food, bringing them back to simple foods and ingredients.
Clean = transparent
Innova Market Insights also has mentioned clean label in relation to Covid-19, picking ‘Transparency Triumphs’ as one of its top ten trends of 2021. The market researcher was among the first to relate the clean label concept to the idea of transparency, when it picked ‘clear label’ as one of its top trends for 2015. Now, in light of the pandemic, it says consumers want transparency about what is in their food, as well as its origins and how it is produced.
According to its Innova Consumer Survey 2020, six in ten global consumers said they were concerned about where their food comes from. The market researcher has said that food safety and reassurance about supply chains had gained in importance during the health crisis, while welfare issues, plant-based nutrition and sustainable sourcing also are linked to the idea of transparency and clean label.
Cheatham links the clean label trend with sustainability too, and with the drive toward more plant-based eating.
“There is this overlap between plant-based eaters and clean label,”
she said, quoting research from Next, which found 51% of self-described clean label consumers tried to eat a largely plant-based diet compared to just 12% of non-clean label consumers.
Balancing nutrition and simplicity
For many label-conscious consumers, what is not on the label is even more important than what is on the label.
“Clean label often gets distilled down to the number of ingredients. For better or for worse it can simply come down to the number.”
She said that the ‘for worse’ part is because even important vitamins and minerals add numbers to the ingredient list.
“As a nutritionist, I think it’s really important to consider the vitamins…It’s not always the case that a consumer really grasps that even though the ingredient list is a little longer, maybe these are ingredients you would actually want, to keep some of the nutrition present in the product.”
She added that it is crucial to consider the balance between maintaining nutritional value and simpler, cleaner ingredient lists.
An evolving concept
“There is really arguably a consumer for every product,” she said, “So it becomes important to really understand what your target consumer cares about most.”
While there is currently a strong focus on meat and dairy alternatives, Cheatham says the clean label conversation is relevant to every food and beverage category, and even in dietary supplements, although the emphasis will be different in each sector.
“Clean label is not going away; it is evolving,” she said. “We are in an unusual time with a global pandemic and so many changes happening, but it’s simply evolving, so don’t get left behind...The goal really is to find opportunities and ways to combine plant-based ingredients, sustainability with clean label all together and that will surely be a product win.”