Coming Clean on Clean Labels: Food for Thought

Consumers are turning to healthier options when they dine out or shop at the grocery. Wellness is now a driving force behind many consumers’ buying decisions. McKinsey found that almost 80% of consumers view wellness as important, with half of those considering it a top priority. The company estimates the global wellness market at $1.5 trillion and expects it to grow between 5% and 10% every year. Clean labels and ingredient transparency are strategies that food brands can use to differentiate products from competitors in an increasingly crowded wellness market. 

It turns out that the adage “we are what we eat” is true and more consumers are demonstrating their commitment to nutrition and wellness with every buying decision. The clean label foods and ingredients market will reach $51.14 billion by 2024. However, there is no legal definition for what clean label food is and the concept of “healthy” often resides in the eye of the beholder. Placing perceived health and well-being benefits on labels is no longer enough as more shoppers study the exact composition of a product’s ingredients and its providence before making a buying decision. For healthy food brands that want to join in on the clean label movement, we will look at what the concept means and what to consider before adopting a clean label strategy for your products. 

Key Takeaways:

  • Consumers are the primary driving force behind the clean label movement and expect brands to list ingredients used in their products clearly
  • There is no legal definition of what makes a product’s label clean, but brands can adopt techniques based on the latest consumer research
  • Clean label food certification is possible, but consumer awareness and education should be the priority for brands that want to attract health-conscious buyers

What is the Clean Label Movement?

Clean-label food is a consumer-driven trend that calls for the transparent labeling of ingredients on all products. Restaurants, food manufacturers, and retailers are returning to natural ingredients that are easy to pronounce, understand, and recognize. Consumers favor natural and familiar ingredients over synthetic chemicals and artificial flavors, leading to brands establishing lists of “no-go” items for their recipes. The lack of a legal definition of clean labels and given it relies on the consumer’s perceptions mean different brands have their own approaches to highlight what ingredients are (or are not) contained in a product. There is also sometimes confusion in the food and beverage industry where shoppers may not understand the difference between clean-label food, non-GMO, natural, and organic products. 

Examples of food labels and certifications that consumers may confuse with clean labels

Image Courtesy of Uncle Matts

The differences between these labels are:

  • Clean label – This could mean no artificial coloring, fewer ingredients, items that are recognizable as healthy, or a list of items not present in the product
  • Non-GMO – Currently, the Non-GMO Project provides a standard for the verification that no genetically modified ingredients or crops are present in the product
  • Natural – Usually refers to non-synthetic products or items that do not contain artificial colors, but it has no legal definition according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration
  • Organic – Provides a certification from the USDA that verifies items are non-GMO, contain no artificial ingredients, and are produced without exposure to prohibited pesticides

What are Clean Label Certifications?

The Clean Label Project provides certifications for brands by testing products for purity and verifying items are safe according to the California Office of Environmental Health and Hazard Assessment’s (OEHHA) Proposition 65. As there is no federal law that governs clean labels, the use of Proposition 65 enables the Clean Label Project to create benchmarks for chemicals of concern such as heavy metals, residues, plasticizers, and pesticides. Brands can request testing of their products from the Clean Label Project and receive a certification if they comply with the requirements. Categories of products include food, beverages, baby, health and fitness, as well as personal care and pet foods. 

Although other certification bodies exist, the Clean Label Project continues to develop new standards and runs information campaigns to educate consumers. Their Coming Clean Project hosts regular podcasts that interview leaders in the food industry and experts about so-called “forever chemicals” like poly fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). This is important because:

  • These chemicals are common in industrial applications and are now present at elevated levels in food and the environment
  • Continued exposure to these chemicals can lead to harmful effects on humans and animals
  • The EPA continues to study thousands of different PFAS compounds to determine their effects on human and animal health

Four types of PFAS compounds that should not be present in clean label foods

Image Courtesy of C & EN

Features that Make a Clean Label in the Food Industry

Although the FDA provides labeling requirements for prepared foods, there is no standard template for clean labels. Food manufacturers have to follow their own best guess as to how a consumer will view a product’s label and determine if it is clean. There are some general features to consider for designing clean labels to communicate with your customers. The International Food Information Service (IFIS) lists negative and positive approaches to clean labels. They also recommend not using E-numbers on products and instead naming the compounds such as natural acids and vitamins that are present. 

Additionally, clean labels should:

  • Have a short and simple list of all the ingredients along with any nutritional values using recognizable language
  • Focus on providing absolute transparency by naming all the ingredients and designing see-through packaging for improved trust
  • Use “clean” language that supports claims like “100% Natural” or “Real Fruit” combined with phrases of the chemicals, preservatives, or ingredients that are not present
  • Use symbols and natural images or include any certifications that underpin the quality and purity of the products

Catch Up with the Latest Clean Label and Healthy Food Trends with SIAL America

For brands that want to attract new health-conscious consumers, using clean labels on food is vital to building trust between your products and shoppers. At SIAL America, you can see how the best food and beverage brands in the world are keeping up with consumer demand and succeeding in the constantly evolving, consumer-centric landscape. 

If you would like to keep up with the latest developments in clean labels, register to attend our next event or sign up for our Flavorful newsletter.