Making Sense Of The Clean Label Concept

Over the past few years, consumers have been looking more and more for products with cleaner label. That trend has been a wake-up call for the food industry to create or re-formulate products that fit in with the wants of consumers.

Mnet 156080 Clean Label Outside Listing

Clean label is here to stay. As stated by Lu Ann Williams of Innova Market Insights: “It’s not really a trend anymore, it’s the new rules of the game.” Over the past few years, consumers have been looking more and more for products with cleaner labels. It has been a wake-up call for the food industry to create or re-formulate products that fit in with the wants of consumers. This desire for cleaner label might also go in pair with actions undertaken by governmental authorities to help customers better understand what they are exactly consuming, such as the new Nutrition Facts Label set by the FDA.

Mnet 156079 Lascom Clean Label Infographic Inside

How To Define Clean Label?

It is difficult to clearly define clean label, as it is a concept that incorporates different trends. Clean label can have different meaning from one customer to another. It will depend on a consumer's own expectations, wants and perceptions. Even companies have difficulty in interpreting the exact meaning of clean label. A Decision Analyst survey shows that nearly 60 percent of the respondents are aware of “clean label” products but do not fully understand the exact meaning.

However, clean label often refers to the number of ingredients in a product and their countries of origin. Consumers are paying more attention to the label, list of ingredients, nutritional value and claims. This concept also includes whether the supply chain follows ethical rules, and if a company is socially responsible. Therefore, clean label encompasses a broad range of concepts from transparency, all-natural, organic, non-GMO and free-form, to locally grown.

According to a 2017 Nielsen study, sales of “clean” products keep rising compared to traditional product sales. Clean label represents 33 percent of the total food and beverage market, 1.2 percent higher than in 2015.

Who Buys Products With Clean Label? Why Is It Important To Know?

Income level and age group play major roles in determining whether a person is more likely to purchase clean label products. However, millennials are clearly driving this shift.

Millennials, those born between 1977 and 1994, account for 24 percent of the U.S. population and represent the largest generational group. They are in their active years, which means they have money to spend. They are also a tech-savvy generation, so they have any information at their fingertips. They can look up ingredients, compare products and look at product reviews on their mobile devices.

Therefore, it is important to understand who are buying these “clean” products to better tailor product innovation, re-formulation and marketing strategies.

Are Companies Embracing The Clean Label Concept?

Some companies have successfully embraced the clean label concept. In 2015, Kraft Heinz re-formulated its Macaroni and Cheese, without telling consumers for months. To keep the recognizable orange color of its product, they removed artificial colors and preservatives, and replaced them with paprika, annatto and turmeric, which themselves have health benefits. Nestle is also adapting to this new consumers’ preferences. It has unveiled a new chocolate bar which uses an innovative sugar reduction technique, without altering the taste. Indeed, for existing products, it is important for manufacturers to move towards “cleaner” products, without compromising the taste.

More recently, Red Bull has launched a new line of products. Only available in two regions in the U.S., this organic soda line is another example of how companies are embracing the clean label concept.

Food and beverage manufacturers are clearly interested in re-formulating products or innovating in order to be more appealing to consumers who want cleaner products.

How To Make Clean Label Products?

Here are four simple steps that food and beverage manufacturers can take to achieve “cleaner” products:

Step 1 – Shorten the ingredients list

Consumers see products with a shorter ingredients list as “cleaner.” However, it is challenging to formulate or re-formulate products with fewer ingredients. It can take months of work to make sure that the ingredient list is the only noticeable change to a product. Even though consumers are looking for a shorter ingredient list, they are expecting products to taste good. In the case of re-formulation, it is even more challenging as they are expecting newly re-formulated products to taste the same. Having fewer ingredients can also mean a shorter shelf life. Therefore, it is a tricky game to balance consumer wants and needs with the actual feasibility of formulation — but it is not impossible.

First, manufacturers should have a better understanding of what “clean label” means for their consumers. For instance, are they looking for only natural flavors and colors, or recognizable ingredient names? Then, businesses can take the necessary steps to meet those expectations, such as communicating the ingredients consumers do not recognize and perceive as harmful, finding more natural alternatives or removing certain ingredients such as artificial colors.

Step 2 – Replace artificial ingredients with natural alternatives

The clean label movement has reinforced the demand for simplicity and higher quality ingredients. Artificial ingredients, such as artificial flavors, are not popular among consumers who are looking for clean label products. Some example of natural alternatives include:

  • Acerola: it is a great source of vitamin A & C, and antioxidants, which can replace chemically synthesized vitamins and minerals.
  • Lemon juice concentrate and tartaric acid: these two ingredients are natural acidifiers, which can replace other acidity regulators such as citric acid E330.
  • Stevia and agave: both are popular substitutes for sugar or other artificial sweeteners.
  • Turmeric, beets, carrots and spirulina: such ingredients are used to replace artificial food colors. They are even more interesting since they have health benefits in addition to their distinct colors.
  • Flours of flaxseed, chia seed and tiger nut: these natural ingredients interest manufacturers because of their emulsifier role. They could replace ingredients such as mono and di-glycerides.

Step 3 – Make simple and clear packaging

The clean label movement also affects packaging materials and design. For instance, in recent years, there was concern about packaging containing bisphenol-A (BPA). As a reaction to market demands for safer packaging, most companies have replaced their packaging for BPA-free containers. In 2018, it is believed that 90 percent of food cans are made with new non-BPA linings.

Regarding front-of-package labeling and design, it is also important to convey the clean label concept. The wording used on product packaging can help consumers make a purchasing decision. As mentioned above, different trends are included in the clean label concept, such as “gluten-free,” “non-GMO,” “organic" and “all-natural”. Consumers are more likely to perceive a product with these claims displayed on the packaging, as a clean label product.

Step 4 – Implement sustainable practices

Clean label is not just about the ingredient lists or what is advertised on a packaging — it also refers to a product’s impacts on the environment and people. Consumers are becoming more aware of companies’ practices, and have high expectations on how businesses handle their product development. Corporate sustainability and responsibility are essential for consumers to assess the quality of a product. Every aspect is important, from ingredient sourcing, fair labor practices, animal welfare and pollution, to manufacturing practices. Therefore, manufacturers should strive for increased transparency of their entire supply chain.

The clean label concept is shifting from the label to processing. Research & development, quality and marketing teams are essential to developing new products or re-formulating existing one. They play a major role in innovation. However in order to successfully embrace the clean label concept, they need the appropriate support in place.

About Lascom

For nearly 30 years, Lascom Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) software has supported the Food & Beverage manufacturers and retailers with their product development. Lascom solution offers a modular software that facilitates decision-making, streamlines new product development and speeds up time-to-market, while enhancing collaboration across each department, from marketing, R&D, quality to compliance. Lascom is the essential partner for the Food & Beverage industry.

More in Labeling