Campbell Soup, Kellogg, Nestle and many other major food and beverage companies have committed to removing artificial ingredients from popular products in the past year. Clean label is no longer a trend — it’s the rule, according to Innova Market Insights, Arnhem, The Netherlands. But what does it mean to be “clean”?
Perceptions of so-called “natural” products and ingredients vary among consumers, creating challenges for product developers.
“Oftentimes we have to really understand from the customer what they’re defining as natural, and they in turn are driven by what their end consumers are calling or considering natural,” said Ross White, applications manager for nutrition in the Americas region at FMC Health and Nutrition, a global supplier of naturally derived ingredients for food and beverage companies. “When we look at clean label, that might limit the ingredients available to modify texture and taste, simply because customers are interested in only seeing certain ingredients on their finished label.”
Three-fourths of consumers in the United States claim to read the nutritional and ingredient labels of food products, and nearly as many “strongly agree” it is important for food labels to contain mostly recognizable ingredients. Ninety-one per cent of U.S. consumers believe food and beverage options with recognizable ingredients are healthier, according to Innova.
Growing claims on products include organic, which was in 7.4% of 2014 global product launches, no hormones or antibiotics, which appeared in 4.8% of 2014 global yogurt launches and 6% of poultry introductions, and non-G.M.O., which was featured on 3.3% of global product launches in 2014, up from 2.4% in 2013, according to Innova.
One in 10 new products launched last year in the United States had an “organic” claim, and new products launched globally with a “G.M.O.-free” positioning grew more than 40% in 2014 with no signs of slowing, Innova said.
“It’s not just about slapping a claim on a product, but consumers are increasingly trying to be health-conscious and informed about what they eat,” said Yasemin Ozdemir, market analyst for Innova, during a July presentation at the Institute of Food Technologists’ annual meeting and food exposition. “What’s in the product? Once they know what is in there and feel that companies are being transparent, then they feel it is trustworthy. It’s a good way for the packaged food industry to regain trust…”
The trust factor
The demand for transparency has given rise to distrust of large food companies, said Denise Morrison, president and c.e.o. of the Campbell Soup Co., Camden, N.J., during a presentation in February.
“We are seeing an explosion of interest in fresh foods, dramatically increased focus by consumers on the effects of food on their health and well-being and mounting demands for transparency from food companies about where and how their products are made, what ingredients are in them and how these ingredients are produced,” she said.
The trend has fueled explosive growth in the natural and organic segment. By 2020, sales of natural and organic food are expected to represent nearly 14% of total food sales.
“For a long time, natural and organic was 1%, 2%, 3%, so we’re finally making some critical mass in terms of total food sales, and that’s expected to accelerate as more food companies and big retailers start to get more into natural, organic and healthy foods,” said Carlotta Mast, executive director of content and insights at New Hope Natural Media, during a presentation at Natural Products Expo West in March.
What do consumers want?
A legal perspective
Marketers planning to make clean label claims should be aware of the legal issues surrounding them, said David L. TerMolen, partner and member of the food industry team at the Chicago law firm Freeborn & Peters L.L.P.
“The riskiest claims are those that imply a product is healthy or wholesome,” Mr. TerMolen said in a July interview with Food Business News. “Nutella was the target of a class-action lawsuit because the product was touted as being made with wholesome and simple ingredients ‘like hazelnut, skim milk and a hint of cocoa’ and ‘an example of a tasty yet balanced breakfast.’… The lawsuit complained this was misleading because they implied that Nutella was healthy and wholesome even though the product Nutella contains 10.9 grams of added sugar and 2 grams of saturated fat per serving.”
Many food and beverage marketers have started using such terms as “artisan,” “clean,” “earth friendly,” “local,” “pure” and “simple” on product packages and web sites. But like the now highly scrutinized term “natural,” the use of these descriptors may carry risks.
“Natural claims came under such heavy fire because many food companies gave the term a broad meaning while class-action attorneys and activists had room to argue a much narrower meaning,” Mr. TerMolen said. “In other words, problems may arise when broad statements are used in questionable contexts. Accordingly, food companies must understand their product, its ingredients and its processing so labeling statements narrowly tailor claims to properly reflect the product.”
Describing a juice product as “100% pure” or “simply” juice, for example, may be risky if the product has been reconstituted or moderately processed.
“Likewise, the statement “made with five simple ingredients” should be avoided if one of those ingredients might not be considered simple, such as high-fructose corn syrup,” Mr. TerMolen said. “In contrast, labeling a granola with the statement as ‘simply almonds, whole grain oats, crisped rice and honey’ is generally without risk if those are its only ingredients.”
Menus are changing
Challenges in product development
With every announcement a company has reformulated products to provide a natural or clean label positioning there are days’, weeks’ and months’ worth of work behind the scenes to ensure the only noticeable changes are on the ingredients listing. The list of companies adopting a clean label positioning is growing rapidly. What started as an effort by small- and medium-size companies to differentiate has now spread to some of the largest consumer packaged goods companies and to major food service operators.
Developing products with simple ingredients is hardly simple, however.
“The first thing you as a developer have to understand is how do they define clean label,” said Kent Crosby, technical support manager for Sensient Flavors, Hoffman Estates, Ill. “Some may want natural ingredients and others may only want ingredients consumers have in their pantry. How they define clean label has an effect.”
There is also a question of cost vs. function, said Jean Shieh, marketing manager of savory flavors for Sensient.
“With any change you have to keep the experience and the profile,” she said. “We really have to work closely with customers to understand their needs and goals.”
Moreover, achieving a clean label becomes even trickier when aligning with other consumer health trends, such as low-fat, high-protein or gluten-free. Some consumers may forgive slight differences in color or appearance, but a product ultimately must appeal to the senses. Products with simple ingredients may have a shorter shelf life, too.
“It’s not impossible to move toward cleaner labels, and in many cases we can as we start to understand how people define it, but certainly it does create some challenges in what’s ultimately feasible in terms of maintaining the same quality and delivering the same finished food that they might be used to today,” Mr. White said.
Not all brands and products are fit to make clean label claims. Consider Hershey Co., with its spate of iconic confectionery products. The company announced earlier in the year plans to transition to easy-to understand ingredients in some of its products, including Hershey’s Kisses and Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Bars.
“We realize that not everything is going to be easy or possible, and we’re going to communicate that really transparently with our consumers,” said Laura Renaud, associate manager of corporate communications for Hershey, during an interview in May with Food Business News. “The example we like to give is Jolly Rancher. The really vibrant, bright colors are signature to that brand, and right now, it’s really hard to get that color with non-artificial coloring.”
Product formulation challenges
Clean label 2.0?
A key question surrounding the clean label trend that has taken hold is, where is it going? Food and beverage companies are working to establish footholds in a variety of categories, whether it is natural, organic, non-G.M.O., etc. Lauren Williams, marketing manager for Sensient’s beverage business, said the clean label trend will be dictated by consumer education.
“Consumers today have resources at their fingertips that make it easy for them to learn about the food they eat,” she said. “There is a wealth of information about how food gets to them. As they learn more about what they eat, the ingredients used and how those ingredients are processed, that information will shape the products they want.”
The next phase of the clean label phenomenon may resemble a recent move by The Beech-Nut Nutrition Co., which said in May it had started listing the percentage of each ingredient for its entire line of jar and pouch baby food products on its web site.
Increasing numbers of consumers are seeking more transparency from the food and beverage industry and shunning artificial ingredients, according to Packaged Facts, Rockville, Md. Eighty-seven per cent of Americans look at the Nutrition Facts Panel on packaged foods and beverages at least sometimes, while more than half (56%) actively seek out nutritional information and guidelines, the market research firm said.
“All parents want the best for their babies, and they want to know exactly what they are eating,” said Jeff Boutelle, president of Beech-Nut. “We don’t want parents to worry about the foods they’re feeding their babies, which is why we’re sharing our recipes.”