‘CLEAN’ LABELS –Consumers think they want them, but does anyone really know what 'CLEAN' means?
Updated: Jan 28, 2021
A conversation about food, beverage and supplement labels including the latest trends as inspired by the Spark Change virtual conference.
Since my company’s name is Behind the Label, I have wanted to build out a blog early on that tackled the topic of food labels, however there are so many ways to take the conversation that I got a little bit stuck. Then quite coincidentally, I had the opportunity to listen to a webinar last week entitled Evolving Clean Label Expectations which had several industry experts highlighting the evolution of the label over the decades, discussing current trends and providing predictions on what’s coming next. How perfect! That will be the inspiration for this blog: part webinar review and part general topic commentary with a sprinkle of nutrition perspective. Bon Appetit!
LET'S DIG IN!
This webinar was coordinated by Spark Change, formally known as the Natural Products Expo. Many folks in the food, beverage and CPG industry are familiar with this conference series held for the “natural products industry to stay informed and on the leading edge of product innovation, health and wellness content and consumer trends.” But with tradeshows canceled (thanks Covid), the Expo went virtual this year and was retitled Spark Change. Over the next couple of months, they are hosting webinars spanning a myriad of topics relevant to the industry. Evolving Clean Label Expectations, presented September 29th, 2020, was led by three industry experts:
One thing I always enjoy in a presentation is a walk down the ol’ proverbial memory lane. Tell me where the journey began (whatever that journey may be) since this provides a better lens to see where we are and where we are heading. Rob Wilson did just that by walking listeners through the evolution of labels. In the 80’s and 90’s it was all about ‘fat free’ & ‘low calorie’. Then came the labels that were focused on concepts like ‘all-natural’, ‘organic’ and ‘gluten free’. And now? ‘CLEAN’ is what is most important to consumers.
In previous decades, it was easy to define the buzz words listed above (fat-free, gluten-free, etc), but what defines a ‘clean’ label? Brilliant question… that cannot be answered since there really isn’t one agreed upon definition; the definition is in the eye of the beholder. What we can say is that at the highest level, consumers are looking for their food to:
Be made from as few ingredients as possible
Support their personal health and the health of the planet
Be ‘free from’… well, all kinds of things: sugar, GMOs, chemicals, they cannot pronounce on the label. Panera probably has the most comprehensive list out there.
Now, I have a lot of thoughts on the term, ‘clean’. It’s a bit of a pet peeve of mine. But I’ll save my thoughts on that for the end.
Mr. Wilson then dove into the trend data to explain specifically where we are seeing ‘clean’ labels as a key growth driver and also provided several examples of ‘clean’ ingredient innovations by food category i.e. preservatives, processed fruits, gums, protein and sweeteners.
Next on deck was Emma Schofield who carried on this discussion of evolution focusing on this latest ‘clean’ trend. And then she said something that made my skin crawl… “Clean is the new healthy.” And she is right, in the consumer’s eye. They rely on the food, beverage and supplement labels to tell them if a food is healthy.
IS ‘CLEAN’ THE NEW HEALTHY?
My blood pressure started to rise, for two reasons:
The thought that consumers believe/are being led to believe ‘clean’ = ‘healthy’ is just scary.
Up to this point in the webinar we had gone over some really cool trend insights, but we hadn’t paused to assess the validity of these claims. Consumers are being led to believe that ‘clean’ is healthy, but should they?
What responsibility do producers, marketers, storytellers and influencers have to communicate the evidence-based truth behind these claims? How many confer with a food scientist, registered dietitian or medical professional when developing their communication strategy? Please tell me someone is going to discuss this!?
I have to pause here and give this a little more breath. And fair warning: we are about to dive into some nutrition, history and regulatory education here. Intriguing for some, a snooze for others, important for everyone in the industry.
While ‘clean’ foods can be healthy, that is not always the case. A food label could consist of as few as three ingredients (remember part of the ‘clean’ definition, fewer ingredients = clean): potatoes, salt and oil (aka - the potato chip). Just because the words are recognizable and there are only three ingredients, that does not make this a ‘healthy’ food. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good chip and the almighty potato is a nutrient dense vegetable – but it elucidates the point. I don’t think anyone would claim the potato chip to be a ‘healthy food’.
And conversely, some ingredients may be hard to pronounce but are absolutely safe and even healthy for consumption. For example:
Alpha tocopherol: hard to say but it’s just Vitamin E that is added to foods like almond milk to boost nutrient content.
Thiamine mononitrate aka Vitamin B1. It is added to certain foods to maintain nutrient content during processing.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) actually has a huge database of all the approved substances that can be added to food. Many of them are long “chemical-ly” sounding words however vital to products to ensure optimal flavor, nutrient density, preservation ability, etc.
…How many consumers know this? Let’s take it a step further.
AND WHAT ABOUT HEALTH CLAIMS ON LABELS?
‘Clean’ ingredients are just one piece to this label puzzle. What about health claims on the labels? There are actually three categories of claims that can be used on food and beverage labels: health claims, nutrient content claims, and structure/function claims, all regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). That being said, the FDA does not have oversight when it comes to endorsements by influencers and social media. When these influencers promote specific brands and make health claims, what you end up with is an athlete, actor or Kardashian (no offense, Kylie) who more than likely is not an expert in nutrition, health or science - making assertions that a lot of people blindly believe. I don’t mean to dumb down our consumer base, but there are a certain number of assumptions the common person makes. For example, “If X is written on a label, it must be/has to be true. Surely someone in the food industry or the government would not allow untrue things to be put on a label.” In all honesty, how many of the most educated consumers, the people who tout themselves as critical, skeptical, analytical have read the 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) or the 1997 Food and Drug Administration Modernization Act (FDAMA) to truly know how their food labels are being regulated?
And supplements? Ugh, that’s a whole separate can of worms. The FDA regulates dietary supplements with a different set of regulations under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA). I still remember my jaw dropping when I learned this in grad school:
“[Supplement] manufacturers and distributors are responsible for evaluating the safety and labeling of their products. The FDA is responsible for taking action against any adulterated or misbranded dietary supplement product after it reaches the market.”
Did you catch that? One, the onus is on the manufacturer to evaluate the safety of their own product. And two, the FDA steps in only after a product reaches the market, if and only if there is an issue that comes to light. Of course, I have to make the caveat that the entirety of the supplement industry is not the Wild Wild West. There are some VERY safe brands out there following rigorous quality and safety protocols.
Alright, the nutrition policy lesson is now over.
BACK TO THE SHOW... THE WEBINAR THAT IS.
Ms. Schofield continued to discuss evolution of the label sharing the shift that trend analysists are seeing with consumers: as ‘clean’ ingredients move from a selling point to an expectation the doors have opened for a new brand strategy – ‘clean conscience’. At the highest level, consumers want their food and beverage to be good for them and good for the environment. And her recommendation?
“Producers need to turn their focus on true transparency throughout the entire supply chain in order to convincingly communicate their brand’s ‘clean’ conscience”.
OK, now my blood pressure is coming back down. This is a perfect message for this webinar’s audience to hear. Sustainability. Transparency. Full supply chain. YESSSSS.
"LET'S MAKE THIS MORE THAN A MARKETING SCHEME"
The last presenter, Dr. Rachel Chetham, really brought the conversation full circle. She took a step back and provided her 10,000-foot view of industry trends, but then took it a step further and answered that question I was longing for. These are the trends, but should they be? The concept of ‘extended producer responsibility’ is a buzz word when it comes to recycling, but I’d contend that it could be used here too. What is the responsibility of producers in communicating and educating on these trends?
One of the metatrends or “trends of the trends” that Dr. Chetham and her team at Foodscape Group is seeing is ‘plant-based’. Within the plant-based trend there are a number of sub-trends. She described them as being broken into two main groups:
Things made from plants but acting as an alternative (think meat, dairy or milk alternatives).
While I applaud EVERY sub-trend producer for providing variety, choice and health attributes for people and planet, the dietitian in me gets excited to see a focused trend in that real plant category. Why mess with perfection!
And Dr. Chetham brought up a very important point – as producers create new food alternatives, we must be cognizant of how this affects the label. So many producers, in striving to achieve a clean label, create formulations that run the risk of sacrificing nutrition. I see this so often as I geek out at the grocery store reading nutrition labels. For example: oat milk is a great alternative to dairy milk, but it does not naturally have vitamin E (remember, alpha tocopherol).
Question: Do you as the producer add vitamin E in to make it a more nutrient dense product (and similar to what you are creating an alternative to) or do you leave it out because your consumers want a ‘clean’/simple ingredient list?
Answer: Sorry, there isn’t a clear cut one. But it’s something brands should be discussing, researching their target audiences and then making their decision.
Dr. Chetham’s recommendations?
• Leverage plant based AND ‘clean’ label together in the same product
• Carefully consider nutrition attributes
• Share a creative, compelling, and credible (evidence based!) story
Can we say that last one again, please?! Let's base brand claims and storytelling not on a marketing pipedream, but on what science and research have proven.
TO WRAP IT UP
I would have loved to engage with the speakers about the term ‘clean’ but it was something not covered in this webinar. I am supportive of simplified ingredient lists, a turn toward plant-based eating, supporting sustainable sourcing practices… but why is this called ‘CLEAN’? Eating ‘clean’ implies that that there is something else… eating dirty, or that part of your diet is unclean’. A dietitian blogger who I love to read, Abby Langer said it so eloquently:
“Nobody eats ‘clean’ food every single day, and a nourishing diet has a variety of foods. Even ones that you might not consider to be ‘clean’. The ‘clean’ eating wellness culture thing is also a highly privileged way of life. So, by using the word ‘‘clean’’, what are you saying about those who can’t afford to eat that way?”
Interesting food for thought, right? What else could we call it? SIMPLE LABELING? CLEAR LABELING?… Alright, it’s obvious that I am not a marketing guru. So, we can task someone else to come up with a better word to describe this movement.