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Clean Label

Ingredients and So Much More

By Karen Proper

In the early to mid-2000s, “light” and “fat-free” foods took the centre stage for a brief period of time.  Consumers demanded products that were lower in calories and fat – and the industry delivered.  These products did not provide the sensory qualities consumers expected. Consumers were unwilling to sacrifice so-called healthier options for a compromised taste and eating experience. Light and fat-free foods faded from the spotlight, waiting for the next trend to take their place.

This scenario does not seem to ring true for the clean label trend.  In fact, the term “clean label” has been a hot topic of discussion in North America since at least 2011 and continues to gain momentum.  The term is not defined by government regulations and as a result has morphed into a mega-trend fueled by consumer perceptions.  Consumers are reading labels, seeking out products with specific ingredients, or the absence of specific ingredients, and making an investment in healthy eating.

Humble Beginnings to Extraordinary Heights

In the humble beginnings of the clean label trend, the removal of artificial colours, flavours and ingredients was enough to satisfy food-savvy consumers.  Kraft Heinz removed all synthetic colours, flavours and preservatives from its iconic macaroni and cheese meal to make the product more “natural.”  Hershey’s Chocolate Kisses, Campbell’s soups, Taco Bell tacos, Pizza Hut pizzas, Subway sandwiches and General Mills cereals underwent a similar transformation in response to consumer demands for clean label products.  Brands highlighted these product differences by boasting “free-from” claims on their labels or through advertising campaigns.  Consumers were heartened by these forward steps and their appetite for clean food products was satiated for a short time.

But what about those hard-to-pronounce and difficult-to-understand ingredients such as propylene glycol alginate, autolyzed yeast extract and calcium disodium EDTA?  Forget the science, the rigorous regulatory approval process and functionality of these ingredients – “Surely, if the ingredients are not recognizable, they could not be good for you” was the general conclusion of consumers.  In response, North American food service and retail grocery store chains including Whole Foods, Panera, Trader Joe’s, Aldi, H-E-B and Kroger developed respective lists of unacceptable ingredients not permissible in the food sold by their stores or restaurants.   These expansive lists often identified more than 100 ingredients that were once commonplace, but were now prohibited in their foods. 

As might be expected, the perception of “clean label” soon expanded to include shorter ingredient lists.  Non-essential ingredients were removed to simplify ingredient declarations and new products were developed using a limited number of ingredients.  Nestle was up to the challenge and in 2016 introduced Boost Simply Complete – a nutritional beverage highlighting the fact that the product was made with fewer ingredients and no artificial colours, flavours or sweeteners.  Likewise, this year, Nestle overhauled its Nestea iced tea beverages to possess only four ingredients:  water, sugar, tea and citric acid.

Natural colours, flavours and limited use of additives became more commonplace in our food supply.  Consumers, led by the Millennial generation, continued to read labels, prioritize healthy eating and engage in social media and discussions about food.  They understood what was no longer in their food – now they wanted to know what was in their food.  The term “clean label” was positioned for growth once again.  A demand for transparency took root.  Consumers called for information about sustainability, processing and the origin of food ingredients.  Recognizing an opportunity to strengthen trust with its consumers, Dannon pledged to change how it makes yogurt.  It committed to including the use of more natural ingredients, voluntarily labelling GMO ingredients (with a loftier goal of removing them entirely) and partnering with suppliers and family farms to adopt sustainable agricultural practices and improve animal welfare – because, to quote Dannon, “what’s important to you, is important to us.” 

Over the years, “clean label” has become bigger than the demand for natural ingredients in food products.  Millennials are looking to food as a pillar for health, longevity and wellness, triggering a revolution in the way consumers think about food.  Companies are reformulating products to appeal to these ever-expanding consumer demands.  The term “clear label” aptly describes how the trend has evolved to achieve greater summits and the performance is far from over.

Karen Proper is Technical Manager, Product & Process Development, Consulting and Technical Services, NSF International

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