Clean Label: Consumers vs Industry

Originally Published: October 6, 2016
Last Updated: February 9, 2021
How are consumers defining clean label? Are clean label products GMO-free, fair trade, 100% natural without chemicals?

What are Consumers Saying, and What is the Industry Doing?

October 6, 2016 – Clean label is like art or—recalling the Supreme Court’s infamous discussion on obscenity—like pornography. “You know it when you see it,” said Tom Vierhile, Innovation Insights Director of Canadean, in his 2016 Clean Label Conference presentation.

Vierhile shared results from Canadean surveys of roughly 50,000 respondents across 47 countries in 2015. When asked, “What does the term ‘clean label’ mean to you?” respondents’ most popular answer wasn’t surprising: 45% of American consumers said they don’t know. However some 30% associated it with “free from artificial ingredients,” while 29% credited natural/organic claims. Roughly a quarter identified no pesticides/chemicals/toxins, minimally processed and free from allergens. One fifth said no GMOs, and 17% answered “simple/short ingredient list.”

“For marketers of ingredients and consumer packaged goods, [this means] if you use verbiage like ‘clean label,’ consumers aren’t going to know what it means,” Vierhile said. Even more interesting is the breakdown of responses by age. Young respondents think they know clean label best, while older demographics don’t. The top responses by each age group also show that clean label means different things to each segment.

For 18-34-year-olds, it’s about natural/organic claims. The 35-44 segment agrees but also scores high for minimal processing. Every segment at 45 and above most often said “free from artificial ingredients.”


When asked, “What does the term ‘clean label’ mean to you?” 45% of U.S.- based survey respondents said they don’t know. This shows the “don’t know” response by age, suggesting older consumers are most flummoxed by the clean label concept.

Click for downloadable pdf of Chart.

“A majority of U.S. consumers really don’t want to pay a premium for clean label,” Vierhile added. “That’s something all age groups agree with.” The most generous
segment is 18-24-year-olds, with nearly 40% of them willing to pay 1-5% more, but they’re also the most cash-strapped, according to Vierhile.

A survey targeting U.S. consumers shows they consider terms like fresh (72%), natural (65%) and organic (58%) as meaning more nutritious, while GMOs are less nutritious. When broken down by age, 33% of 18-to-24-year-olds consider GMOs significantly less nutritious, and that percentage drops to about 25% for the other age groups; it is lowest among 65+, at 18%. Companies are inventing even more undefined food terms that suggest attention to clean label concerns, Vierhile noted, citing as examples such terms as bare, stripped, simple, ugly, unfiltered and cold-pressed.

Approximately 86% of consumers find products with short ingredient lists appealing (45% say somewhat; 41% said very). “Shorter ingredient lists are part of a back-to-basics movement,” Vierhile said, citing Haagen-Dazs Five (which is no longer on the market, but helped pioneer the trend) and Back to the Roots’ stone-ground flakes.

Not surprisingly, consumers are easily scared off by ingredients with which they are not familiar. A 2013 survey of six countries by Ketchum said 68% of consumers want to recognize every ingredient on the label. Vierhile cited examples like KIND and NatureValley, with claims like “simple ingredients from nature.”

Raw and unprocessed foods are a growing, albeit controversial, arena. Canadean surveyed U.S. consumers on the perceived benefits: natural (50%), more nutritious (43%), fresher (39%), additive-free (38%) and tastes better (25%). On the negative side, raw foods’ high cost and short expiration dates are viewed as bigger negatives than safety risks (45% vs. 36%).

As a whole, 57% prefer fewer chemicals and processed ingredients over [nutritional] functionality in their foods. Consumers under 35 narrowly prefer functionality, but the reverse is true of those over 35; and, for ages 65+, 69% prefer fewer chemicals/processed ingredients.

Vierhile credited sectors like sports drinks and high-protein items as boosting the functionality numbers for younger consumers, while suggesting that Perdue Farms’ “no antibiotics ever” campaign earlier this year might appeal to the over-35 demographic. The same may be true for the industry trend of phasing out artificial colors and flavors, as several companies are. Examples include Subway, Mars, Campbell’s, and cereals from General Mills and Kellogg’s. Trix cereal recently changed to natural colorings, and that came with a few negatives—no more bright colors and 10 additional calories per serving—but one big positive: Sales are up 6% through the first couple of months of 2016.

Although only 24% of Americans link color with nutritional value, purveyors are increasing the number of innovations to tell a “color story,” Vierhile said. He pointed to examples like Burger King’s black bun burgers from Japan, and the fact that charcoal is trending in beverages to associate with “detoxification.”

“What Are Consumers Saying and What is the Industry Doing?” Tom Vierhile, MSc, Innovation Insights Director of Canadean

October 6, 2016–Global Food Forums, Inc.The summary above was an excerpt from the “2016 Clean Label Conference Magazine.”

This presentation was given at the 2016 Clean Label Conference. To download presentations from this event, go to

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