Clean Label Moves Toward Sustainability

Originally Published: October 3, 2019
Last Updated: February 4, 2021

Innova’s database contains 130 million records. Over 500,000 products from 90 countries are added each year. Using this tool, Mindy Hermann, MBA, RDN, Innova Market Insights, delves into the evolution of clean label as clean label moves toward sustainability, the results of which were revealed in her presentation titled “Understanding the Clean Label Movement & What it Means for the Industry.”

The definition of clean label has evolved dramatically over the past several years, she said. Five years ago, organic, natural, vegan, and free-from additives and preservatives defined the category. For example, “If we look at a classic definition of clean, from 2014- 2018, more than 25% of new product launches have the words ‘natural,’ ‘organic,’ ‘no additives,’ ‘no preservatives’ or ‘GMO-free’ on their labels.”

As the classification of clean label became more well-defined, it expanded to include minimally processed, dairy alternatives, meat substitutes and sugar/salt/fat reformulations. Today, human and animal welfare, supply chain transparency, sustainably sourced and plant-based nutrition are top contenders that define this space, suggested Hermann. Ethical claims, including animal and environmental, also are rising in importance, and plant-based claims are up 68% from 2014-2018.

Six market categories accounted for greater than 50% of new food and beverage launches with clean label claims in 2018 (see chart “Categories as a % of New Clean Label F&B Launches, Global 2018”). Sauces and Seasonings is the largest of the six defined categories. Bakery followed by the Soft Drinks are the next two categories with the most claims. For example, Passage Foods’ Passage to Asia Thai Basil and Sweet Chili Stir-Fry Sauce provides an insight into claims such as natural, gluten-free, BPA-free and non-GMO. “Consumers consider ’gluten-free’ to be a clean claim, and ‘BPA- free’ is a clean claim in the environmental space,” said Hermann.

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The Sports Nutrition category is seeing 40% growth of clean label claims per year, 2014-2018, noted Hermann. Aside from ingredient integrity, companies are telling a relatable story. For example, Organic Valley Organic Fuel Whey Protein Powder builds a relationship with the consumer by claiming that it does not contain “unnecessary additives you can’t pronounce, artificial flavorings or sweeteners, GMOs, pesticides, antibiotics or hormones.”

Hermann also presented an example from the snack market. Billy Franks Hot n Spicy, British Beef Jerky’s label indicated it had no artificial colorings, flavorings or preservatives. The label also claimed that the product was “air-dried grass-fed,” which is “a newer clean claim,” Hermann noted.

Three in five consumers want to know the origin of the ingredients in products they purchase. No artificial flavors or colors; made with real ingredients; natural; and low/no/reduced sugar top the list of factors that influence purchasing decisions. And, consumers are adopting lifestyle diets, such as vegetarian/vegan, plant-based, keto, etc. But flavor is still the number one factor influencing food and beverage purchasing decisions, said Hermann.

Health is the biggest driver behind consumer purchases of alternatives to bread, meat or dairy. Research data reveals that dairy-free is growing at 18% per year, and meat substitutes are growing about 17% per year. “The plant-based marketplace shows no sign of slowing down,” claimed Hermann. “Innova sees a 33% average annual growth in vegan claims from 2014-2018, and plant-based claims grew 60+% during that same time period.” Brands are “greening up” their foods and beverages by adding plant-based ingredients to a variety of products, including dairy.

Animal welfare is growing in popularity, as well. Innova reports a 21% increase in annualized growth over the past five years. As an example, Pre Beef Ribeye Steaks’ label claims: “Grass fed and finished. No added hormones. No added antibiotics.” “Grass fed and finished” connotes a more natural and clean process.

Consumers’ age comes into play when considering environmental, social and ethical factors. Regarding Gen Z, 50% are concerned about the sustainability of the planet. One in two Millennials are concerned about environmental impact. Baby Boomers (43%) feel that food waste and redistribution matter most. Gen X (58%) indicate that waste and pollution is a concern.

These trends are evidenced in Rubies in the Rubble Chipotle Mayo—a vegan product made with aquafaba, the water leftover from cooking chickpeas that is ordinarily waste. And Numi® Organic Tea is made with “compostable tea bags and use…post-consumer recycled packaging for improved sustainability.”

Hermann closed with these key takeaways. “Looking at growing expectations for clean label, the impact of food production on climate change is expected to drive food product development. On the consumer side, consumers expect clean labels to communicate trust, transparency and sustainability.”

“Understanding the Clean Label Movement & What it Means for the Industry,” Mindy Hermann, MBA, RDN, Innova Market Insights

This presentation was given at the 2019 Clean Label Conference. To download presentations from this event, go to

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