Clean Labels: Implications & Strategies

Originally Published: April 1, 2014
Last Updated: February 18, 2021
Two eggs in an eggbox-one with a smiley face, the other frowning, represent consumers new-found attitude toward all clean label products.

April 1, 2014 – Clean labels may be “tipping to the mainstream;” so predicted Leslie Skarra, CEO, at Merlin Development, Inc. The trend in the U.S. is small, but growing and “snowballing” in the UK and Europe. Baby Boomers have been driving  the expansion with increased disposable income and quests for health and longevity. More importantly, Millenials are also driving a shift to clean labels. Many Millenials have grown up with skepticism of the food industry, added Skarra, who followed with an informative presentation on Clean Labels: Implications & Strategies.

Ingredient Replacement chart--Merlin Development

Click to view a larger version of the chart.

The “food psychology” of clean label foods is also important, Skarra stated. Cooking only with clean label foods may be akin to the sentimentality formerly associated with baking. Unlike prior generations that economized on food when money was tight, Millenials are investing in clean label foods—despite the long recession and continued economic difficulties within their demographic group.

The implications of clean label food processing are numerous and complex. For traditional processors, these include the difficulties of matching current product attributes with new clean label formulations. Also, current branding may reduce “clean label believability” in some instances. In addition, alternate formulation, process or distribution strategies may be necessary, due to shelflife and micro issues resulting from clean label formulation changes.

Ingredients are key, according to Skarra, but one must also consider altering line speed, operation and distribution strategies. In fact, it “may be easier for a new brand or company to deliver clean label foods, due to current business expectations for traditional processed food manufacturers.” Skarra stressed it is best to commit to only use  ingredients that are familiar and acceptable to consumers. A company could eliminate the need for antimicrobials via enhanced sanitation, and/or alternate processes, packaging or distribution technologies. Another option is to replace current ingredients with new fermentation-based antimicrobials (i.e., cultured wheat flour).

For processors currently focused on clean labels, their challenges include expanding their market via  expanded distribution, which may stress sensory quality and microbiological stability. Price reductions may also be necessary, to capture a larger market share. Merlin’s unique approach to clean labels starts with clearly identifying all issues. It is important to thoroughly search for direct solutions.

“Understand what is done and why. Question all assumptions. Finding alternatives (i.e., ingredients, processes, packaging, distribution) to achieve the structures/functions/mechanisms needed is also important.”

There were several concrete marketplace examples of clean label products given in the session. The first was a hamburger bun where replacements for HFCS could be sugar, dextrose, fructose, corn syrup and/or enzymes. Calcium propionate can be replaced with cultured wheat flour or whey. Diacetyl tartaric acid ester of mono- and
diglycerides (DATEM) could be eliminated, and enzymes/other ingredients used in its stead.

For a clean label yogurt, Skarra suggested eliminating potassium sorbate, which she noted is used by many major national brands. Some of the issues with its elimination include process differences (to prevent mold inoculation); process reliability to assure every package is mold-free; and the impact on the brand, if the system should fail.

Skarra referenced the recent Chobani yogurt recall, stressing that after the recall, the company partnered with Cornell University; hired a new VP of quality, food safety and regulatory affairs; and launched a major ad campaign, stressing that “every cup is a commitment to delicious, preservative-free food.”

Suppliers should continue with innovations to support clean label foods. Also, Skarra suggested looking outside the U.S. for approaches or solutions; and to “be patient with slow implementation…the barriers to change are formidable.”

For traditional food processors, Skarra challenged them to “design products with a ‘clean sheet of paper’ approach and a long view to the future, as emerging competitors are doing.” She also emphasized: “Use straightforward, unqualified communications with consumers via brands, packaging, claims, ingredient declarations and media.”

Clean label processors should adapt traditional processor-development techniques to expand the market beyond their current consumers, she said, and to “improve quality as seen by consumers and reduce costs via line speeds and efficiencies, rather than formula cost-cutting.”

In conclusion, Skarra said food manufacturers are best served by “regaining the gatekeeper role from retailers.” Education also plays a role, via the Web and package labels. “Committing to the simplest, long term messages will be most powerful and defensible.”

Leslie Skarra, CEO, Merlin Development, Inc., +1.763.286.9774,

April 1, 2014, Global Food Forums — The summary above is an excerpt from the “2013 Clean Label Conference.” Click here for a copy of the magazine.


  • HFCS sugar or alternatives
  • Calcium propionate cultured
    wheat flour, whey, etc.
  • DATEM eliminate or use enzymes,
    other ingredients
    1. Define target (i.e., sensory, shelflife, processing, cost of finished product)
    2. Survey market for approaches
    3. Replace prohibited ingredients and evaluate results
    4. If necessary, define structure/function/mechanisms of the overall food matrix
    5. Identify approaches to replace structure/function
    6. Execute robust experimental design
    7. Evaluate vs. target, then confirm solution

Source: Merlin Development, Inc.