Evolving Consumer Perceptions of Clean Labels

Originally Published: October 5, 2020
Last Updated: February 4, 2021
Consumer perceptions of clean label products include "free from," such as GMO-free; made with consumer friendly ingredients and 100 percent natural.

Evolving Consumer Perceptions, Innovation and Clean Labels

CLEAN LABEL has been with us since early 2000s, said Lynn Dornblaser, Director, Innovation & Insight, Mintel, as she began her presentation “Clean Label: Shifting Consumer Perceptions,” which had been prepared for the 2020 Clean Label Conference. At that time, Mintel had noted the designation was closely aligned to “junk-free” foods and that they contained ingredients readily understood by consumers. Furthermore, in foods and beverages, clean label products had ingredient statements that read more like a list of ingredients in a home recipe than a chemist’s shopping list.

Free-from was the original clean label. “The launch of a ‘GMO-free’ cereal in 1999 was one of the earliest examples of the removal of ingredients that consumer didn’t like,” stated Dornblaser. Another was the relatively niche claim “no high-fructose corn syrup,” which was used in the introduction of a tea. This led to products with claims such as free of artificial, hydrogenated and/or preservative ingredients.

What has changed since 2010? Dornblaser noted that the use of “junk-free” and emotional claims (e.g., “none of the nasties”) are gone. The focus is now on hard facts. Even non-food, cleaner label products contain fewer ingredients that consumers might have difficulty understanding and/or are controversial (e.g., parabens). The function of unfamiliar ingredients also may be explained.

“The term ‘clean’ has infiltrated our everyday lives with many facets,” she said. “It has become an adjective with many meanings across industries, with countless brands using the term.”

For example, a 2017 Mintel/Lightspeed survey found that 41% of UK adults agree meat-free foods that have a short list of ingredients are more appealing than those with a longer list; 61% of U.S. adults agree whole-plant foods are healthier than processed meat substitutes; and 61% of Canadian adults agree plant-based meat alternatives are overly processed.

Dornblaser indicated that natural products are evolving to more clean label products, emphasizing free-from claims, minimal processing and wholesome, simple ingredient statements without artificial ingredients. Examples include RxBar, which showcases a label that is also the ingredient list. Pressed by Kind is a bar that contains only mango, apple and chia pressed together, and Siggi’s yogurt has straightforward packaging that offers consumers just what is necessary to inform their purchase decision.

Foodservice brands are also embracing clean eating. “Panera Bread was an early adopter, unveiling in 2016 its no-no list and Food Promise, which called for only ‘clean’ ingredients,” she explained. Chicago-based LYFE Kitchen is committed to “sourcing the cleanest ingredients possible” for the restaurant, while the first certified-organic fast food restaurant in the U.S., Nic’s, only uses “clean, wholesome ingredients.”

“Clean-related claims are often considered healthier by U.S. consumers, but brands should be cautious not to use too many claims, as ‘claim fatigue’ can hurt credibility,” Dornblaser said.

In a statistic that’s still relevant today, in 2017, 62% of U.S. consumers agreed that the fewer ingredients a food has, the healthier it is—up from 55% in 2016. She joked that her favorite food comprised of only oil, potatoes and salt would be considered very healthy with these consumers! In addition, only 44% of U.S. consumers trust the health claims on food/ bever-age packages, and 54% agreed many “free-from” claims are not meaningful to most foods.

Natural claims alone won’t be enough for future clean label product success. Environmental stewardship is being linked to clean label. Dornblaser advised that going forward, corporate social responsibility, as well as the 21st Century principles— people, produce and planet—will gain in significance. Mintel data has found that “clean and simple” claims are perceived by consumers as “healthy,” and “better-for-you” is about wholesomeness, not restrictions.

“Clean label is important, but it must be paired with good taste,” stressed Dornblaser. “This is absolutely critical.”

She concluded with final thoughts regarding consumer percpetions of clean labels and opportunities for such. First, “clean and simple,” inside and out. A clean label formulation must be backed up by clear, simple, easy-to- understand communication on pack as to what makes the product “clean.” Second, “Clean label alone is not enough,” as consumers want products that offer a range of benefits, “clean” being one of them. Add in additional attributes, such as convenience, unique flavors or formats, or functionality. And, most important is the positive focus on the goodness of products and how the ingredients can provide additional benefits.

“Clean Label: Shifting Consumer Perceptions,” Lynn Dornblaser, Director, Innovation & Insight, Mintel

This presentation was given at the 2020 Clean Label Conference. To download presentations from this event, go to https://cleanlabel.globalfoodforums.com/category/clean-label-rd-academy/

See past and future Clean Label Conference Events at https://cleanlabel.globalfoodforums.com/clean-label-events/