Omnivores Shift Toward Plant-Based Diets

Originally Published: October 22, 2019
Last Updated: February 4, 2021

“Where does ‘science’ meet a company’s marketing objectives?” And, what does ‘clean label’ mean?” So enquired Rachel Cheatham, Ph.D., Founder & CEO, Foodscape Group, LLC in her presentation titled “Delivering Clean Label to the Transitioning Omnivore.”

“There are a lot of words to describe clean labels … ‘raw,’ ‘organic,’ ‘fresh,’ ‘natural,’… but there still exists no formal or regulatory definition of what it means,” she added. Cheatham cited a survey indicating that consumers generally associate clean label with organic labels (68%); with products found in the fresh foods sections of grocery stores (61%); and/or foods with ingredient labels containing only “recognizable” ingredients (58%).

Because the clean label term is not regulated, there are no fixed rules. This has spawned a wide variety of definitions and individual initiatives that can be contradictory and confusing. Major grocery (e.g., Kroger’s, H.E.B.) and restaurant (e.g., Panera) chains have responded by developing their own published definitions, listing ingredients that are either approved or not permitted in their categories.

The situation is further complicated by consumer confusion; Cheatham shared some outtakes from her LinkedIn commentaries. Some comments reflect fear and misinformation, such as: “Gums are lab formulated and come hidden in compound ingredients. Even a manufacturer doesn’t know of them.” Another comment was more ominously aimed at the processed foods industry: “Personally, I don’t care if a label is clean or not, because most of the food I buy has no label.”

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Cheatham argued that the term clean label itself is too industry- focused. Consumers, she said, prefer to focus on “clean eating.” Citing a Nielsen study, she identified five label categories for foods: 1) conventional labels with no restrictions (a slightly declining category); 2) free-from labels, free of specific ingredients; 3) clean, defined as “free-from artificial and other objectionable ingredients;” 4) simple, containing only recognizable ingredients; and 5) sustainable. Sustainability, she said, was the fastest growing category, encompassing a smorgasbord of social justice criteria, ranging from non-GMO to workers’ rights.

From this foundational analysis, Cheatham segued to her organization’s Top10 Metatrends Report, a meta-analysis that draws a picture of a global omnivore diet transitioning away from animal proteins to plant-based diets, the subject of her presentation. She claimed that, today, “2-10% of any developed country’s population” is vegetarian, while estimating that “0.5% of the global population is vegan.” These numbers grossly underestimate the overall trend toward increased plant-based food consumption, she argued, as even dedicated omnivores are replacing more meat products with plant-based products in their daily diets. This trend has spurred the development of new, technology-based alternatives to harvested animal proteins.

As examples, she pointed to the “Beyond Burger®,” a plant-based beef burger substitute previously featured at the Global Food Forums conference. Although 100% plant- based, the product’s ingredient statement might not, at first glance, be viewed as clean label, so there are label trade-offs. Ocean Hugger Foods, Inc. created Ahimi™, a tuna substitute made from non-GMO vegetables, soy, sugar and sesame oil.

She also cited growing interest in animal cell-based (i.e., laboratory grown) meat technologies, noting global animal- protein giant Tyson Foods’ 2018 investment in Memphis Meats, a San Francisco-based start-up focused on laboratory-grown animal cell-culture products. In San Diego, BlueNalu is attempting to do the same with seafood proteins.

There has also been a proliferation of dairy product knockoffs, beginning with a plethora of nut, legume and cereal- based milks, but also cheese and yogurt substitutes.

While concluding, Cheatham reminded audience members that there are always exceptions to ongoing trends: “Consumers make exceptions to their own rules and, sometimes, it is best not to tinker with proven-winner food products…clean label or no clean label. And, although clean label has no legal definition to date, this should not prevent companies from developing their own working definitions, thereof.”

It is complicated and challenging, she suggested, but “clean label efforts present an opportunity for greater internal alignment between Innovation/R&D and marketing communications.” Finally, she also proposed that company clean label policies be implemented enterprise-wide, rather than just at the SKU level.

“Delivering Clean Label to the Transitioning Omnivore,” Rachel Cheatham, Ph.D., Founder & CEO, Foodscape Group LLC

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

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