The Clean Label Influence on Restaurant Menus

Originally Published: January 25, 2018
Last Updated: February 4, 2021
Restaurant menu trends are tracking with consumer demand for more healthful food choices.

The Clean Label Influence on Restaurant Menus

Approximately 50% of U.S. consumers’ food expenditures are allocated to food eaten away from the home. The foodservice and restaurant industries also function as important trend leaders.

Lizzy Freier and Aimee Harvey, Managing Editors at Technomic, Inc., a foodservice research and consulting firm, discussed the impact of consumer clean label concerns on this important industry segment.

“Clean food is a topic that we are always talking about,” said Freier. Technomic regularly polls consumers and foodservice operators, and tracks menu trends “from field to fork,” she explained. Here are some research results.

Definitions of “healthy” are always changing, especially for younger consumers. And six out of 10 consumers equate “clean labels” with healthfulness.

One interesting development is that certain restaurant and other foodservice outlets have recognized that consumers are associating certain “clean label” fats and sweeteners as healthy, such as butter, coconut oil, duck fat, honey, maple sugar and agave syrup. [Click to Enlarge]

“It’s not just physical, but also mental wellness…a sense of well-being tied to feeling good” that consumers associate with their food choices, Harvey continued. How do consumers define clean labels? Primarily, “clean” equates with a lack of preservatives and other additives, or food that is raw and natural. Other “clean” claims include “fresh,” “non-GMO” and “hormone-free.”

But are consumers willing to pay more for clean label foods?

On this question, they are split. Harvey cited Technomic’s “2016 Healthy Eating Consumer Trend Report,” saying, “43% said that they would be willing to pay more for ‘natural,’ but 37% would not. 39% would pay more for unprocessed foods, but 34% would not. 40% would pay more for ‘clean label,’ 29% would not.” Importantly, 53% believed that “natural” equated with being tastier, up from 45% that indicated the same in 2014.

Technomic polled foodservice operators on their perceptions of clean label expectations. “89% of operators acknowledged that ‘health and wellness’ was a leading trend, but definitions thereof were extremely broad and fuzzy,” said Lizzy Freier. “However, eight or more out of 10 agreed that clean labels will impact their purchase decisions in the future, taken to mean buying more locally produced foods that are chemical- or pesticide-free; produced under sustainable conditions; free of hormones or antibiotics; and the product of humane animal treatment.”

As result, many operators have been adding clean label designations to their menus: Clean label menu statements tracked by Technomic increased 19%, from 1,191 in 2015 to 1,419 in 2016. “Such claims are showing up in every menu category,” said Freier.

While “natural” and “organic” claims still predominate on menus, “the fastest growing clean menu claims between 2015- 2017 related to animal products, such as ‘sustainability caught’ (+1,100%), ‘no steroids’ (+250%); ‘humanely raised’ (+159%), ‘GMO-free’ (+138.7%) and ‘cage free’ (+32.3%),” said Freier. “Many people want to hear narratives about the animal products they eat.”

Even as restaurants and lodging venues experienced steadily increasing penetration of clean label claims, the prevalence of such claims actually decreased at university outlets. Freier suggested that for these venues, “clean label” claims have become mainstreamed expectations, an insight that could prove a leading indicator for other foodservice and food industry venues.

Harvey reviewed a list of major American restaurant chains that have recently emphasized clean label policies: “Panera finished its goal of creating a ‘100% clean menu;’ McDonald’s has removed some artificial preservatives; Pizza Hut has removed preservatives from meat and cheese; and Papa Murphy’s has begun serving antibiotic- free chicken,” she noted.

Others have announced plans for major clean label initiatives. Organic has pretty much gone mainstream, which puts the industry on notice to identify the next wave of clean label buzzwords that will bring customers to their doors. However, Harvey counseled caution: “Chipotle’s new Tasty Made venture sought to differentiate itself from the competition with responsibly raised, hormone- and antibiotic-free meat, only to discover that consumers were not willing to pay the premiums that such claims entailed.”

The presentation concluded with the notion that “you build trust through transparency,” and you do it by being open about providing compelling whole food and clean label narratives about your food, beverage and ingredient histories. “Most consumers say a number of clean label claims actually taste better,” said Harvey. Such should define the bottom line for any food-related business.

“Consumer & Restaurant Menu Trends: The Clean Label Influence,” Lizzy Freier and Aimee Harvey, Managing Editors at Technomic, Inc., and

This presentation was given at the 2017 Clean Label Conference. To download presentations from this event, go to

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