Who is driving the clean label agenda, and what does clean really mean?

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Clean label Nutrition

Who is driving the clean label agenda, and what does clean really mean?
Attempts to link ‘all-natural’ clean-labeling policies with the healthy eating agenda have been so successful that research now shows shoppers equate ‘healthy’ with ‘natural’ or ‘minimally processed’ foods.

But what does ‘clean label’ mean today, who is driving the agenda, and is the preoccupation with ‘cleaning up’ foods diverting attention from more substantive nutritional issues such as reducing fat and sugar and increasing nutrient density?

DuPont Nutrition: Whole Foods has provided benchmark for the industry

Jennifer Lindsey, director of marketing for DuPont Nutrition & Health in North America, says: “There really isn’t any single player driving the ‘clean label’ agenda.


“Every food manufacturer and retailer is trying to respond to what they believe their consumers want in ways that make sense for their brands. In the absence of an official definition of what constitutes clean-label or natural ingredients, Whole Foods ​[which publishes a list of ‘unacceptable’ ingredients​] is the one who has willingly stepped out on a limb to define what it – and its customers – consider unacceptable.


“In doing that, it has provided consumers, and the entire food industry, with a benchmark that many have found very useful in addressing this issue.”


Clean label is not just about the ingredients list

But clean label is not just about removing ‘unacceptable’ ingredients any more, she adds: “The clean label question extends beyond the ingredient list.


“Our own consumer research has shown that there’s actually much more consumer focus on front-of-pack claims than on the ingredient list. So individual ingredients are just a part of the overall clean label story.”


But why are the (perfectly legal) ingredients on the Whole Foods blacklist ‘unacceptable’?


“As far as ingredients themselves are concerned, the criteria… would seem to be somewhat varied, and… could be considered inconsistent, since it does include some that are natural or naturally-occurring,” ​notes Lindsey.


“But certainly those criteria are based on what Whole Foods believes to be their target customers’ philosophies and values.”


Clean has objective and ‘symbolic’ associations

Indeed, as consultancy Hartman Group points out, ‘clean’ is a rather nebulous concept or a philosophy, not a list of acceptable or unacceptable ingredients


“Consumers are continually redefining quality. Within this redefinition, to consumers clean has both symbolic associations (fresh, safe, local, healthy) and objective associations (less processed, no chemicals, nothing artificial).


“Clean food is: natural, organic, local, sustainable, fresh, safe, ethical and healthy.”


Are clean labels mainstream now??

But are clean label or natural foods still a niche market or have they hit the mainstream?


“Whether a clean label is considered an essential depends on the food product, its target customer, what the product brand stands for, what the competition is doing, and any number of other variable”, ​says Lindsey.


“Creating a ‘cleaner’ label has, in a sense, become mainstream, but how it is done – and the degree to which it is done – is totally dependent on what’s right for a given brand.


“Clean can mean a shorter ingredient list to some, or only pronounceable ingredients to others. To still others, it may be clean only if it’s labeled natural or organic.


 ‘If in doubt, ask yourself if a consumer would expect a homemade version of this product to last 24+ months?’


Scott Martling, who heads up global business development at product development consultancy International Food Network, says: “From our vantage point many of the retailers are driving the charge here with a position of ‘If you want your product on our shelves, here is our expectations’.


“Now that the natural food segment has gone mainstream, these retailers have quite a bit more leverage.”


As for whether these expectations are really about health, safety, or nutrition is a different matter, he says.


“I catch a lot of heat about ‘processed foods’ when people learn that I’m a food scientist. I’m not sure what this ‘process’ is that everyone fears, especially considering we have one of the safest food supplies on the planet.”

But he adds: “In my experience a conventional consumer products manufacturer wanting to market a minimally processed product should consider offering consumers a suite of benefits including, but certainly not limited to: recognizable ingredients, visually recognizable bits, minimal packaging, and a reasonable shelf life.


“If in doubt, ask yourself if a consumer would expect a homemade version of this product to last 24+ months?”

Clean food is about trust


For Lori Colman, founder of marketing agency Colman Brohan Davis, however, clean is about trust.

My point of view on Whole Foods is that it ups my trust level and I like them even more. I feel that anything they put on their shelves has at least been vetted. Perhaps some of the blacklist ingredients have been taken to the extreme … isn’t “carmine” natural?


“But still, I shop there with a level of comfort that I don’t have at a typical grocery store.”

But what do the academics think?

Marion Nestle, Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, is characteristically blunt: “The food world divides into people who care about these issues, and those who don’t. Whole Foods caters to those who do.”

Fergus Clydesdale, distinguished professor at the University of Massachusetts, meanwhile, is becoming tired of all this ‘chemophobia’ and says cleaner or less ‘processed’ does not automatically mean healthier.


“A clean label might show a food contains only sugar and saturated fat. Is that healthy if we eat a lot of it? Is shortbread made of butter and sugar in the kitchen healthier than a packaged dessert with sugar and fat in it? The processing is irrelevant.


As for the preoccupation with ridding food labels of ‘chemicals’, he says: “We are made of chemicals as are foods as is everything else.


“If all fresh foods had to be labeled as do packaged foods, fruits and vegetables would have hundreds of chemical ingredient on their labels.”


Kitchen Cupboard ingredients

But the horse has well and truly bolted on this one, says Leaslie Carr, marketing manager, wholesome, Corn Products International/National Starch Food Innovation.

“Consumers are looking for ingredients they recognize and may have at home.


“But, with busy lifestyles, convenience is still very important… Food manufacturers have to consider consumer desires for simplicity and transparency and look for ways to incorporate new ingredients that deliver on these requirements.”

Check out FoodNavigator-USA tomorrow to read about definitions of the term 'natural', and whether it's time the FDA set about pinning it down.

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