Consumer interpretation of clean label trend varies by generation

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: C&R Research
Source: C&R Research

Related tags Clean label Generation x

As the concept of clean label continues to evolve and transition from an industry term to one consumers understand and seek, companies should take a more sophisticated approach to the trend by accounting for how different generations prioritize and interpret it, suggests research from C&R Research. 

The term “clean label,”​ originally created within industry to describe a niche phenomenon of consumers seeking products without specific ingredients that they deemed unhealthy or unnecessary, is slowing “leaking out of industry and into the public discourse”​ so that the concept is gaining more traction with mainstream shoppers, Paul Metz from C&R Research told FoodNavigator-USA.

He explained that broadly speaking most consumers who are familiar with the term clean label – or the more nebulous concept – generally use it to mean a product without artificial ingredients, sweeteners or preservatives or something that offers nutritional benefits such as low-sodium or low-fat.

However, he noted, as the concept continues to spread it is taking on more nuanced definitions depending in part on consumers’ age as well as other their financial situation and how much time they have to think about, shop for and prepare food.

A recent survey​ of nearly 1,000 American adults conducted by C&R Research revealed that the idea of clean labeling resonates most with babyboomers and, to a slightly lesser extent, millennials. Generation X, however, is the least worried about clean labels, Metz said.

“Our research showed that 79% of boomers are increasing purchases of certain types of food because of clean label related issues,”​ which they define as lower in sodium, sugar, trans fats, artificial sweeteners and high-fructose corn syrup, Metz said.

He explained that they are driven primarily by health issues that are becoming more prominent as they age. “They are the ones who are very attune to food and diet and trying to control and limit what is deemed as bad, while also trying to take positive steps towards incorporating positive things like probiotics and things like that,”​ he said.

As such, they are turning to experts, such as their physicians, and the popular press for advice on what to eat and what to avoid, he said.

The best way marketers can communicate a product as clean label to this group is with front-of-package call-outs about how much sodium, calories and fat are in a serving as well as focused checklists of what undesirable ingredients are not in a product.

These strategies are “very effective for baby-boomers because it makes the hunt and finding of those products that fit those criteria much easier than turning to the side and looking at that really tiny label print,”​ Metz said, adding that many boomers likely are struggling with declining eye sight.

What drives millennials to clean labels

Millennials have “a different lens”​ on clean labels, Metz said, noting that they pursue them not because they need to for health reasons but because they want to.

“Millennials are young and in good shape, so they have the luxury of time to deal with food as they want to,”​ and they see it as a way to become self-actualized, he explained.

As such, their top priorities for clean label are slightly different from boomers. The survey found their top five concerns are the amount of sugar and protein, whether a product is all-natural, sodium levels and if it is free from preservatives.

“Of the three generations, millennials are most concerned with products that are gluten-free, fair-trade and vegan,”​ the survey added.

Metz notes millennials tend to rely on short-cuts to find clean label products, including by shopping at retailers with stringent standards for what they market, such as Whole Foods Market or Trader Joes, which they perceive as “doing the work for me”​ to find healthy products and brands.

Other shortcuts they use include looking for certification logos and trusting brands across categories so that if a brand offers a healthy option in one segment, they perceive the other products it sells likely also meet their clean label standards, he said.

Gen-Xers can’t be bothered

Squeezed by taking care of their children and taking care of their aging parents, Generation Xers are less likely to care about clean labels in large part because they don’t have time to care, the survey revealed.

“Generation X is the least likely to pick-up on or be involved with the clean label trend because they have other life challenge and little time. They care more about whether their kids come back safely if they drive the car or if they are drinking when they are out than if they eat a pack of Oreos,”​ Metz said.

In fact, the top concern of Gen Xers about food is whether it is on sale, according to the study.

“There have been trends towards more stay-at-home moms or dads and of those, when you are in the core child-rearing ages and somebody is not working fulltime, getting that budget to stretch is really important and whether something is all-natural or sugar-free is not as important,”​ Metz said.

However, he noted, for Gen-Xers who do care about clean label, they are most focused on all-natural, amount of sugar, hormone-free and trans fats, Metz said, adding the best way to engage with them is to run sales or offer ways for them to easily stock up.

Finally, the other “big take away from the survey … is not all consumers care about clean labeling,”​ Metz said. “Clean labeling certainly falls on deaf ears for a segment of the population. There is always going to be a more indulgent group of consumers and these types of health fads are totally meaningless to them.”

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