Soup-To-Nuts Podcast: Consumers’ definition of ‘clean label’ is becoming more sophisticated, complex

By Elizabeth Crawford contact

- Last updated on GMT

Soup-To-Nuts Podcast: Consumers’ definition of ‘clean label’ is becoming more sophisticated, complex

Related tags: Soup-To-Nuts Podcast, Clean label, diet, functional claims

When demand for “clean label” first burst on the scene several years ago, it was all about removing “chemical-sounding,” “unnatural” and unnecessary ingredients from products, but as shoppers learn more about food, how it is made and its impact on their health, their expectations for what they consume have become more nuanced, and so, too, has industry’s approach to “clean label.”

According to the taste and nutrition company Kerry’s recently release Future of Food white paper​, consumers no longer have the same knee-jerk reaction to long lists of unfamiliar ingredients as they did several years ago. Rather than dismiss “chemical-sounding” ingredients out of hand, consumers are now more willing to consider their nutritional and functional benefits. The tradeoff is they also are looking more closely at product claims, certifications, the nutritional benefits of ingredients and their environmental impact when determining if a food or beverage is “clean.”

In this episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-To-Nuts podcast​, Soumya Nair, who leads marketing and consumer insights strategy for Kerry, attempts to untangle the knot of how consumers interpret and define clean label by sharing the results of a survey Kerry conducted of 2,100 US “ingredient and nutrition conscious consumers” in 2019. She also shares details of a new framework based on these survey results that Kerry uses for product development and hints at where there trend likely will go in coming years.

[Editor’s note: Never miss an episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-To-Nuts podcast – subscribe on iTunes​.]

What do consumers mean by clean label?

Kerry’s current research builds on a survey it first conducted in 2017 of 700 US consumers who read product labels, the nutritional panel and ingredient declarations, and which served as the basis for the company’s first interpretation of the “clean label pillars.” By comparing the current data to the prior results, Nair says, Kerry can see a clear evolution in consumer thinking and better understand their expectations.

“There’s just so much of iterations in the market and evolution among consumers today that it is just very important for us to keep our pulse on the consumer set and what their evolving needs look like … for us to be able to create products that really are truly nutritious, healthy and just on point with what consumers expect,”​ Nair explained.

At the most basic level, Kerry discovered a shift in the top five claims that consumers associate with clean label from 2017 to 2019. In both surveys, consumers said they associate with clean label products that are made with real ingredients, all natural, free from additives and preservatives and organic. The one claim that changed, however, is in 2017 consumers included in their top 5 list of claims non-GMO, but in 2019 this was replaced with no added sugar.

As focused on ingredients as consumers are, Nair added that their evolving understanding of nutrition is becoming more holistic and that they are looking at their entire diet – a shift that simultaneously cuts  manufacturers some slack on the inclusion of individual ingredients but also raises the bar in terms of what their overall product or portfolio has to offer.

A new framework for product development

Based on this evolution, Kerry developed a new framework for thinking about the future of food and what drives consumer expectations. This framework includes five key pillars: Acceptable ingredients, functional ingredients, sustainability, nutrition and taste.

The first pillar of acceptable ingredients goes back to the roots of the clean label movement and places a heavy emphasis on “real” ingredients that are recognizable, and the exclusion of artificial ingredients. But over the years the focus of this pillar on ‘quality’ has opened consumers’ mind to the framework’s second pillar of nutrition.

“We did see a layer of nutrition coming though so that if an ingredient is there, even if it is acceptable, for instance, [consumers are still asking] is that really the right product combination or ingredient combination for me because lifestyle diets started rising quite a bit,”​ Nair said.

As a result, she added, the pillars of acceptable ingredients and nutrition are now virtually impossible to separate.

The third pillar is closely related to nutrition and focuses on functional ingredients – hinting at the rise of personalized nutrition.

“We are talking about things like digestive health, gut health, brain health, in addition to the energy delivery and hydration and all of those benefits that consumers now want from everyday foods and beverages,”​ Nair said.

The fourth pillar, which focuses on taste, may surprise some because on the one hand “taste is king” and often trumps all other attributes for many consumers. But health conscious consumers who are looking for clean label products also historically have been willing to compromise on taste for the sake of nutrition. But according to Kerry, consumers are no longer willing to make that trade-off and taste has become table stakes.

The last pillar is sustainability, which Kerry defines broadly to include products that offer environmental and social benefits. According to the report, “key themes under the sustainability pillar are ‘minimally processed,’ ‘locally sourced,’ ‘environmentally friendly,’ ‘sustainably produced,’ ‘ethically sourced’ and Fairtrade.”

The reach of this pillar’s influence is seen in the report’s discovery that 41% of all consumers reporting they prefer to purchase from brands are ethical, 74% perceive businesses with corporate social responsibility initiatives as changing things for the better and 53% expect companies to improve the local community and 50% will switch to a company that supports a cause in which they believe.

For consumers, no one pillar is more important than the others. Rather, they evaluate products based on the extent to which they meet the qualities of each pillar – and as such are raising the bar for food and beverage manufacturers.

Balancing the demands of each pillar

Meeting this higher bar is complicated by the fact the values in the different pillars might – at first blush – appear to conflict with each other. For example, the addition of functional ingredients may boost nutrition, but also could negatively impact flavor or texture. But, as previously noted, consumers are no longer willing to compromise on taste, and increased competition means they don’t have to. It also means many established brands are being forced to renovate products while new brands are constantly iterating and innovating to stay ahead of the curve.

Nair said experts at Kerry are moving beyond simply masking off notes from functional ingredients and are now looking at the overall formula for products, including texture and as well as adjusting flavor profiles.

Clean label products must be for the masses

While most consumers may understand that change takes time, about 20% of the “conscious consumers” surveyed by Kerry said they would rather take it upon themselves to meet these higher standards. But these 20% are not all the same – they fall across the spectrum of consumers, meaning food companies need to make cleaner label product available to masses – not just a select few who can afford higher prices.

“I’m not just talking about those folks who are making their own kombucha. This is not about this set of trailblazers anymore who are taking that control, but they are also influencing the marketplace a lot more and that’s happening at a faster pace than in the past,”​ Nair said, adding that as a result brands and formulators need to appeal “to that mass mentality and [make] sure that this is not a clean label just for those premium [products or consumers] but its about making that accessible to everyone.”

She added that given how quickly the definition for clean label has changed in just three years, it is probably safe to say the concept will continue to evolve with consumers raising the bar even higher in the future. And, she added, it will be interesting to see how this trend continues to drive fragmentation – and potentially one day consolidation of the market place.

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