Clean label food trends

How to Navigate the “Clean Label” Trend in the Food Industry

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This food marketing gray area has only become cloudier as it grows more popular. It seems everyone wants “clean label” foods, but no one can agree on exactly what such labels indicate.

Used as a one-size-fits-all term — for anything ranging from “all-natural” and “heart healthy” to “sugar-free,” “made with sea salt,” and “trans-fat free” — a clean label often serves more to reassure consumers that one product is more virtuous than another, than to inform them of something objectively true.

Nevertheless, consumers want products with these labels, creating a tricky landscape for businesses in the food industry to navigate. How do you give consumers what they want, when the label they want is open-ended and undefined? To answer this, we must dive into the minds of consumers to understand what they’re thinking about when they ask for a clean label.

Consumer Dollars are Backing the Clean Label Trend

Consumers not only like to see clean label products — they’re willing to pay for them. Food industry researcher The Hartman Group surveyed 2,600 adults across the United States, United Kingdom, France, and Germany to determine which labels consumers associated with the concept of a “clean label.” In doing so, The Hartman Group found that nearly 9 in 10 consumers who read labels are willing to pay more for food perceived as clean.

What does this mean for food manufacturers, processors, and CPG brands? Higher costs should not discourage you from focusing on clean label product development. This consumer-driven trend is here to stay, and as Hartman Group SVP Shelley Balanko argues, “if you want your brand to stay relevant, to have a future, this is the direction you’ve got to go.”

Despite how unclear and misleading these labels might be, it’s important to understand what’s driving the consumer to seek them. The problem with clean labels isn’t that consumers don’t know what they want, it’s that many labels leave themselves wide open for (mis)interpretation.

Food processors shouldn’t only tap into the underlying narrative consumers find so appealing; they should also engage with it honestly and ethically, rather than slapping the word “clean” or “natural” onto everything they can.

What Does “Clean” Mean to Consumers?

Generally speaking, clean labels evoke foods of a simpler time. When consumers seek clean labels, they’re expecting to find ingredients that are familiar and easy to pronounce, and products that are free of artificial ingredients, synthetic chemicals, and color additives.

They’re also looking at the length of the ingredients list — the fewer ingredients the better, in this case. A shorter shelf life compared to similar products is now a selling point, too.

The clean label trend is also evolving to encompass ethical concerns such as pesticide and antibiotics use, animal welfare, fair trade, and locality. People want reassurance that their food choices are not negatively impacting the planet, nor the people and animals living on it — and they accept that such reassurances come with a higher price tag. One study, published in Frontiers in Neuroscience, found consumers are willing to pay 30% more for products with a Fair Trade logo, and even perceived foods with that label to taste better.

Your Labels Need to Be Relevant to Your Product

The overarching narrative that consumers connect to the clean label is this concept of returning to simpler ways of making and eating food. Use this as guidance for the clean labels in your product development.

The specific plot point you should focus on within this narrative will be dictated by your product. Honesty and transparency are essential here, but so is relevance. Emphasizing “local” ingredients in a granola bar doesn’t make sense, since granola bars aren’t a seasonal food. Slapping a “refined sugar free” label on fresh carrots feels equally predatory; though it’s not inaccurate, it doesn’t feel authentic when attached to a food that doesn’t normally have added sugar. This is more likely to turn consumers away from your brand, due to a sense of dishonesty and deception.

To successfully take advantage of the demand for clean labels, you need to determine what your consumers’ pain points are in relation to your product offering, and then focus product development on alleviating those pain points. In the granola bar example, this may involve eliminating chemical flavorings and preservatives, as well as trans fats, and replacing refined sugar with honey or agave. For fresh produce, the emphasis should be on locally grown, organic, and/or non-GMO sourcing of products.

Navigating the Clean Label Trend Means Seeking Quality

What is the easiest way to work on clean label product development? Purchase high-quality ingredients from a trusted source. Today’s consumers know the difference between pasteurized and unpasteurized honey, for instance, and they’re willing to pay more for that difference. Using the best quality ingredients might cost more upfront in some cases, but it will boost your bottom line when you can reliably deliver the high-quality food products your consumers want.

If you’re ready to work with the best ingredients and establish a better relationship with your consumers, contact Seawinds Foods today, and learn the difference quality makes.