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Clean vs. dirty label food/

What is it and what does it mean for food manufacturers?

By Pareen Shah

Strolling down the grocery store aisle, you might be surprised at how few ingredients are recognizable on the ingredient labels of the surrounding packages. Ingredients like calcium propionate, monocalcium phosphate, and carboxylmethyl cellulose may seem better suited for the chemistry supply closet. Nonetheless, these words on the label matter. A 2021 Food Ingredient LSI Survey found that 62% of consumers believe that the label ingredient list is the most important source of information about a food [1].

In recent years, many consumers have begun to agree that these chemical sounding names are out of place in their pantries, at their dining table, or in the bellies of their children. A June 2021 study indicated 64% [2] of US consumers “try to choose foods made with clean ingredients”. No longer are these artificial ingredients being viewed as the norm. Instead, perception of these ingredients is shifting toward descriptors like complex, opaque, uncertain, outdated, and chemical. In one word, dirty. The clean label movement – a charge led by consumers for transparency and traceability in our food supply – is shaking up the dirty label status quo. The movement prioritizes a reduced ingredient list with traceable sourcing and recognizable names. This familiarity creates trust –and trust is ultimately the driver of long-term consumer loyalty. To be clear “clean label” is a consumer term, not a scientific definition.

Laws and regulations provide little clarity either. In the US, Roger Clemens, the former president of the Institute of Food Technologists, who currently is a professor at the University of Southern California, says “consumers are demanding [clean label] and the industry responds to consumer demands. The challenge is the fact that there aren’t any regulations and there’s no definition, no federal regulation, no (U.S. Agriculture Department) nor FDA definition of what a clean label is” [3]. The EU is similarly murky, as the lack of a comprehensive clean label framework has left individual member countries to define their own standards [4]. Nonetheless, it is becoming a widely accepted concept across numerous industries and disciplines, from food to academia. The movement ushers in a new era of ingredients – ingredients that are simple rather than complex, transparent instead of opaque, and revolutionary as opposed to outdated. In essence, a clean label stands for everything a dirty label is not.

Simple vs. Complex

“Perception is reality” has become a cliché in our marketing-driven world. But, alas, it’s stunningly accurate. The world to-date has been chock-full of dirty label ingredients, with polysyllabic names only a chemistry professor could love. However, the perception of these ingredients to the average consumer is far from love. A study by the International Food Information Council [5] reported that of clean label shoppers surveyed, one in five (21%) chose clean ingredients to avoid potential harmful effects of chemical-sounding ingredients and nearly as many (18%) avoided unfamiliar ingredients for the same reason. The complexity and chemical nature of dirty label names has fostered sentiments of uneasiness and uncertainty, a deterrent for consumers. The result of this negative perception is the reality that our food supply needs transformation, away from complexity and toward simplicity.

Clean labelling is centered around simplicity, creating ingredient labels with a short list of recognizable names. In fact, 50% of those surveyed by Ingredient Communications [6] said they are more willing to buy products if they recognize all of the ingredients on the label. Recognizable, clean ingredient label has many implications. An FMCG Gurus USA Clean Labels Survey [1] found a positive response to “100% natural” claims from 83% of surveyed customers and 67% to “minimally processed”.

Innova Health & Nutrition [2] found that global consumers define clean ingredients as “free of additives and preservatives” (51%), “only natural ingredients” (46%), and “organic” (33%). Essentially, recognizable means a seemingly unadulterated raw ingredient with a name so simple and familiar you might find it in your own kitchen pantry. As an example, “cultured wheat extract”, the clean label replacement for petrochemically-derived calcium propionate, is comprised of recognizable words which hit a much more comforting and positive consumer note than its petrochemical stunt double. It feels familiar, safe, and simple.

Transparent vs. Opaque

A 2020 survey by the Morning Consult [7] found that less thana quarter of Americans fully trust the labels on food packaging. Not surprisingly, then, another study, by InsightsNow [8], found that 69% of the general population held food companies responsible for the food they create, and only 36% trusted those companies. The uncertainty surrounding dirty labelling has not only reduced trust in consumer products, but it’s also reduced trust in consumer product companies. How did we get here?

A close cousin of complexity is opaqueness. Opaqueness has been the status quo in the ingredient space for decades, and for good reason. Even the most brilliant marketer would have a tough time making the average parent feel good about oil – the driver of much of the environmental and geopolitical strife of the last century, the stuff that coats hapless seabirds in a lethal goo in the wake of catastrophic oil spills, the fuel that moves us around but also moves the planet’s thermometer perilously higher – being a key component of junior’s peanut butter & jelly sandwich. Not only were there historically no viable alternatives, but big oil – with its ruthlessly efficient production processes and massive scale – could deliver these dirty ingredients cost-efficiently. Rather than rationalizing this petrochemical production process, the public was left to view it as a nebulous but necessary black box.

While the uncertainty of the shrouded approach worked for decades, “people fear what they don’t understand”. Clean labels allow consumers to move away from the black box of dirty label ingredient production and toward a transparent, traceable food supply. For example, cultured celery extract, the clean replacement for sodium nitrite as a deli meat preservative, easily conveys an understandable backstory to consumers. Picking apart the name, “celery” is a vegetable you could find at your local farmer’s market. The modifier “cultured” indicates a fermentation process that many perform in their own homes to make yogurt, kombucha, kimchi, etc. The transparency provided by clean label names like these convey an understandable process with familiar inputs, a priority for conscious consumers.

A revolutionary future vs. An outdated past

Clean labelling is picking up steam and is showing no signs of slowing down. A recent market report [9] predicted that the market will continue to grow with a CAGR of nearly 7% to approach $70 billion by the end of 2028. This growth is largely attributed to conscious customers willing to dig deeper into science and into their pockets. ATLAS, Ingredion’s proprietary global consumer research entity, reported [10] that 78% of consumers are willing to pay more for a clean label than the dirty counterpart. Further, almost half (46%) stated they would pay 20-30% more for a product with a natural claim. These consumers recognize that revolutionizing an industry comes at a cost, and they are willing to invest in a better future by leaving behind the dirty and striving toward the clean.

Perhaps the most powerful validation of the clean label movement, though, lies not in studies and surveys but in meaningful investment and rapid action. “By 2025, all our products for daily consumption worldwide will have simple recipes with ingredients that are easily identifiable by our consumers.” Who said this? None other than Grupo Bimbo [11], the world’s largest bread baker.

But like any revolution, there are challenges. Dirty label incumbents have commanded the market for decades with promises of low cost, high efficacy, and a well-established sensory profile. While consumers might be willing to make a financial investment, they aren’t willing to budge on taste [12]. Likewise, both producers and consumers won’t concede on efficacy [13]. The exciting challenge for clean label producers lies in meeting, and even exceeding, these expectations to retire dirty labels as a relic of the past.

Many of the biggest players in the food industry have responded to this challenge. Campbell’s Soup Co. launched the Well Yes! soup line of clean label canned soups. Kellogg’s and General Mills has committed to remove artificial flavours and colours. Ingredient producers like Corbion, AB Mauri and Kerry have developed clean alternatives for bread preservation. The list goes on. With these pledges have come great rewards. Across global large- and mid-size food companies 40% have captured a consumer premium and 58% have reported increased revenue after clean label transformations [14]. The promise of a clean label is revolutionizing the food industry for consumers and producers. A clean label invites hope in a new world. A world where the names in our pantry match those on ingredient labels. A world where each morsel on the dining table has an identifiable source. A world full of confidence in each spoonful that touches our children’s mouths. While dirty labels were a staple for previous generations, health and environment conscious consumers are seeking clean labels for the fulfilment of all that dirty labels could not provide – simplicity, transparency, and trust.

About the author Pareen Shah is Chief Commercial Officer at BioVeritas. He brings nearly two decades of commercial experience spanning business development, general management, product management, brand management, strategy and sales. He was most recently leading product management for the United States for plant-based protein leader Impossible Foods. Previously he was Head of Food for Corbion’s Algae Ingredients unit, leading the consumer-facing Thrive Culinary Algae Oil brand as well as the B2B AlgaVia protein brand. Earlier experiences include brand & general management roles at Del Monte Foods, Peaceable Kingdom, and Clorox, as well as strategy at Levi Strauss & Company. He holds an MBA from UC-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, and an MSc in Social Policy and Planning.

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