Clean Label – What does it mean?

Food labeling has become a controversial subject. From what is a clean label to the science and emotion behind genetically modified food labelling to MDs suggesting warning labels on not so healthy foods, it is difficult to keep up. Therefore, I decided to post a three part, hot topic series on food labelling.  This is first post: Clean Label – What does it mean?

Clean labelling was a hot topic on the conference circuit this year. When I think clean label, I envisioned stark labels with no obvious dirt…However this is not what the food marketers had in mind.  At the four conferences I attended this year, I asked the food marketers and salespeople, “What is a clean label?” Their answers were slightly different but all had one common reply,  “This is what the consumer is requesting.”

Why Clean Label?

Recently, there has been a trend towards eating fresh, ‘natural’ and wholesome foods.  The people who discuss and follow the movement of ‘clean eating’ say it is not a diet, but rather it’s a lifestyle approach to food and its preparation, leading to an improved life – one meal at a time. It is consuming food in its most natural state, or as close to it as possible. I agree with most of what they recommend, however, some of their mantras are too polarized for my philosophy that ‘all foods fit’. It is necessary to consider the many different social, economical and geographical situations people are navigating throughout their lives.

Clean Label 101

The term ‘clean label’ is by no means clear or straightforward. In fact, there are no methods, standards or guidance documents for clean labelling. Is it a marketing term based on consumer demand? Do ingredients with modifiers such as ‘hydrogenated,’ ‘modified’ or ‘artificial,’ and any chemical-sounding name suggests not a ‘clean’ ingredient or product? For me the term clean label is still vague. Some have suggested that clean labels describe the products using terms that consumers understand, with the goal of communicating clear and transparent information. How does a consumer react to the term pyridoxine? It is not a common word and a bit difficult to pronounce. It is the scientific term for  vitamin B6…. One of the limitations that exists with the clean labelling trend  is that it relies on consumer knowledge and perception of ingredients used in food products.

The Clean Label Approach

Since not all consumers have extensive food and nutrition backgrounds, manufacturers often encounter barriers towards certain ingredients. There seems to be at least two approaches to the clean label. The first is to use ingredients that consumers view as natural and wholesome. Some manufacturers are developing products with a list of 5 simple ingredients, as clean label products. The second is to raise consumer awareness about certain ingredients by providing information on packages, at the point of sale, through company sites, and other various methods. As with any marketing strategy, consumer perception and understanding is important.

What do you think?

I support consumers striving to avoid artificial and overly processed foods on a frequent basis. I suggest to my clients to remember the 80/20 rule – 80% of the time eat healthy and nutritious and the other 20% of the time allow for indulgent.  And I believe it is important for consumers to understand that manufacturers may need to produce some of their favourite foods with both additives and preservatives which are necessary for shelf-life, food safety and to maintain taste profiles. And what do you think…?