Clean food labels

Clean labels: the price of simplicity

Consumer demand for products featuring a simple label has increased and food processors and ingredient suppliers are responding, but developing ‘clean label’ products poses numerous challenges for food and beverage manufacturers.

The SymphonyIRI Group’s 2010 “Food and Beverage New Product Pacesetters” underscore how prominent the clean, simple label trend has become. Four of the products ranked in the top 10 may be considered to have a clean, simple label and achieved significant year-one dollar sales across the food, drug and mass merchandising categories (excluding Wal-Mart Stores), including Chobani Greek Yogurt, Wonderful Pistachios, Nature’s Pride bread and Thomas’ Better Start English muffins.

Consumer demand for products featuring a simple label has increased and food processors and ingredient suppliers are responding.

In 2010 Cargill, Minneapolis, formed a group within its food ingredient systems platform to address the clean, simple label trend. “One of the reasons we started it (the clean label group) is we viewed it as an opportunity,” said Sharon Walbert, assistant vice-president for group. “There was consumer interest in this area and we had several key customers who had started working on it. They were working to simplify the labels on existing products or clean up some of the ingredients on the label. Some were also developing new products that used minimally processed ingredients that had the same quality, safety and shelf life of other ingredients.”

Her marketing colleague, Jennifer McLenighan, said there are a number of reasons why consumers are expressing more concern about food ingredients: “There is a growing consumer perception that what you eat can have a positive effect on your well being,” she said. “It has led consumers to be accountable for their own health. Health care costs are also a factor. People are looking for ways to be healthier. The economy has led consumers to make more mindful choices about what they are eating. On top of all that the obesity crisis has had a presence in the news.

“Then there are many initiatives that direct people to healthier eating. There is Michelle Obama’s nutrition work, front-of-pack labelling, programs like Supervalu’s Nutrition IQ effort, Wal-Mart’s initiative, and the 2010 dietary guidelines. Many of those things are contributing to people thinking about making healthier food choices.”

In 2010, the Leatherhead Food Research, UK, conducted a study of the clean label trend. The effort included a survey of 2 500 consumers across five markets, including the United States, France, Germany, Italy and the UK, as well as interviews with executives from 30 food and beverage manufacturers and ingredient suppliers.

“A clean label gives consumers sufficient information to enable them to make informed decisions leaving them in no doubt as to the contents of the product,” said Matthew Incles, market intelligence manager for Leatherhead Food Research. “According to this definition a ‘cleanly labeled’ product does not therefore need to be manufactured with ‘natural’ ‘additive-free’ or ‘store-cupboard’ ingredients as some suggest because the emphasis is focused on providing consumers transparent and clear information empowering them to express their consumption preferences.

“For example, consumers may be perfectly happy to eat or drink products containing artificial ingredients. The point of clean labeling is therefore simply to inform shoppers to enable them to better express their consumption preferences.”

Incles added that the limitation of the definition is that it relies on consumer knowledge and awareness of a vast array of ingredients.

“Clearly it is impossible for consumers to know all this and therefore food and drink manufacturers must accept that consumers will have limited knowledge and they will therefore encounter barriers, perceived or real, toward certain ingredients,” he said. “Two solutions to this dilemma are immediately apparent. The first is to only use store-cupboard or natural ingredients as consumer awareness is likely to be much higher. This road leads to product reformulation.

“The second solution is to raise consumer awareness by providing ingredient information on-pack, at point-of-sale, via company web sites and so on. This road leads to a big awareness raising campaign. The reality is that food and drink manufacturers are more than likely going to need to do a bit of both but in varying degrees.”

Kantha Shelke, a principal with Corvus Blue, Chicago, said one company that is doing a good job educating consumers is PepsiCo, Purchase, NY.

“If you look at Pepsi Sobe products, which have products that use nutraceuticals and other chemical sounding ingredients, they have a glossary on the product written in a language that may be understood by both its core audience, young men, and their parents.

“There is an opportunity for food companies to be transparent. It is a very small step, but it is a very important step to bringing closer those consumers who are on the fence and keeping them rather than having them move away from certain products.” ….. Read more