Clean Labels

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Guide to clean labels

Average read time: 15 minutes

In recent years, "eating clean" and the clean label movement have become some of the major trends in the food industry. In the US, 34.2 percent of adults over the age of 20 are overweight while 33.8 percent of adults are obese. More than a third of adults have heart disease and more than a third have high blood pressure. Another third have a high risk for developing high blood pressure over the course of their lifetimes. Weight and health problems are often linked to poor dietary choices.

Is it any wonder people are looking for ways to eat healthier and easy-to-prepare foods made with wholesome ingredients?

It's not just fat, sugar, and calories people are looking at as they try to improve their diets. They are also paying more attention to the ingredients in their food, from the types of flavorings and colorings used to the types of sweeteners added. Consumer demand for natural, organic or otherwise clean ingredients has led a number of food companies to alter their ingredient lists and look for new ways to formulate food products so they still have a pleasant taste and texture without unwanted ingredients.

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In 60 seconds, this video explains why "eating clean" and the clean label movement has become a major focal point in the food industry.

Similarly to the term "natural," there is no legal definition of clean label, so it can mean slightly different things to different people. In fact, a survey of 27,185 people from 31 countries conducted in December of 2015 found that many people had no real idea what "clean label" meant.

About one third of respondents said "clean label" meant the product was organic. Another third or so said a "clean label" food had no artificial ingredients. The final third admitted they had no idea what it was. Despite the confusion over "clean label," about 10 percent of respondents said they would be willing to pay more for a clean-labelled food.

Several components make up a "clean label." There are some general features people expect to see when a food is labeled as clean or natural.

  • Short and simple list of ingredients. About 75 percent of people in the U.S. read food ingredient lists and nutritional labels. Around 72 percent of those consumers stated they prefer to see short ingredient lists with ingredients they can easily recognize and pronounce. People feel safer and more assured of a food's quality when they look at the list of ingredients and immediately understand what they are.
  • Transparency. Clean labels are all about transparency. This doesn't only mean having easy-to-recognize ingredients. In some cases, it also literally means having transparent packaging, so a consumer can see what's inside before buying. Clear jars, wrappers or bags provide reassurance a person is actually buying a food containing real fruit or real meat, for example.
  • "Clean" language. The language used on the packaging can help make it a clean label or not. People are looking for words like "100% Natural," "Real Fruit" or "Five Servings of Vegetables." Along with the promise of natural ingredients, people are also looking for foods free from certain ingredients. "No MSG," "Non-GMO" and "Nothing Artificial" all stand out to the clean-label conscious consumer.
  • Clean symbols. The branding on a label or packaging can also influence whether or not it's a clean label. Clean label products usually feature images which look natural or realistic on the packaging. A fruit-filled breakfast food can feature pictures of real fruit, or a carton of organic milk can feature a picture of a farmer standing next to a few dairy cows.
  • Promise of freshness. Packaged and processed food often has a reputation for being stale or treated in such a way it becomes barely recognizable as food. Clean-label products promote the idea that the food is fresh or that it's made with pure, fresh ingredients. Examples might include a yogurt made with some amount of real fruit, raw honey or a whole grain bread. These are all packaged foods, but people still associate them with freshness.

Although some often associate "clean eating" with whole, completely unprocessed foods, like whole fruits and vegetables, the majority of consumers don't feel that way. According to a 2015 survey from the NPD Group, more than 60 percent of grocery shoppers believe some packaged foods are acceptable on a clean eating diet. Nearly 45 percent believe some processing is fine.

Although people have been health-conscious for decades — think of the macrobiotic trends in the 1970s and the focus on organic produce and foods that came about in the 1990s — the current clean label and clean eating trend might be traced back to about 2008. At the time, Michael Pollan, a food and garden writer, published the book "In Defense of Food."

In his book, Pollan listed several "rules" for eating. Rule one was, "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." His argument was that many of the food products on the market weren't actually food but instead were "food-like substances." Another rule he came up with was, "Don't eat anything your grandmother wouldn't recognize as food." He also urged people to read the ingredient lists of food and to avoid anything with a lengthy list of unfamiliar ingredients.

Pollan's recommendation, interestingly enough, led a number of food producers to start focusing on producing foods containing five or fewer ingredients. One example is the ice cream brand Häagen-Dazs, which launched a line called Häagen-Dazs Five. Each of the flavors in the line contained only five ingredients: milk, cream, sugar, egg yolks and flavor, like coffee or chocolate.

The Häagen-Dazs line was a clever bit of marketing, as many of the flavors in its normal line also contained those same five ingredients. So it wasn't really offering consumers something new — it was simply cleaning up the label and packaging to make an old product appeal to a new, more demanding crowd.

Other trends in the history of clean labels focus specifically on particular ingredients or nutrients. High fructose corn syrup, a cheaper alternative to cane sugar, is one ingredient people have learned to look out for over the years. Products proudly proclaiming they don't contain corn syrup have been a trendy choice for a few years.

Back in 2007, 41 percent of people stated they avoided products containing high fructose corn syrup. By 2013, that number climbed to 50 percent of people. The backlash against corn syrup was so severe, the Corn Refiners Association had to put out TV commercials defending its key product. Another recent clean label trend is the focus on antibiotic-free, growth hormone-free or organic foods. "No Hormones or Antibiotics" claims appeared on nearly five percent of new yogurt launches in 2014 and on six percent of new chicken products. More than seven percent of new food products in 2014 were labeled organic. Over in Germany, McDonald's is rumored to be trying to sell an organic beef burger.

An increase in concerns and awareness of genetically engineered or genetically modified (GMO) foods has led to another important trend in clean labeling. Just 15 percent of respondents avoided GMO foods in 2007. By 2013, that number had jumped to 33 percent. Meanwhile, the number of foods labeled as "non-GMO" grew by 40 percent over the course of 2014.

Interest in non-GMO clean labels continued to grow. In 2016, Archer Midland Daniels bought Harvest Innovations, a brand which produces non-GMO soybean oils, proteins and gluten-free foods. Numerous other brands began to throw their hats into the non-GMO ring, including La Brea bakery, which announced it would be completely GMO-free by the end of the year.

Pasta produced by New World Pasta, Co., earned non-GMO certification from the Non-GMO Verified Projects. A number of other brands, such as Kashi, also earned the verification. These brands' changes came about just in time for a new law, passed over the summer of 2016, requiring food products to state if they were produced with genetic engineering.

Meanwhile, Nestlé, the maker of Häagen-Dazs and many other brands of ice cream, announced in 2016 that many of its ice creams would be getting a clean label makeover. More than 100 products would be reformulated to remove GMO ingredients, high fructose corn syrup and artificial flavors. In response to the trend for hormone-free products, the brand decided to switch to using milk from cows not treated with rBST (Recombinant Bovine Somatotropin).

Reducing ingredient lists and switching to healthier ingredients aren't the only two historical clean-label trends. Consumer demand for the removal of strange or difficult-to-pronounce ingredients has also led food manufacturers to rethink what they use in their products.

For example, in 2014, the sandwich chain Subway announced it would be removing an ingredient, azodicarbonamide, from its breads. The chain made the decision following after an online petition. Azodicarbonamide had been commonly used to condition bread dough and bleach wheat flour, but concerns about its safety had many people alarmed.

Subway's decision had a domino effect, and several other bread companies also decided to remove the ingredient from their products following the sandwich company's announcement.

The demand for clean labels was one of the top trends in the food industry in 2017. Short ingredient lists and easy-to-understand ingredients won't be enough to convince customers a food is really "clean."

One factor expected to play a big role in the clean label trend is eco-friendliness. As people grow more and more concerned about their environmental footprint, demand will only increase for foods that can claim to have a low impact on the planet. Already, "environmentally friendly" products have had a growth of 72 percent between 2011 and 2015.

Going hand in hand with an environmentally-friendly focus will be a focus on plant-based or animal-friendly foods. This goes back to Michael Pollan, who way back in 2008, told people to eat "mostly plants." That's been interpreted as "eat more foods made from plant ingredients." Today's plant-based foods are a far cry from the Tofurkeys and veggie burgers of the past, though.

It's no longer just about soy and wheat gluten. Today's plant-based meat alternatives contain ingredients perceived to be not only more planet-friendly, but also healthier. Options like pea protein, cauliflower, and jackfruit offer people creative and tasty ways to increase their intake of fruits and vegetables with ease.

Sugar is another ingredient on the clean label chopping block. While initially, people expressed concerns about high fructose corn syrup in their food and beverages, some of that concern is now being directly at plain old cane sugar itself.

It's not just customer demand that will encourage companies to ease up on sugar in food products over the coming year. Products containing sugar are now beginning to be taxed by governments, in an effort to both raise revenue and reduce consumption.

In Mexico, the sugar tax has been in place since 2013. A 10 percent tax is added to drinks containing sugar or other added sweeteners. During the first year the tax existed, sales of sweetened drinks fell by six percent, while sales of water and sugar-free drinks went up by four percent.

Another clean label trend, is a focus on more personalized, specific dietary needs. Clean labels and clean eating often go hand in hand in specialized diets like the Paleo diet, the low FODMAP diet or the Whole 30. As these diets continue to become more popular, food makers can produce products made easy for consumers to get the foods they need without having to spend hours in the kitchen preparing meals.

One of the challenges clean labels present to food manufacturers is finding natural and clean ingredients to replace the original ones used in foods. Many food ingredients are chosen because they enhance the taste or texture of a food or because they help it last longer. Among the ingredients taken out by food producers are monosodium glutamate (MSG), artificial colors, preservatives, and artificial flavors.

But what's replacing them? As it turns out, there are a number of clean-label ingredients that work to enhance food's taste, texture, and longevity, without having to use multi-syllable ingredients.

For example, emulsifiers are commonly used in frozen foods and in packaged baked goods. The famous azodicarbonamide is an emulsifier, as is the tongue twister diacetyl tartaric acid esters of mono- and diglycerides — conveniently shortened to DATEM. The clean-label customer doesn't want to see those words on a list of ingredients.

Instead, a naturally sourced emulsifier such as lecithin is much more inviting to a clean-label consumer. Lecithin can come from a variety of sources, all of them plant-based, such as sunflower, canola, or soy.

Natural food colorings is another example of clean-label ingredients. Like the naturally sourced lecithin, natural food colorings come from plants. For example, in 2016, Kraft traded the artificial food coloring used in its famous boxed macaroni and cheese for colorings sourced from spices such as turmeric, annatto, and paprika.

So-called native starches are also considered clean-label ingredients. Many foods contain modified starches, which are altered in someway to change their ability to freeze and thaw or to improve their stability. Manufacturers are now looking to trade those starches for starches in their natural form. Since native starches do have some trouble with being frozen and thawed, the challenge is for food producers to find a way to use the starches without negatively affecting the texture of frozen food.

Of course, some of the most obvious clean-label ingredients are food items a person might find in his or her own kitchen. Ingredients such as salt, olive oil, and milk are all considered clean-label ingredients.

Where things can get tricky is in the case of sugar. Pure cane sugar is a natural ingredient. So are ingredients such as honey and maple syrup. These are all technically pure and natural ingredients, but because of sugar and sweeteners' connections to the obesity problem, they are not considered clean by many.

Instead, food producers are looking towards clean-label ingredients such as stevia, a low-calorie sweetener that comes from an herb, and monk fruit to reduce calories from sugar without reducing the flavor or perceived sweetness of the product.

How the ingredients are produced also influences whether they are considered clean label or not. Chickens allowed to roam freely are usually more likely to be clean label than those raised in confinement. Grass-fed, antibiotic free beef is clean label — grain-fed beef, not so much.

As the demand for clean-label products and clean-label ingredients continue to increase, it's up to food producers to come up with innovative ways to meet the needs of their customers without sacrificing the quality or taste of their products.

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