As consumer demand for ingredient transparency continues to expand, it may seem that clean labeling is on solid footing. But during session 211, “What Does Clean Mean? Overcoming the Challenge of GMOs and Other Ingredient Avoidances,” presenters explained how consumers are changing the concept of clean labeling to an idea that contradicts the original conceptualization of clean labeling.
Clean label enthusiasts are people who care about the ingredients in their food and always read product labels. David Lundahl of Insights Now worked with a capsule group of clean label enthusiasts to learn their perspectives on several food issues. He said that they avoid buying products from brands that they believe are not using what they consider to be clean ingredients and that they shop at more stores than other consumer segments to find what they want. Clean label enthusiasts want more transparency in ingredient statements, and they also do more fact-checking than other consumer groups. For these people, a non-GMO diet is a lifestyle, not a temporary trend. Interestingly, clean label enthusiasts are not receptive to many alternative protein ingredients because they do not perceived them as non-GMO or otherwise clean label because the protein sources not familiar to these consumers. The changing dynamic of clean label will likely be a rude awakening for these consumers.
Roberto Salas of International Flavors & Fragrances said that because there are no hard and fast technical guidelines or regulatory standards for what constitutes a clean label, the term is now encompassing concepts that contradict each other. For most consumers, he said, clean labeling encompasses one of four different ingredient attributes: nutrition, health, and wellness; quality and value; safety; and ethical/social responsibility. Many of today’s consumers seem more concerned about sustainability, social responsibility, and taking back control over what they eat.
Rachel Cheatham of Foodscape Group agreed that clean label strongly intersects with sustainability, so the area where there is overlap between clean label and sustainable is generating lots of product development for vegans and vegetarians. This product segment includes dairy alternatives, meat alternatives, algae or sea vegetables, and mushrooms. However, creating plant-based products that mimic meat, eggs, and dairy is neither simple nor science-free. Consumers who want to avoid dairy and animal products will end up buying packaged products that have very long ingredient lists because a lot of food science is required to mimic the taste and consistency of natural animal-based foods like eggs, milk, ice cream, cheese, and meat.
Cheatham said that there is cognitive dissonance in consumers who want clean-label and socially responsible foods because products that mimic meat and dairy products are processed and require a lot of bioengineering. Eventually, consumers will have to decide whether their priority is eating clean or eating socially responsible food that isn’t necessarily going to have clean labels or be minimally processed. She pointed out that the Beyond Meat patties that bleed require a lot of bioengineering to for those patties to “bleed.” Most consumers don’t realize that products that mimic meat products may be grown in petri dishes, which contradicts the traditional notion of clean label. Once consumers figure this out, will the products still be acceptable to them? No one knows, but Cheatham advises product manufacturers to know their consumers. For example, General Mills removed artificial colors from Trix cereal, only to have to put the artificial colors back after receiving numerous complaints about the new clean label product. In contrast, another cereal in the General Mills cereal portfolio, Kix, underwent a clean-label makeover and was well received.