Clean Label: Facts and Trends

It is increasingly common for E-numbers to be misleading to consumers, who demand products whose labels can be clearly understood and contain no unnecessary chemicals. Consumers are increasingly paying attention to the composition of foodstuffs and also how this is communicated in the packaging. Clean Label responds to the growing demand for information and transparency by consumers. “Clean labeling” is no longer a trend but rather a consumer demand, to which the industry in general is responding, putting more and more emphasis on these aspects in food packaging.
Although there is no official regulation on “clean labeling” (Clean Label), we can analyse the guidelines that different bodies or interest groups show in this regard.

The National Center for Food Technology and Security (CNTA) has manifested, through its leaders, the challenge for the industry to keep consumers in a growing need to eat increasingly natural foods, and propose three ways to help companies to get it:

  •  First, it is important to consider the latest trends in natural ingredients to replace conventional additives.
  •  Secondly, a good path may be the use of new conservation technologies which are less aggressive and more respectful of the sensory and nutritional characteristics of food.
  •  Finally, we have alternatives in packaging, with the use of materials with functional antifungal, antimicrobial or oxygen hijackers (to avoid oxidation problems).

Non-Profit Organizations

There are different organizations like Clean Label Project ™ that are contributing their vision on clean labeling with the aim of educating people so that they are more informed when buying products. The philosophy of this project is based on being able to clarify to consumers what it is that the label does not tell them. That is, they look behind the ingredients, industrial or environmental pollutants that may exist to inform the consumer before they purchase the product. Product evaluations are based on chemical analyses and the organisation does not make guesses or assumptions about data provided by companies or other consumer associations, but simply conduct studies and publish data objectively.

How Clean Label Project ™ works: they buy and analyse hundreds of products that represent 90% of the best brands in their category. Blind tests are performed in independent laboratories and the results are validated by two other laboratories. The data obtained after the laboratory analyses are analysed and compared by their own doctors. With the results, and in order to keep consumers informed, Clean Label Project ™ uses a 5-star rating system available on the web to rate products that have gone through the review process.
In short, this organisation aims to educate consumers, so they are aware of what they are buying. The way they do it is through scientific data, identifying toxins and sharing information with consumers. They also consider it important to understand what types of pollutants and products are being tested and their potential effects.

On the website of this non-profit organization, there is a list of pollutants that they analyse, along with some of the figures for each of these pollutants.

Leading companies in the food industry.
Several private companies have conducted their own studies focusing on the perception of consumers regarding food labeling. Some of the most important statistics that emerge from their surveys are those concerning the level of consumer awareness regarding the ingredients of processed food and the acceptance of these ingredients.
Based on these studies, the main consumer trends in this area are:

  •  Consumers are wary of those food terms they are unfamiliar with, whether natural or synthetic. Terms like “Natural flavours”, “Rosemary extract” or “certain natural antioxidants” have a good acceptance among consumers, because they are related to natural concepts. In contrast, certain colourants and flavourings, or synthetic antioxidants such as BHA, BHT or TBHQ have poor consumer perception. Even concepts such as E numbers are not well evaluated, regardless of the fact that much of these additives are naturally occurring.
  • Another point of the data that emerges from this survey is one concerning acceptance, where it can be seen that 2 out of 3 consumers consider that a product containing artificial ingredients should not be considered natural.
  • Regarding applications, the products in which most respondents think that there should be no artificial products is in meat, dairy and cereals.
  • On the other hand, according to these companies, “Clean label” is no longer a trend, but a reality included in the labeling of food products. But what is the formula that should be included in the labeling for consumers to identify it as “Clean Label” in the labeling?
    • Clarity: 3 out of 4 respondents normally read the list of ingredients, and identify “without artificial ingredients” and “without additives or preservatives” as the most important identifiers to associate that product as a natural product or Clean Label.
    • Consciousness: Consumers seek directly the brands they normally consume to be environmentally conscious in their manufacturing processes, such as packaging, supply and responsible livestock. Consumers are looking for brands that not only think about supply in the short term but also about care of the environment and the planet in the long term.
    • Connection: the millennials’’ tendency, on the other hand, is to buy brands with which they have a greater connection and not those that buy their parents. They are interested in knowing what is behind brands such as origin, responsible practices and people.
    • Credibility: because of the greater information that users receive about the ingredients, they are more aware of what they buy and what they consume, so they demand more accurate and credible information. For example, there has been a confusion between the term “Natural” and “All natural” used as claims, which has caused skepticism in society.

Companies specialising in market research

In the USA, other surveys have been conducted from where very interesting data for the industry came out.
With regard to production, consumers demand greater transparency. For example, 68% of consumers consider it important to see the product through the packaging before buying it. 25% of consumers between 18 and 34 have scanned QR codes in the wrapper with a mobile device to obtain information.

28% of users consider it an unhealthy product if it contains artificial ingredients. Thirty percent of consumers surveyed admit that they would buy more products from the store brand if they contained easily recognizable ingredients. 32% of consumers agree that the “natural” claim is good for health. Also 34% of respondents identified with the phrase, “I buy more organic food than I bought a year ago.”

As a final conclusion we can say that although there is no official body or health authorities that clearly define what is “Clean Label” and when this concept can be used, what does seem to be increasingly clear is that users have more information, so they demand more clarity about what they buy and consume, with the aim of consuming more and more natural products. In this sense, it is clear that there is a tendency in the food sector towards the natural and sustainable.