What drives consumers to clean-label foods?

27 Jun 2024

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Transparent trend shifts choices towards natural, free-from products

For food consumers, the term "natural" is synonymous with authenticity and realness. They now seek out products that avoid additives, opting instead for those that feature recognized and trusted components. Discover how their focus on health is drawing consumers to clean-label products. A shift so big, that natural and organic were the most searched topics related to bakery, patisserie & chocolate in 2023.

Explaining the concept of clean label in food

There is no set definition of clean-label products. Within the food industry, the term is used to describe foods that only contain ‘real’ ingredients, meaning the ingredient list is free from ingredients that consumers perceive as artificial, for instance, because of a hard-to-grasp name. Clean-label products contain no additives and use only natural colors and flavors.

CleanER label products only use natural colors and flavors and have eliminated one or more additives, as to deviate from the average product in their food category. According to research by FMCG Gurus, the most important aspects of clean-label foods to consumers are naturalness (68%), recognizable ingredients (63%) and knowing the origin of ingredients (61%). The top 5 clean-label interpretations are completed by non-GMO foods and additive-free products.

Natural vs. clean label

Almost 8 out of 10 consumers like to see the claim ‘100% natural’ on product packaging, FMCG Gurus found. But the term ‘natural’ is not easy to grasp, so food producers must do more than just label their products as ‘natural’ to win over clean-label consumers. Transparency is key, so brands should communicate their interpretation of ‘natural’: do they avoid additives, opt for organic contents, or use recognizable ingredients only? Being open helps win consumer trust, and front-of-packaging natural or free-from claims help shoppers quickly evaluate products.

Shoppers now read labels more closely

A total of six in ten consumers say they have become more attentive to ingredient listings over the past year, according to our research. Consumers state they want to improve their eating habits as a proactive way to maintain their health. Ingredients deemed bad are avoided or consumed in moderation. Product packaging is carefully inspected to see what foods are made of. The fewer ingredients, the better, but consumers also want to see free-from claims as reassurance.

Navigating consumer views on additives

Consumers worry there are harmful ingredients hidden in their foods, disguised by complex labeling. Lists circulating online with E-numbers to avoid due to health risks make people wary of unknown ingredients. While certain ultra-processed foods have been linked to obesity, most additives in food products are meant to improve taste, texture or shelf-life. They ensure processed foods remain safe and in good condition throughout their journey from factories and industrial kitchens, to warehouses, stores and finally: consumers. But, even though all food additives are thoroughly researched and regulated, some consumers rather opt for natural and organic products as they are simpler and easier to understand. That gives a sense of control and safety. 

Are consumers willing to pay more for clean-label products?

Consumers value transparency so much that half are willing to pay extra for clean-label products, Innova found. Especially in staple product categories, natural claims are important. More than half of consumers (56%) find natural claims important for bread, 47% for bakery products and 42% for breakfast or cereal bars, according to our global Taste Tomorrow survey among over 40,000 consumers.

What do consumers prefer: healthier or more natural?

The clean-label trend represents a significant shift in consumer attitudes towards food, where proactive health choices become more common. They increasingly favor products that are transparent, natural and simple. But those aren’t strict requirements, Innova Flavor research points out that consumers are open to compromise on those aspects in favor of extra health benefits. For instance, 41% of consumers will compromise on a natural ingredient if an artificial ingredient is healthier and helps to reduce sugar, for instance. If consumers understand why an ingredient is there and how it helps, they’re more willing to accept ingredients that are less natural. This insight should encourage brands to adopt more transparent and health-focused practices.

Clean-label case studies

Food made from food

LÄRABAR is an example of a brand adopting this trend, promoting itself with the tagline ‘food made from food’. To keep it clean and simple, they use just 2 to 9 ingredients per product for their plant-based bars, cereal and brownies. They even state the number of ingredients on the front of their bar wrappers to be transparent towards consumers. As part of their food-made-from-food ideology, they use no artificial sweeteners or flavors and GMO ingredients are a no-go as well. All ensuring consumers LÄRABAR is a healthy, safe choice.

Organic and free-from treats

We see clean-label innovations showing up in the confectionery section as well. Unreal Snacks produces sweet treats that appeal to consumers wanting to eat more natural, but don’t want to give up their sweet midday pick-me-up. The candy bars, chocolate nuts and peanut butter cups are made with ‘100% real ingredients’, which is explained as ‘no artificial stuff and lots less sugar, in a way that's better for people and the planet’. The snacks are made with ‘simple ingredients’, but do not necessarily have a shorter ingredient list. The chocolate caramel peanut nougat bars are promoted as the ‘100% real upgrade to your favorite’ (meaning Snickers). But the ingredient list of the real snack isn’t necessarily shorter than its famous counterpart. The biggest change is that Unreal uses 70% organic ingredients and 40% less sugar.

5 Clean-Label Brands to Watch

Get inspired by five food brands that have fully embraced the clean-label approach, from fruit juices to veggie deli meats.

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