Clean label interest is closely linked with trends for natural, organic, local and sustainable, she noted. It is also tied to a small but emerging interest in an anti-inflammatory diet.
A Complicated Topic
While clean label has become a top trend in the natural products industry, there is no legal definition, and about half of consumers have never heard of the term, Dr. Sloan said.
“Clean label is a very complicated consumer topic,” she said. “It is not a consumer buzz word; about half of consumers have never heard of it.” Specifically, 47% have never heard the term, and 32% have heard it but don’t understand it.
Still, consumers are demanding minimally processed products, no synthetic additives, and simple/wholesome/authentic/real ingredients.
The most popular clean labels include: all-natural ingredients, no artificial ingredients, no artificial preservatives, no high fructose corn syrup, organic, and no artificial colors.
Consumer avoidance of artificial ingredients is at an all-time high, Dr. Sloan said, exemplified perhaps by announcements from major corporations pledging to remove certain ingredients. For example, Whole Foods has banned 78 ingredients in foods it sells, Kroger’s Simple Truth natural product line bans 101 ingredients, and Safeway’s Open Nature product line bans 130 artificial ingredients. Additionally, Panera has removed 150 food additives from its restaurant offerings, and other chains are beginning to follow suit.
“Chemicals are now the most important food safety issue in the U.S.,” said Dr. Sloan. “Confidence in the food supply has fallen for the third year in a row. People have a greater fear of chemicals and half of people are making changes.”
“Clean cues” now dominate consumer perception of what is a healthy food/drink, Dr. Sloan added. When asked how important certain attributes are to making a food product good for their health and wellness (in a 2013 Hartman Group survey), 60% said “ingredients I recognize,” 56% said “made with simple, real ingredients,” and 50% said “absence of artificial ingredients.”
What makes a food healthy? Consumers generally cite three things, Dr. Sloan said: preservative-free, no artificial sweeteners and antibiotic/hormone-free.
Who is setting the pace for clean label? About one quarter of adults (23%) are heavy clean label consumers, Dr. Sloan said, most prevalently 50-64 year olds (26%) and those 65+ (30%).
Food Claims In Demand
There have been some significant changes regarding the most sought after food claims in the U.S. from 2014 to 2015, according to Dr. Sloan. For example, 26% of U.S. food shoppers surveyed by the Food Marketing Institute said they now seek non-GMO products—the same percent that looks for natural—while only 20% are seeking certified organic.
While consumers seem to prefer “natural” products, labeling is in decline likely due to legal and regulatory complexities, along with overuse and misuse by the industry, which has led to several class-action lawsuits.
Interest in “natural” skews toward younger consumers, whereas “clean label” attributes appeal primarily to older consumers, due in part to health concerns of an aging population.
However, sales of organic food and beverage products in the U.S. have continued to grow, reaching $35 billion in 2014, according to the Organic Trade Association. Consumer demand has grown by double digits every year since the 1990s, Dr. Sloan said. One third of organic users look for non-GMO products, and 29% of adults buy organic in order to avoid GMOs.
In the U.S. 40% of consumers are avoiding or reducing GMOs in their daily diet, up from just 22% the previous year. When asked about their reasoning, 71% cited concern about GMOs’ possible impact on personal health and well-being; 48% said they want to know exactly what goes into the food they eat. Despite tremendous growth in products bearing the Non-GMO Project Verified seal, 57% of consumers still aren’t aware of this seal.
While consumers may have different interpretations or ideas about what clean label means, Dr. Sloan suggested companies ultimately appeal to the natural, minimally processed and whole food lifestyles consumers are seeking. For example, products made in the U.S. offer a great selling point, she said.
Additionally, environmental sustainability, natural ingredients/minimally processed foods and hyper-local sourcing are among the top three 2015 culinary themes for chefs, according to the National Restaurant Association.