Keith Nunes
Keith Nunes
The clean label trend is here to stay. After spending several days in Chicago speaking with ingredient manufacturers and listening to presenters at the Institute of Food Technologists’ annual meeting and food exposition, it is an inescapable conclusion. Yet it also is a conclusion that makes one ask how the next phase of the trend will unfold.

The rise of clean label is a jarring development for longtime observers of the food and beverage industry. Only a decade ago functional ingredients were on the rise as researchers sought to better understand how health benefits may be delivered to consumers via specifically formulated foodstuffs. A 2006 article in this publication highlighted efforts to identify the therapeutic value of ingredients, and warnings were issued about what may occur if food manufacturers moved too close to the field of pharmaceutical development.

While such efforts may remain under way at some companies, today much finished product and ingredient development is being done with an eye for a natural, organic, non-bioengineered or simple label positioning in the marketplace. Ingredient functionality remains critical to the product development process, but the number of syllables in an ingredient’s name also carries a high level of importance.

Steve French, managing partner with the Natural Marketing Institute, said during a presentation at the IFT meeting that the clean label trend is being driven by a variety of different dimensions, which may include a consumer desire for transparency or purity in the foods they consume.

French added there is a “self-care” revolution under way among consumers and eating foods perceived as healthy gives many a feeling of control. “Consumers just want this overall notion that they are in control of their destiny,” he said. “Part of that destiny comes from behavior. One behavior is reading labels.”

The impact of more consumers reading labels was a common theme during this year’s IFT event, and it was returned to frequently in conversations on the expo floor as well as in education sessions. The notion that consumers may reject products that feature ingredients they do not recognize or understand has become a powerful force in product development. It has affected almost every ingredient category, ranging from flavors, colors, hydrocolloids and even preservatives, as companies seek natural alternatives that will maintain shelf life.

Now, with the trend firmly established, the market for products perceived as clean label appears to be fragmenting as manufacturers focus on specific product attributes related to simplicity, organic certification or achieving non-GMO status. In the same manner that ingredient suppliers have made significant investments in developing ingredients that meet today’s trends, investment is now being made in growing the supply of organic and non-GMO raw materials that may allow for the formulation of additional products.

An unsavory aspect of the rise of the clean label trend is the demonization of perfectly safe ingredients, because they failed to meet often arbitrary litmus tests for what constitutes natural, minimally processed or “simple.” Some, both inside and outside food processing, have preyed on consumers to create the perception specific ingredients and, by extension, finished products are better than others.

Now it will be interesting to see if the current trend toward fragmentation leads to the unfolding of similar events among the manufacturers and marketers of clean label products. For example, will organic manufacturers promote the purity of their products in an effort to differentiate their products from a manufacturer that may market and sell items that feature a simple label, but does not have organic certification?

A key aspect of the clean label trend has been for product developers to follow the consumer. That is sensible, but real questions may be raised about whether the clean label trend will make any difference in the overall healthfullness of healthier eating habits. The next challenge for food manufacturers may be to successfully offer consumers guidance toward better health.