Clean label
Processors are working to clean up their product labels in order to appeal to more consumers.

Clean label continues to be a priority in most innovation projects, all while the term remains undefined and is evolving. For most shoppers, the clean-label movement is more of a force that comes to life by the language on product packages and marketing materials. It’s the food’s story of how it came to be and why.

When it comes to meat and poultry, many consumers look beyond the ingredient statement and believe that processors’ business practices and principles are part of their clean-label strategy. Describing the road traveled – from farm to fridge – provides consumers with the information they need to decide if the product meets their clean-food agenda.

“Our research shows that the meaning of clean label varies among individual consumers more than between food industry sectors,” says Austin Lowder, applications scientist, DuPont Nutrition & Health, St. Louis, Missouri. “It’s an umbrella term to describe numerous consumer attitudes toward food that broadly affect how we source, formulate and process our products from the farm/raw material level through ingredient manufacture and into foodservice and consumer packaged goods product development. These consumer attitudes may be specific, like ‘avoiding gluten’ or ‘reducing sodium intake,’ but they might also be broader, such as avoiding chemical-sounding ingredients or seeking only ingredients that are familiar to the individual.”

Clean label for meat and poultry processors has gone from “cupboard friendly” to “minimally processed” to “shorter ingredient statements” and now includes “ingredients with a sustainable supply chain story,” according to Tom Katen, technical service manager-meats with Cargill Texturizing Solutions, Minneapolis.

“Regardless of consumers’ evolving demands, all meat and poultry must align with federal regulations, which identify the ingredients that may be used in particular products,” Katen says. “That said, there are still options to formulate consumer-pleasing, label-friendly products. The key is to understand what the current ingredient brings to the formula before replacing it with an alternative, label-friendly ingredient.”

Chad Boeckman, director of marketing and national accounts with Wenda Ingredients, Naperville, Illinois, says, “A fully cooked and seasoned meat product can usually have a longer label and still be acceptable because consumers expect ingredients to be in the product. Longer ingredient statements also seem to be more acceptable with indulgent meats, such as bacon and sausages, and convenience meats like beef jerky.”

But there’s a difference between longer ingredient statements and chemical-sounding ingredients. Thus, ingredient selection remains an important part of the clean-label initiative.

“Consumers appreciate ingredients that sound like real food and not like chemicals,” says Kate Leahy, spokeswoman for Sunsweet Growers Inc., Yuba City, California. “The challenge within the meat and poultry category is that many ingredients that don’t sound like food – such as sodium nitrite – also can keep food safe from pathogens. But oftentimes, clean-label solutions exist, such as celery extract in place of sodium nitrite and prune ingredients instead of phosphates. Making these changes opens up products to appeal to consumers who seek out clean-label foods and who often are willing to pay more for them.”

Consumer acceptance

To gain a better understanding of the consumer’s perception of ingredients, Ingredion Inc., Westchester, Illinois, conducted a study across different food categories. The research showed that the recognition and acceptability of ingredients varies according to the food product where it is being used.

“It was interesting to notice that consumers ranked ingredients differently when they were able to identify the purpose of why some of the ingredients were used in specific products,” says Ivan Gonzales, marketing director-dairy at Ingredion.

This is why the farm-to-fridge story is so important. Sometimes a simple explanation of why an ingredient is used or a process employed is all the reassurance a consumer needs to know a product meets their standards.

“Consumers today have less trust in companies, especially large ones,” says Lynn Dornblaser, director of innovation and insight at Chicago-based Mintel. “As a result, they want more information about what is in the foods they buy. They want to know where they come from and why they have ingredients in them that they (the consumers) don’t understand.”

This growing consumer demand for transparency is being addressed both by regulation and with the rise of voluntary claims marketers make on packages and media, according to Kristi Weaver, partner, McKinsey & Company, Chicago, who was a featured speaker at the TransparencyIQ conference held Oct. 18, in Rosemont, Illinois.

“There’s mandated transparency, in which regulatory agencies act as advocates for the consumer and set up rules around,” she says.

This includes labeling laws, such as the Nutrition Facts and nutrient content claims; dietary restrictions, such as a ban on trans-fatty acids; sourcing claims, such as organic; and manufacturing claims, such as no hormones in poultry.

“There’s also voluntary transparency, where companies advertise product attributes that cater to their target consumer,” Weaver says.

She explained that in today’s food industry, information about product ingredients ranks highest in terms of transparency, followed by manufacturing process and sourcing practices. Many marketers invest in clean-label claims to remain competitive. Others do so to secure a competitive advantage based on consumer demand and their willingness to pay.

“Today clean label not only means eliminating chemicals but also being truthful to the consumer,” Boeckman says. “It is more important to be open, transparent and honest than it is to have a perfectly clean label. 

“Consumers can forgive an ingredient or two that isn’t perfectly clean. But, they usually don’t forgive a processor or brand when they feel betrayed.”

According to a recent consumer shopping and buying behavior study from Kemin Industries, Des Moines, Iowa, conducted by Harris Poll, 31 percent of shoppers say they always read the ingredient label and 49 percent of those say health claims, or claims they equate with levels of sodium, sugar and fat content, are most important.

“Fifty percent of shoppers do not avoid purchasing grocery items because of any words in the ingredient label, but a minority (26 percent) avoid the word ‘preservative’ on the label,” says Courtney Schwartz, senior marketing manager at Kemin.