The buzz about clean labels that has been building over the past few years is coming to the forefront in a variety of ways.

First, more food products will have different on-front labels this year, thanks to voluntary front-of-package nutrition labeling that began last month. The new “Nutrition Keys” program spearheaded by the Grocery Manufacturers Association and Food Marketing Institute is another way that shoppers will more closely scrutinize what they buy.

In addition, one only has to look at bookshelves and magazine racks (or listen to celebrity interviews) to know the clean-food movement is catching on. One consumer magazine (Clean Eating) is devoted entirely to clean food, while new books on the subject are getting great fanfare, at a time when many Americans say they are resolving to eat foods with fewer and more recognizable ingredients.

Supermarket shelves and restaurant menus reflect the growing demand for these foods as well. For instance, Haagen-Dazs has done well with its line of “Five” ice cream products, made with only five ingredients that are called out on the front of the container.

When it comes to packaged and prepared meat-based foods, along with some case-ready fresh meat and poultry products, there is a link between the drive for clean food and the rise in proteins produced and marketed with label descriptions ranging from “minimally processed” to “natural” and “all natural” to “organic.” Many processors, from Oscar Mayer to Smithfield Foods to Perdue Farms, are touting products with natural, organic and fewer-ingredient profiles. Meanwhile, processors that have made a name in the natural and organic niche, such as Coleman Natural Foods, Niman Ranch and many other national and regional meat and poultry companies, continue to expand their sales and reach.

Eva Safar, vice president of marketing for Golden, Colo.-based Coleman Natural Foods, says the clean-label movement is real and likely here to stay. “With products like prepared Eva Safar, vice president of marketing for Golden, Colo.-based Coleman Natural Foods, says the clean-label movement is real and likely here to stay. “With products like prepared foods, hot dogs and sausages, when we ask consumers what is most important, ‘no artificial ingredients’ was one of the top items they responded with, after flavor,” she reports.

Clean doesn’t mean simple
When it comes to product ingredients, “clean” doesn’t necessarily mean simple. Indeed, clean foods mean different things to different consumers. Processors, then, are in a position of trying to appeal to their broad consumer base through different products and package types.

Kurt Penn, founder and CEO of Chicago-based Good Foods Group, which produces chicken salad and macaroni-and-cheese made with nit rite-free bacon, among other prepared foods, says there are many preconceptions —and misconceptions — about clean labels. “I do think there is some confusion in the marketplace. Even within organic, there is 70- , 90- and 100-percent organic [labels] and you also have many different all natural claims, and the USDA and FDA have variations on what that means. On top of it, the next piece you have is the antibiotic-free claim,” he says.

Ingredient suppliers that anticipate and respond to such marketplace trends agree that definitions can be unclear. “For some consumers, a clean label means ‘natural’ or ‘organic.’ For others, it means the meat product contains no allergens. Still others view clean to mean ‘contains no genetically modified ingredients.’ And some consumers assume if a product is ‘kosher’ or ‘halal’ approved that it is automatically a cleaner product,” points out Rick Cassidy, vice president of product development for Bindmax Proteins, New Berlin, Wis. He says there are multiple ways to meet the criteria for those designations. (See "A clean picture"from the February edition ofMeat&Poultry.)

Food-industry experts stress the importance of conveying the right information to consumers. Kathryn Kotoula, senior food scientist for Investigative Food Sciences in Storrs, Conn., has found consumers want to get the best food possible but often find terms like “natural” and “all natural” confusing; as a result, they may wrongly infer that anything without a natural or organic claim is bad for them.

“Consumers want simpler labels, but what they really need is education,” Kotoula says. “It would be wonderful if there was some place where they could look up what ingredients are. I think it would be a good job for a trade or professional association to put together.”

The importance of education is underscored by others. “Consumer education is an important factor in determining which type of clean-label products are most successful,” notes Cassidy, who cites the difference between organic and natural products. “Making an organic processed meat item is perhaps the most stringent, but is also the most expensive. Being organic does not always guarantee a product is healthier for a consumer. Making a USDA ‘natural’ product will provide most of the same benefits, but at a lower cost to consumers. That is why educating the consumer is so important.”

David Meggs, business development director for ingredient supplier Purac, with US offices in Lincolnshire, Ill., says although some people do not fully evaluate ingredient statements, the important takeaway is consumers are more aware than ever of what they are eating. “There is a big trend to clean up labels and replace chemically sounding ingredients with those that they can pronounce and understand,” he explains.

For processors, the actual label is, of course, paramount to communicating a product’s ingredients and overall profile. Coleman Natural utilizes labels for all sorts of educational purposes, according to Safar. “We continue to call out the attributes that are important to consumers and help them understand what our story is. On the back of our products, for example, it says what makes ours different. We say, ‘We raise our products this way,’” she explains.

Penn, for his part, says labels from Good Foods emphasize a host of clean attributes. “We have also created icons to show if a product is gluten-free, or high in fiber,” he says, agreeing that label content and design have become an integral part of product development and marketing. “A label has to be attractive, informative and concise – and you have about two seconds to catch consumers’ eyes” he says.