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Meeting the Demand for 'Clean Labels'

Moms and millennials leading the call for products with fewer and simpler ingredients
Photograph courtesy of Wakefern/ShopRite

American consumers are making their voices heard: They don’t want artificial sweeteners, colors or preservatives, nor do they want genetically modified ingredients and highly processed products. They also seek to avoid unpronounceable items in the ingredient panel of the foods and drinks they’re eating—all of which has led food and beverage manufacturers to reformulate many of their products and has given rise to the emergence of niche companies touting products with very few, or very good (and recognizable), ingredients. In the industry, these are known as “clean label” products.

The big push for clean labels also extends into retailers’ private brands. Kroger’s Simple Truth lines boasts more than 1,400 products that are “organic,” “free from” and “natural.” The “free from” designation, the company said, lets customers know the products are free from more than 101 artificial preservatives and ingredients “because we take a lot of pride in what doesn’t go into them.”

The Top 10 Ingredients Consumers Avoid

Source: 2018 Free From Forum Market Monitor

Wholesome Pantry by ShopRite’s more than 500 products are free from 110 ingredients, including artificial colors, flavors and preservatives. “We wanted to create a brand based on truth and transparency,” said Stephanie Golaszewski, Wakefern Food Corp.’s own brands manager.

Likewise, H-E-B’s private label, Select Ingredients, features products “without artificial flavors, high fructose corn syrup, certified colors and hundreds of other synthetic ingredients,” the company said. Albertsons’ Open Nature private label features “minimally processed products that support a clean lifestyle for the whole family, the company said. And 75% of Target’s Simply Balanced line is free from artificial flavors, preservatives, sweeteners, colors, trans fats and high fructose corn syrup.

Retailers need to do this, said Angie Kling, manager of the food and beverage team for Chicago-based Label Insight. “A lot of retailers are changing their private label ingredients and labeling, trying to stay ahead of trends before the big brands do,” she said.

For private label, this started in organics, said Steven Howell, solution sales consultant, North America, for Solutions for Retail Brands, Fort Worth, Texas. “If you ignore this, you’ll be alienating a huge group of customers,” he said.

And while the big food companies have suffered a lot of trust issues in recent years, he said, much of it has related to GMO products. However, he said, “Retailers have become a lot more open about transparency and making changes to ingredients and being more nimble and responsive.”

Beyond Private Label 

Outside private label, small companies are hitting the marketplace with clean labels from the outset. Once Upon a Farm, which produces cold-pressed fruit and vegetable blends for babies and children, partnered with the Clean Label Project and received the top score for overall rating, product purity, product value, heavy metals, process contaminants and byproduct contaminants.

once upon a farm

Photograph courtesy of Once Upon a Farm

“Millennials are wanting shorter ingredient lists they can actually pronounce,” said the San Diego-based company’s co-founder and chief innovation officer, Cassandra Curtis. “They want to understand where their food comes from and trust the companies behind it. We keep ingredients simple, as close to their natural form as possible, and work with farmers and vendors we know and trust.”

While clean label products can be found everywhere, the biggest category they’re affecting is baby food, said Jaclyn Bowen, executive director of the Clean Label Project, Broomfield, Colo. “Manufacturers are targeting pregnant women and moms, she said.” This category is followed by one for consumers’ other babies: pet food. “There are consumer expectations in that space.”

Maeve Webster, president of Arlington, Vt.-based foodservice consultancy Menu Matters, sees it as broader than that. “Snacks, and anything identified as or marketed as healthy, are absolutely at the top of that list” since because snacking is easy for consumers to experiment with, she said.

But the clean label trend is being felt everywhere, said Carl Jorgensen, EVP of Linkage Research & Consulting and managing director of the Free From Forum, a specialty practice of Linkage Research, Chicago. “All emerging brands are now clean label,” he said. “That’s the price of entry.”

What’s Out? 

There is no clear FDA definition of what constitutes a  clean label; some industry figures are petitioning to change the designation to “clear label,” to highlight the transparency these packages offer. The list of ingredients consumers do not want to find is ever growing. “Chemical-sounding names are the biggest issue,” Webster said. “And anything extremely long and unrecognizable is assumed to be artificial or lab-generated and, therefore, not something they should be eating.”

And increasingly, Bowen said, consumers are becoming more concerned about things that aren’t even featured on labels, which are more under the radar, such as lead and glysophate (a weed killer).

Food and beverage producers need to be transparent, she said: “Manufacturers can’t hide behind the curtain any more; consumers are very savvy.” Brands, she said, “should set strict supplier specifications; test for glysophate or heavy metals; and ask about things like phthalate creep into food, BPA in packaging.”

And what’s next, said Jorgensen, are claims around pesticide-free, hormone-free and glysophate-free.

Who Wants Clean Label? 

Clean label products are getting more and more press, Bowen said, “thanks to social media. People are more aware of what they’re putting in and on their bodies; they expect more transparency.”

Demand for clean labels comes mostly from millennials and moms “because they are the advocacy officers within their household,” Bowen said. But it’s also coming from customers looking to eat well but improve what they consume, such as Gen Xers and baby boomers, she said.

Millennials are more hardcore about their demands for clean label products than older shoppers and perhaps less realistic, Webster said. The latter, she said, “are more realistic in their understanding of the need for some preservatives.”

Consumers today feel they have the right to expect full transparency from both retailers and brands. “The more information people have about how and where their food was grown and produced, the better able they are to make informed choices,” said Lisa Sedlar, founder and CEO of Green Zebra Grocery, a grocery-convenience hybrid with three stores in Portland, Ore.

The SmartLabel Initiative, created by the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, is making a difference with transparency by allowing consumers to scan a code on food or beverage packaging, which provides detailed information such as allergens, sourcing practices, sustainability and third-party certifications.

Physical labels can only hold so much information, Howell said, so this allows consumers to see the big picture. By the end of 2018, 826 brands had participated with SmartLabel on more than 36,000 products.

Some retailers are already providing expanded information. ShopRite has a dedicated web page for its Wholesome Pantry line, which lists all ingredients it has removed from these products, while Kroger details the more than 50 no-no ingredients in its Simple Truth brand’s website.

kroger simple truth

​​​​​​​Photograph courtesy of Kroger

West Valley City, Utah-based Harmons uses a Dietitian’s Choice shelf labeling program that highlights products not containing certain ingredients, including nitrites, nitrates and partially hydrogenated oil.

Coborn’s, based in St. Cloud, Minn., also has a shelf labeling program, Food Facts, in its 31 stores. It’s a tag on the cleaner items, and the goal is to provide “an easy way for consumers to make choices,” said Emily Parent, one of the stores’ three dietitians. Each tag features up to three attributes after the Dietitian’s Choice logo, such as gluten-free, low-sodium, whole grain, local, organic and heart healthy. “These foods tend to be all clean label,” she said.

And through its Shelf Guide program, West Sacramento, Calif.-based Raley’s uses a Clean Label icon to call out ingredients that are not allowed, per its official “banned ingredient list.”

Most retailers, Howell points out, “can do a better job of informing consumers. They should use initiatives like Smart Label, or make it clear how consumers can find information as soon as they walk into a store, or make it very visible on their website,” he said.

And they should do it soon, he cautions: “As a consumer, I’d be very skeptical if I was shopping with one retailer who provided the information and another one didn’t. You’d ask what they’re hiding.”

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