Retail Foodservice

Putting Clean Labels Front and Center


Over the past few years, clean label foods have become less of a passing fad and more of an expectation from customers. Foodservice and retail operators alike are tweaking menu options and food offerings to eliminate additives and replace them with real and natural ingredients.

But it’s not enough to quietly change recipes and products. Marketing clean-label options is vital to ensure that customers know about the ingredients an operation is using—and, more importantly, which ingredients it’s not using.

Clean label trends

Some might claim that the rise of the clean label began all the way back in 2004 with the Food Allergen and Labeling Consumer Act. It was this legislation that took the first step in providing transparency in products for customers to decide if they wanted to avoid particular ingredients.

Nearly 15 years later, those labels have greatly expanded from just allergens to include trans fats, GMOs and more, and both consumers and foodservice operators have noticed. The availability of healthy options at the top 500 chains has grown 118% over the past five years, and 60% of consumers say that they factor health into their dining decisions, according to Technomic’s recent Healthy Eating report. Of course, that prompts the question: What does “healthy” mean?

Deciphering the language

Around 40% of consumers say they’re more likely to buy and are willing to pay more for clean food and drink, with 43% saying the same about natural food and drink, according to Technomic’s Healthy Eating report. However, not all diners fully understand what “clean label” means in a foodservice setting, so it’s a good idea to translate the benefits of a product, ingredient or menu item into easy-to-understand phrasing.

Consumers are more likely to notice and understand phrases such as “No artificial ingredients,” “preservative-free,” “hormone-free, “unprocessed,” “fresh” and “antibiotic-free,” as those are the top claims consumers associate with clean eating and wellness, notes the Healthy Eating report. 

Marketing to consumers

Several restaurant chains have been making public strides to create cleaner menus, with Panera Bread and Chipotle being two of the most vocal about their efforts. Millennials and Gen Z consumers are driving this change, though a business certainly shouldn’t rule out older generations when creating marketing strategies.

Even though consumers are still learning about clean labels, many are quite savvy in separating facts from gimmicks. Therefore, in marketing, operations should be specific about what is and is not in their products or dishes. While some consumers might respond to “natural,” many others now know that it’s not a regulated term. Instead, it’s more effective (when applicable, of course) to say that the operation has removed genetically modified ingredients or that kids meals are now free from artificial colors and sweeteners.

Additionally, don’t be afraid to give more information about ingredients that a consumer might not be familiar with. Sharing the specifics will garner trust and loyalty from younger generations that aren’t particularly known for brand allegiance.

Additionally, put the information front and center. In a full-service operation, this means right on the menu; in limited-service or retail operations that might not have menu space, it’s necessary to create marketing posters and other tools that can be right in front of a customer as they are making decisions—but don’t forget to point out other important aspects of the food, too, such as flavors and pairings. While clean labels are here to stay, there’s no need to forget about other aspects of what makes an operation’s menu worthwhile—the delicious food.

This post is sponsored by Blount Fine Foods