When shopping, do you look for CPG products with simple, familiar ingredients that are free from artificial flavors, colorings, preservatives, and sweeteners? If so, you likely prefer to purchase clean label products! Clean label products are items that focus on including fewer and recognizable ingredients in their product. This means no unpronounceable chemicals and additives, just ingredients that are familiar, household items.
Many consumers are demanding to see more clean label products in the market. This surge has caused the clean label movement to become one of the top CPG trends in 2022. In this article, we will define clean labels, discuss consumer insights, explore how this trend came to be, and highlight what this trend means for your brand.
What are Clean Labels?
Clean label products include ingredients that are as close to their natural state as possible. This means they only contain fresh, real, and less processed ingredients to maximize health and nutrition.
The clean label CPG trend has gained immense popularity because consumers are now prioritizing health and wellness. In fact, 78% of U.S. consumers find it important to recognize the ingredients used in the products they buy. However, some other considerations are infiltrating consumers’ understanding of clean labels like an increased emphasis on specific health claims, the manufacturer and brand, and the region of origin.
Understanding all of the aspects of clean labels has a lot to do with what is in the product, how it is made, and who made it. Anything that consumers don’t recognize, understand, or think is necessary ends up being viewed as unclean. According to Ingredion consumer research, the most accepted ingredients among consumers are natural flavors (59%), natural colors (57%), flour (55%), vegetable oil (50%), and sugar (50%).
Any ingredient with a chemical-sounding name tends to be deemed unclean in consumers’ minds. Examples include hydroxypropyl methylcellulose (HPMC), microcrystalline cellulose (MCC), carboxymethyl cellulose (CMC), caseinate, and monosodium glutamate (MSG).
The world of clean labels is ever-changing as its definition depends on consumers’ thoughts and preferences on ingredients in the products they buy and eat. This means consumers may start questioning ‘natural’ flavors and colors as more progressive consumers enter the market.
Evolution of Consumers’ Thoughts on Clean Label
Consumers’ thoughts and preferences on what they want to see on store shelves has evolved in recent years. Let’s walk through an example that highlights how customers have shifted their shopping habits.
Two of the leading CPG brands in the United States, Kellogg's and Campbell's, pledged to remove artificial colors and flavors in all of their products by 2018. They made this decision because company leaders believed consumers were looking for products with a cleaner label. These company officials were exactly right - consumers were looking for companies to quickly alter their products by making the same recipe we know and love but with simpler, more familiar ingredients.
It is important to note the ever-changing nature of the clean label movement. A few years ago, shoppers showed a preference for fat free, low calorie, low carb, and sugar free claims. Today, shoppers have displayed a preference for claims such as all natural, organic, gluten free, and protein and antioxidant rich. And lastly, we expect shoppers to begin asking for more locally sourced, fair trade food and drink products with no artificial ingredients, preservatives, GMOs, or antibiotics.
This is why trends are so important! By understanding consumer preferences and what products they want to see in the market, food founders can adjust their product to better fit the needs and wants of their core consumers.
What Consumers Want to See on Labels
Today, consumers are eager to find clean label products with callouts highlighting their more fresh and familiar ingredients. In a survey conducted by L.E.K. Consulting, 1600 consumers were asked which claims were the most important to them when buying food and drinks. The most popular claim among consumers was “no artificial flavors.” This was followed by “no preservatives”, “locally produced and sourced”, and “all natural.”
Consumers are steering away from artificial flavors due to the lack of specificity provided on the label. Most commonly, you will see the words “artificial flavors” on the ingredients label without any more detail. From a consumer standpoint, there is no transparency that shows the number of chemical additives and other artificial ingredients in the product. This is largely why consumers are searching for clean label products. They are seeking to find transparency in their food labels.
What Consumers Do Not Want to See on Labels
There are a few types of ingredients consumers do not want to see in their food. As the health and wellness trend has grown in popularity, many individuals are avoiding ingredients that are known to negatively impact their nutrition. Below, you will find a list of the most popular ingredients consumers are trying to stay away from:
- Trans Fat: While trans fats are very cost-effective and beneficial for food companies operating with slim margins, they are extremely harmful to individuals’ health - especially heart health.
- Partially Hydrogenated Oils: This is a type of trans fat that is known to clog arteries and contribute to obesity and heart disease.
- High Fructose Corn Syrup: One of the most common food additives that increase your appetite and therefore promote obesity more than regular sugar. It also contributed to diabetes, inflammation, and high triglycerides.
- Artificial Sweeteners (Aspartame, Sucarlose, Saccharin): These artificial sweeteners may have a lower caloric intake than natural sugars, but they are very hard on the body’s metabolic system.
- Sodium Benzoate and Potassium Benzoate: While they are beneficial to food companies to prevent spoilage from harmful bacteria, yeasts, and molds, they can cause disturbances with thyroid levels.
- Sodium Nitrates and Sodium Nitrates: They have been known to cause colon cancer and lead to heart disease and obesity. This is why it is important to have good quality meat.
- MSG: While some levels of MSG are found naturally in foods, processed foods with added MSG can be very harmful to brain function.
How Clean Label Came to Be
The clean label trend has largely gained popularity due to Covid-19. The pandemic has had an immense impact on consumers’ food habits. In the beginning of the pandemic, most individuals and families chose to eat at home to limit their risk of exposure. This meant more frequent trips to the grocery store, more new recipes to try out, and therefore an increased awareness of the ingredients consumers’ are putting into their bodies. Additionally, in the middle of the pandemic, news circulated that people with underlying health conditions like diabetes and obesity were at greater risk. This made consumers think twice about the unhealthy ingredients in their favorite food products.
Besides cooking at home, the most popular food trends during Covid-19 were snacking and washing fresh produce more. These two trends indicate a positive impact for clean labels. It shows that since Covid-19 hit, people are thinking about food more often than usual and are eating healthier than usual.
What does this Mean for Emerging Brands?
The clean label trend is vastly growing in the CPG food and beverage space. If your food business includes simple, wholesome ingredients, add callouts to communicate this to consumers. You can highlight your clean label product by getting Non-GMO certified, Organic certified, and adding callouts like “all natural,” “no preservatives,” and “no artificial flavors” to the front of your packaging.
Snacklins is a great example of how you can highlight your clean label product. Their plant crips are composed of simple, wholesome ingredients like yuca and mushroom that are low in calories. To highlight this, Samy Kobrosly, the founder of Snacklins, decided to highlight his products' low calorie count, Non-GMO certification, vegan certification, and gluten certification on his packaging.
The clean label trend has grown immensely in recent years. Clean label products are items that focus on fewer, more wholesome ingredients. This likely means the exclusion of chemicals and additives in order to give customers more transparency with what they are consuming. Consumers are no longer wanting to eat over-processed foods. Instead, they are looking to improve their health and wellness by eating better-for-you food products. If your food products contain simple ingredients, you should clearly highlight this value proposition on the front of your packaging. This will help distinguish your brand as a clean label!