“Clean label” may be one of the biggest trends currently sweeping the food industry, but this booming popularity doesn’t mean that everyone is on the same page about what the movement is or what it means. In the absence of any formal definition or regulatory oversight, the phrase “clean label” is mired in ambiguity, and even a brief search online reveals wildly differing opinions and advice about what does or does not constitute a clean label.
All this confusion puts food producers and manufacturers in a challenging position. Companies today are under intense pressure to respond to the strong consumer demand for clean label products—but it is no easy task when there are so many contradictory views about what “clean” is. How are brands to know which of the many qualities associated with the clean label phenomenon are to be prioritized and which ones are less important? How can they best communicate their clean label efforts? And what consequences can they anticipate if they don’t adequately satisfy consumer expectations (confused as those expectations might be)?
To help brands answer these questions, a number of different companies have undertaken comprehensive studies and surveys over the last few years to get to the bottom of what consumers really mean when they say they want clean label products. One such company is the Chicago-based market research firm C+R Research. In May 2016, C+R Research conducted an online survey of 965 people to gain a better understanding of how consumers feel about food in general, and clean labels in particular. The resulting data and insights offer a valuable guide for brands as they work to understand and address the concerns and desires of today’s consumers.
Some of the key findings from this survey include the following:
A clean label is all about simplicity.
According to the definition used in the C+R survey, “clean” is characterized by relatively few ingredients, relatively few preservatives, and clear warning notices about hot-button ingredients such as sodium or sugar.
Consumers do take the time to read nutrition labels.
For brands who have wondered whether consumers ever bother to read the nutrition facts label found, by law, on all packaged food, the C+R study shows that the answer is a resounding yes. Sixty-nine percent of consumers who responded to the survey said that not only do they take the time to read food labels but these labels have an impact on their shopping habits and their purchasing decisions. Moreover, over one-quarter of shoppers (28 percent) regularly read the labels of just about every item of food they buy. This suggests that the nutrition label can be an important communication tool as well as an effective way for brands to connect with their customers.
When it comes to food labels, there are four kinds of consumers.
To provide brands and companies with a more detailed breakdown of consumer profiles, the C+R survey grouped respondents into four, self-identified groups based on attitudes toward food labels and nutritional information.
Vigilantes—Twenty percent of survey respondents described themselves as Vigilantes, or consumers like to be well informed about what’s in their food, largely for health reasons, and are ready to reward companies that focus on health and wellness with long-term brand loyalty. However, brands also need to know that 72 percent of Vigilantes are just as ready to walk away from a product when they feel the label doesn’t communicate health and wellness. Perhaps not surprisingly, label vigilance is strongly connected to age: nearly half (46 percent) of people who identified as Vigilantes are baby boomers.
Keep It Simple—Forty-seven percent of survey respondents self-identified as “Keep It Simple” consumers, making this group the largest market segment by a significant margin. These shoppers are concerned about the health benefits of their food, but they rely more on external signals (like FDA statements) than on packaging information to guide their purchasing choices. About two-thirds of people in this category don’t read labels if the product is from a brand they trust.
Balancers—The smallest market segment is the Balancers—just 15 percent of survey respondents put themselves in this category. The mantra for this group is “everything in moderation,” which in practice means that these consumers pay attention to, but are not overly anxious about, labels. In addition, Balancers are much more likely to look at labels to identify positive ingredients, such as protein or fiber, than in an attempt to avoid undesirable ingredients.
Not Bothered—Tight budgets and tight schedules, rather than nutrition details and ingredient lists, are top of mind for the 18 percent of survey respondents who describe themselves as “Not Bothered” about labels. These consumers don’t tend to agonize about what they eat as long as it’s inexpensive and/or convenient, and almost all of them (92 percent) don’t look at labels on products they purchase regularly. For this reason, this group is the most likely to be influenced by front-of-package manufacturer claims.