One of the biggest trends currently sweeping the food industry is the rise of the “clean label movement.” According to the 2017 Trends in Food Processing Operations report from the Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies, clean labeling affects almost half of all food processing operations—and that figure is only expected to increase in the years ahead. But what exactly is the clean label movement, and what are its implications for consumers and food producers? Read on to learn more.
What is the clean label movement all about?
In today’s health and environmentally conscious world, many consumers (nearly 40 percent) are clamoring for clearer information about what ingredients are in their food, where those ingredients come from, and how they are produced. These consumers want to choose food products that are good for them and for the planet, but they are frequently hindered by traditional food labeling practices, which can be confusing, hard to decipher, or misleading.
The clean label movement has emerged as a response to these frustrations. “Clean label” is used as a kind of shorthand term for products that focus on natural ingredients and are made by companies that are transparent about their supply chains and production processes.
How is “clean label” defined?
One of the most important things to understand about the term “clean label” is that, like the term “natural,” it does not have an official definition, nor is it subject to any kind of regulatory oversight. Instead, it is a consumer term that has been widely accepted by the food industry, the media, academics, and consumers themselves.
Although is it not formally defined, “clean label” generally refers to products made with as few ingredients as possible, using primarily or exclusively ingredients that consumers can easily recognize and identify as wholesome or healthy, and minimizing or avoiding the use of artificial ingredients or synthetic chemicals. Some would expand the scope of clean label even further to include the use of sustainable and ethical production methods.
What is driving the clean label movement?
Broadly speaking, the clean label movement is a consumer-driven trend. In more specific terms, as described in a 2015 Harvard Business Review article, there are two main forces behind the rise of the clean label. One is the prevalence of digital technology, which is making it easy to discover and share information about particular products and to verify (or debunk) the claims of the companies that make them. The other is the purchasing power of millennials, who, as a consumer segment, are the most likely group to demand ethical, transparent behavior from the companies they buy from. (A study of clean labels conducted by the Chicago marketing research firm C+R research revealed that, compared with baby boomers and Gen Xers, millennials are the generation most likely to prioritize buying products that are natural, vegan, and fair trade, for example.)
What are some of the criticisms of the clean label movement?
While many consumers and food industry players are on board with clean labeling, the movement has also received its fair share of criticism. One of the most commonly cited problems is that, in the absence of a formal definition, “clean label” is little more than a marketing term that companies can freely use—or abuse—to serve their own needs without facing any regulatory consequences.
Another accusation often leveled at the clean label movement is that it unhelpfully fuels skepticism and mistrust of science and food. Critics argue that by demonizing all artificial additives or ingredients, the clean label movement is doing nothing more than teaching consumers to fear foods or ingredients that do not actually pose a threat to their health. For example, in their pursuit of clean label status, many companies are taking the simplistic approach that consumers should be wary of ingredients they can’t pronounce. But where does that leave us when considering ingredients like tocopherol (which is the scientific name for vitamin E) or niacinamide (vitamin B3)?
These criticisms certainly don’t mean that the clean label movement is unhelpful; on the contrary, it can be a useful guide for consumers who want to choose healthier, more responsibly produced products. It’s simply a reminder that, even with clean labels, consumers still need to do their own due diligence if they really want to know what’s in their food.
How are brands responding to the clean label movement?
The power of the clean label movement is best demonstrated by the fact that some of the world’s biggest brands have been making efforts to adopt clean label practices and production methods. Companies from fast-food chains to processed food manufacturers are increasingly shortening their ingredient lists, replacing artificial ingredients with natural alternatives, making their packaging designs simpler and clearer, and working toward enacting better sustainability practices in their operations. Given that experts agree that the clean label trend is here to stay, we will likely see even more widespread use of these practices in the years ahead.