The Clean Label Trend: Results of Recent Consumer Preference Surveys

Woman Checking Label on FoodThe clean label trend is officially no longer just a fad. It’s the new normal. According to Nielsen, a full 93% of US households have purchased clean label products at grocery stores.

Laurie Demeritt, CEO of The Hartman Group, put it well:

“The consumer demand for clean food has been gaining momentum for some time. We’ve now reached the point where clean label is not just today’s reality; it is the path that packaged food and beverage companies must take if brands are to remain relevant with consumers. It is but one major outcropping of the broader food cultural trend toward all things less prepared and real.”

What the clean label movement amounts to is that people want food made from ingredients they recognize and can pronounce, using familiar production processes. They want food that’s authentic, natural, and healthy.

But what exactly does that mean? What do consumers consider real food? To answer these questions, let’s dig into some recent studies on the clean label trend.

What does clean label mean to consumers?

There has been plenty of confusion surrounding the concept of clean label, because the term encompasses many factors and means different things to different people.

For example, a survey by taste and nutrition company Kerry revealed that across the US, UK, France, and Germany, the three most common attributes consumers associate with clean label are “all-natural,” non-GMO,” and “no additives or preservatives.” US respondents also considered clean label to mean “farm grown,” “sustainably produced,” “minimally processed,” and “made with real ingredients.”

Another study, by research firm Canadean (now GlobalData) asked more than 27,000 people across 31 countries what “clean label” means. Roughly one-third said it meant free from artificial ingredients, one-third said it meant natural/organic, and one-third said they didn’t know.

Taking a different approach, C+R Research found that a label is considered “clean” if it meets any one of three criteria:

  • Relatively few ingredients
  • Relatively few preservatives
  • Warning labels about hot-button ingredients, like sodium and sugar

Clean labels for different types of food

Perhaps a more useful approach is to look at what clean labels mean for certain categories of food.

Nielsen research shows that the share of sales that goes to clean label products is much greater for milk and dairy alternatives than it is for items like dips/spreads and fully cooked meats. Similarly, Kerry found that consumers place more importance on clean labels when they’re purchasing baked bread than when they’re buying snacks or ice cream. And The Hartman Group notes that in the meat and poultry department, “clean label includes transparency in sourcing and the farm’s practices.”

Clean labels for different types of consumers

Another useful approach is to look at what clean labels mean to different types of consumers.

Kerry found that Millennials are more likely to look for claims like “organic” and “made with real ingredients,” while Baby Boomers were more interested in foods free from additives/preservatives, antibiotics, and hormones.

In the same vein, C+R Research found that members of different generations look for different things on food labels:

  • Millennials check labels for:
    • Amount of sugar
    • All-natural
    • Amount of protein
    • Sodium levels
    • Free from preservatives

As a generation, they are most concerned about products being gluten-free, fair trade, and vegan.

  • Gen Xers check labels for:
    • Sales
    • All-natural
    • Amount of sugar
    • Hormone-free
    • Trans fats

As a generation they are least concerned with ingredients and additives.

  • Baby Boomers check labels for:
    • Amount of sugar
    • Sodium levels
    • Trans fats
    • Artificial sweeteners
    • High-fructose corn syrup

As a generation they are most likely to base purchasing decisions on sugar and fat levels.

The clean label landscape is certainly complex. But taken together, the results suggest opportunities for processors to develop products that give consumers what they want and to educate customers about what’s in their products using food labels.

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