While the list of ingredients commonly avoided by consumers fluctuates over time, those in search of clean-label fare typically stay away from things like partially hydrogenated oils (recently banned in the United States), FD&C colors, certain preservatives, sulfites, sulfates and chemical sweeteners, according to Corbion. Many of these ingredients can be found on Whole Foods Market’s Food Ingredient Quality Standards list, a guide intended for consumers to avoid unwanted ingredients.

Other ingredients consumers often avoid can include things like sugar, fat and gluten. In particular, gluten-free products have remained a popular consumer trend for some time now, fueled by diets that disallow gluten or emphasize lower intake of carbohydrates. Additionally, according to Innova Market Insights data from 2019, about 72% of consumers expect food manufacturers to remove or reduce certain ingredients to create a healthier product. This has led to a lot of experimentation, as bakers begin incorporating alternative flours made from chickpeas, soybeans and peas to create new, healthier items, said Kathy Sargent, director of Global Market Strategy for Corbion.

“In recent years, we’ve seen a surge of interest in baked goods that are enhanced, adding ingredients like extra vitamins, protein and fiber,” Sargent said. “Consumers are searching for foods that they perceive as healthier, and those that can help them address specific health concerns like obesity, high blood pressure or gut health. Innova Market Insights data from 2019 show that at least 66% of consumers expect food manufacturers to add these extra ingredients in order to create healthier products.”

Nicole Rees, product director for AB Mauri North America, cited sugar as an ingredient that is certainly under heavy consideration by consumers today, even overtaking fat recently as a key element for healthy eating.

According to FONA International, more than 56% of consumers in the United States have reduced baked goods in their diets due to sugar reduction and/or elimination. While still less than other categories like candy (68%) and carbonated soft drinks (62%), these results specifically for bakery show the potential impact on the industry moving forward.

“Certainly, salt and fat have also received their share of negative reviews by consumers over the past two decades, while artificial ‘anything’ – including those ingredients with difficult-to-spell or pronounce words – is deemed as something to avoid in overall food products,” Rees said.

Corbion also witnesses an increase in baked goods that use “real” ingredients, which is to say, those that are recognizable to consumers, like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, flours and seeds. Label claims that tout these “real” ingredients may use cane sugar instead of sweetener or fruit instead of artificial flavorings. Or, in the case of preservation, manufacturers focused on “real” may use cultured sugar, cultured wheat flour or cultured wheat starch instead of traditional mold inhibitors like calcium propionate or potassium sorbate.

At Dawn Foods, Elena Taylor, senior director, wet ingredients, points out that consumers often view refined sugar – any sugar that is processed, like white or brown sugar – as an ingredient to avoid.

Instead, consumers are turning toward more natural sweeteners, such as honey, maple syrup and coconut sugar. In addition, some consumers are looking for natural ways to add nutritional value, such as using real fruit and vegetables to deliver flavor.

“Consumer are drawn to naturally occurring ingredients,” Taylor said. “For example, rather than using ‘apple flavor’ in an apple donut, bakers should use real apple to bring that flavor to life. Dawn leans into naturally occurring ingredients in many ways; for example, in spring 2019, we launched a line of Naturally Brilliant Icings that use natural color sources from fruits, plants and/or vegetables.”

What consumers are thinking

“If consumers can pronounce the ingredient and feel good about its origin, typically those are good signs.” - Nicole Rees, product director for AB Mauri North America

Younger generations are driving the clean label movement, according to Bill Hanes, vice president of marketing and strategy for Lesaffre.

A recent study that Lesaffre conducted through C+R Research found that 71% of Boomers don’t change their diet based on the latest food trends. Furthermore, Boomers are more likely than younger generations to be ambivalent toward clean labeling. In general, “clean label” is not well understood by this generation.

“Our enzyme solutions replace traditional dough improvers and shelf life extenders like DATEM, L-cysteine, sodium stearoyl lactylate, and more.,” Hanes said. “These unfamiliar ingredients do not communicate value for a product as a healthy, clean label option.”

The COVID-19 crisis has not affected Lesaffre’s priorities regarding developing clean label solutions, he added.

According to Rees at AB Mauri, ingredients that are intrinsically healthy have appeal. The move to plant proteins, alternate grains, and clean sweeteners, such as stevia, can be seen across the bakery aisle from breads to crackers and breakfast bars.

“If consumers can pronounce the ingredient and feel good about its origin, typically those are good signs,” Rees said. “It all comes down to transparency. At AB Mauri, our job is to produce high quality bakery ingredients for our customers, but the job doesn’t stop there. Industrial and artisan bakers also rely on our team to provide clear documentation that supports both a quality and transparent message. Anything we can do to build the confidence levels of our customers that are consumer-facing is an important step.”

Dawn’s Taylor points out that it is critical that the baking industry follows clean label guidelines and standards. Dawn is starting to see more great examples of how bakeries can provide clean label products.

“One of our customers Dewey’s Bakery in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, uses applesauce to extend the shelf life of its birthday cake, banana pudding and other cookies,” Taylor said.

Clean label is increasingly growing in importance, with 77% of consumers believing clean label is very important when purchasing baked goods. Gen Z and Millennials are particularly influential in this area.

Certain age or demographic groups are regarded as key influential groups on the issue of clean label.

“All demographic groups are directly affected by traditional and clean label ingredients,” Rees said. “In particular, millennials and Generation Z consumers both demand transparency and the desire for cleaner processing as part of food manufacturing, preparation and delivery.”

In search of comfort

Right now, consumers are purchasing items that provide them with a sense of comfort, and that are safe to eat, authentic, real and fresh, Corbion’s Sargent said. One of the ways they make these purchase decisions is by examining label claims and looking for ingredients they recognize. This gives consumers the security of knowing these items are good for them, and, in the case of packaged bakery items, that they’re fresh and free from contaminants, staleness and mold. Products consumers perceive as being fresher are considered healthier and better for them.

“We recognize that clean label isn’t just a trend anymore,” Sargent said. “It’s become an expectation for many consumers that their products have recognizable ingredients without chemical-sounding names. At the same time, we also have to meet the goals and formulation requirements of our customers and suppliers who may need their clean-label ingredients to perform certain functional tasks in their applications – anything from freshness, consistency, dough tolerance, sliceability, volume and more – in addition to meeting the demands of their own consumers.

Clean-label options that don’t perform as well as traditional ingredients can impact the appearance of baked goods, decreasing the desirability of clean-label products in the eyes of consumers, Sargent said.

“While creating solutions that meet these varied needs is challenging, we’ve put a lot of effort into ensuring our portfolio is robust enough to fulfill the requirements for simpler, cleaner ingredient labels, solve formulation challenges and allow our customers to deliver on taste and quality,” she said.