Taste, nutrition and sustainability drive consumer perceptions surrounding clean label products. Over the years, the importance of sustainability and added health benefits in products all around the fresh perimeter has continued to rise, noted Soumya Nair, marketing insights director of North America for Tralee, Ireland-based Kerry Group.

“Consumers seeking transparency are curious about the claims, certifications, and ingredients in their food and beverages to understand its impact on their overall health,” said Nair. “As a result, the understanding and relevance of clean label has become more nuanced.”

In fact, the clean label trend has evolved to spell out a foundation for the future of the food industry. Moving forward, consumers are expecting that products not only offer nutritional value, but include acceptable and functional ingredients, taste good and are good for the planet.

While there’s not a standard definition of clean label in the United States, it has come to symbolize the consumer movement toward food and drinks that embody quality and traceability. According to Kerry’s 2019 The Future of Food White Paper study, 59% of consumers perceive food and drinks labeled as “clean” as healthier, and 75% of consumers are willing to switch from their usual brand to one that provides more in-depth product information beyond what appears on the physical label.

Three-quarters of consumers reported that they read the product label before purchase, and the top claims they’re looking for include all-natural or 100% natural; made with real ingredients; no added sugar; organic; and no additives or preservatives.

“For consumers, clean label means ‘clean eating’ by focusing on products with simple, easily recognizable ingredients according to the principle ‘less is more’,” said Kim Després Thibodeau, marketing manager of retail for Boucherville, Canada-based Bridor.

It’s important to note that consumers are not only looking for products that include more natural ingredients but also products with ingredients that they recognize, pointed out Lieselot Delabie, lab and bakery manager with Gent, Belgium-based Vandemoortele.

“You often see hydrogenated oils and fats on ingredient labels,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but if it’s not something you use in your own kitchen, you don’t know what it is, so consumers trust it less.”

The blurred line between clean label and sustainability

When Hatfield, Pa.-based Clemens Food Group first entered the clean label space in 2017, the company was seeing a demand for transparency in the ingredients that made up their pork products, and how the company’s products were produced. 

Over the last year, transparency has become even more important to consumers because of COVID-19, and consumers are also coming to expect that the products under the ‘clean label’ designation are also responsibly sourced.

“We find that along with all of those other attributes (all-natural, minimally processed, etc.) consumers also want to know that the meat they’re consuming came from a company that is raising their animals responsibility,” said Michele Williams, senior retail marketing manager for Clemens Food Group. 

According to Kerry’s Future of Food report, sustainability is strongly associated with clean label and good-for-you foods. Sustainability casts a “halo of purpose” with produces that are made for the people and for the planet and presents an opportunity for brands and retailers to push products with a positive and purpose-driven message. 

In fact, 41% of consumers prefer to purchase from brands they see as ethical, and 73% of consumers think businesses with corporate responsibility initiatives are changing things for the better. 

Vandemoortele views clean label as being so interwoven with sustainability that a focus on expanding clean label products is part of the company’s new sustainability strategy that was launched earlier this year. 

“The new strategy is based on three goals,” said Aurélie Comhaire, group sustainability manager for Vandemoortele. “The first one is balanced nutrition, the second one is protecting nature, and the third one is enhancing lives. Within the first goal of balanced nutrition, clean label is one of our commitments. It was important to understand what sustainability is for consumers. Sometimes it means something about packaging, sometimes it’s about health or carbon footprints. We received some insights and clean label was a topic that popped up.”

Building customer loyalty with clean label

By highlighting products with clean label claims, retailers can create a value-based offering customers are willing to pay a premium for, pointed out Bridor’s Després Thibodeau.

“Due to the possibility of generating value, realizing price premiums, and increasing customer loyalty, we’ve seen a strongly growing demand for clean label products in retail,” she said. “It is important to highlight the relevant characteristics for consumers and create a clear optical differentiation ‘dedicated shelf space’ for this category.”

Després Thibodeau recommends that retailers make all relevant label claims as visible as possible in-store and online, as those claims are critical selling and differentiation points shoppers are looking for.

By making clean label products easily accessible, retailers can meet their customers where they are, noted Clemens Food Group’s Williams. As consumers are increasingly on the lookout for clean label products throughout the perimeter, carrying those products helps build credibility and loyalty.

“You will have a consumer that comes back to you frequently,” Williams said. “It might even increase basket size as customers look for clean labels throughout the store. They know that your store is a one-stop-shop and they don’t have to go to one store for specialty meats and another store for a different specialty product. They can get what they need in one store.”