The clean labelling conundrum

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Food & Beverage businesses are facing their toughest critics yet in the age of corporate social responsibility and consumer activism

The 2018 Mintel Report of Global Food & Drink Trends highlighted a widespread consumer distrust which has increased the need for food and drink manufacturers to be forthcoming about their ingredients, production processes and supply chains. The “clean labelling” movement of omitting certain nasty ingredients and attributes and replacing these with wholefood and natural ingredients is certainly on a steady rise. This can be seen in the United States where 33% of all food and beverage sales are now generated by clean label products[1]. But what exactly determines a “clean label” appears to be more fluid.

As a society, we have grown an aversion to certain food ingredients – sugar, salt, preservatives, artificial colours – and some for good reasons.  However, it always marvels me how our shopping (and eating) behaviours are driven by decisions made largely by marketers defining what is “healthy” for us, rather than qualified nutritionists and dieticians whose messages are constantly battling against the “good v bad food” dichotomy.

Last year’s Bad Taste Food Awards run by Consumer NZ highlighted this growing discontent amongst consumers.  Childhood staples like Nutragrain have been adapted to deal with the increased scrutiny – reducing sugar and sodium and increasing fibre in pursuit of a clean label, but nevertheless, the product still has a whopping amount of sugar.

As an almond milk drinker, I have a disgust for brands which lack nuts. While many brands tout the low kilojoule, saturated fat and dairy free alternative, a more in-depth scan of the label reveals a lack of almonds (some as low as 2.5%) and other added ingredients like rice milk and cane sugar.

The often contradictory advice on what “to avoid” is now leading us to search for what food and beverages offer instead of what it lacks.  In deed, the Mintel Report highlighted that we are making our own definitions of “healthy” dependent on occasion and need-state. If we can justify the balancing out of snack foods high in sugar or salt as part of a balanced diet with other more nutritionally dense foods then it doesn’t become all doom and gloom. Perhaps it is not surprising the “Mindful Choices” is a top 2018 trend for snacks and confectionary.

So where does this leave clean labelling? The clean label movement is constantly evolving partly driven by consumer health motivations and concerns but also from a greater need for transparency. Consumers look at food and beverage labels to see whether it contains any villain ingredients, whether it is naturally healthy and to see where the food comes from and how it is made. It’s not enough that my snack bar is gluten and dairy free, but the pea protein needs to have been produced in a sustainable way and grown locally by a company which gives back to the community. Larger corporates will have to work hard to prove their authenticism and brand ethos, while smaller companies who have been riding on the clean labelling bandwagon will still have to innovate to keep up with the clean labelling momentum. I look forward to seeing how this plays out in the way of new product development.

[1] Kerry Health and Nutrition Institute, Clean Label: More than Ingredients 10 November 2017