Clean Labels are Hot. But, Were Labels Ever Dirty?

Nearly all consumers claim to read ingredient labels to make decisions on food products. But, do they really understand?

We’ve been seeing a lot of headlines lately about clean labels and decided to see what all the fuss is about. According to information from Innova, 91 percent of consumers believe that foods containing recognizable ingredients are better for them than foods with unrecognizable ingredients. Couple that with a proliferation of special diets and it’s easy to see the trend toward “cleaner labels” growing.

Labels that include chemical-sounding names are red flags for consumers, even when those ingredients might not be harmful or when they don’t understand what the ingredients are.

Personally, I’m looking forward to strawberry season. But if I told you I was looking forward to “Ethyl 3-methyl-3-phenylglycidate; ETHYL METHYLPHENYLGLYCIDATE; Strawberry aldehyde; Fraeseol; EMPG” season you’d think I was nuts! Yet, they’re the same thing.

Research shows the more ingredients listed on a food package, the less “clean” it’s perceived. Further, more and more consumers are reading labels and that has led to a reduction in consumption of calories, fat, sodium, and trans-fat.

This is happening at the same time we’re seeing a growing number of symbols proclaiming foods have specific attributes like organic, gluten-free, vegan, non-GMO, non-allergenic and more. Yet, it’s also common knowledge for those with specific allergic requirements that label reading needs to go well beyond a marketing style label and into more details of the actual ingredients on a package.

The trend led to a dramatic increase in packaged foods being retooled in 2016. According to the Consumer Goods Forum, more than 180,000 products were retooled in 2016 as compared to 100,000 in the year prior. Bread, tortilla and crackers are getting the most attention but dairy products are a close second. “Treats” are about the only food category where products remain relatively unchanged.

But while “clean label” is becoming a term that consumers are looking for, research also points to consumer confusion and a lack of understanding about labels, definitions and ingredients.

Recently, Roger Clemens, former president of the Institute of Food Technologists, spoke with FoodDive. Clemens said the Food and Drug Administration’s failure to “define what clean label means has caused consumers to confuse the term with words such as healthy and natural.” That lack of clarity is challenging for companies trying to retool recipes for products so they have fewer ingredients on the label, which would increase their “clean” perception.

Some have asked if regulations defining what common food marketing terms like clean, natural, healthy mean would aid industry. But it’s not as simple as that, unfortunately, since there are a number of agencies that regulate various aspects of the food industry. If the definitions are not the same across the board, it will cause additional confusion. And, consumers don’t realize the complexity of the situation. They just want the facts and they want them today.

Confusion is Rampant

For the consumer, when they see a label that says “organic,” “healthy,” or “natural” they perceive it as being better than one without those terms. And, they really get skeptical when a scientist tries to tell them about a product.

Health and nutrition are complicated. So is food manufacturing. Combine the two with the distrust that’s prevalent today and there’s a major problem that’s growing for manufacturers of packaged goods. Attempting to follow regulations can cause a label to be something many consumers today just won’t buy, even when it’s being compared with similar products bending regulations.

Ideally, the FDA and USDA get together and agree on labeling and terms commonly used in the food industry to describe foods, but that hasn’t happened in many years and is unlikely to happen now. So, consumer education seems critical.

Education is critical

Food companies who’ve retooled products, or those that are already clean and healthy, need to make sure customers understand that. A comprehensive marketing and communication program detailing health claims is important to make sure consumers know and understand the facts.

Misinformation is causing problems too. Monitoring your brands and keeping track of communications from organizations who espouse a particular theory is increasingly important as consumers have thousands of options to choose from.

We can help you sort through the choices and develop a program that’s strategic and efficient reaching the right consumers and influential individuals for your product.

Safety is Paramount

Finally, while clean is important…safety is paramount. Based on the food scares of the past 12 months it’s safe to say we don’t need a survey to confirm that.

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The Barber Group

Gig Harbor, Washington


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