Within the food industry, small brands, often highly localised, are being credited with starting a clean revolution. Their emergence onto the food scene, making big claims for their products – be it natural, organic, sustainable, or fair trade – has seemingly caught the attention of consumers, particularly those aged 18-34 (although the 35-44 year age group is not far behind), and has spread to impact on every aspect of food purchasing: 82% of ingredient-conscious consumers believe that clean labels are important.

Clean label may mean slightly different things to different groups; recent research conducted and published by Kerry indicated a level of confusion about exactly what was meant by the term – 23% for example were familiar with the label, but unsure of what it actually meant – but even so, a number of key areas of concern did emerge.

The three expectations

According to Kerry’s research there are currently three clear areas of consumer expectations for a product to be considered clean: ingredients, nutrition, and sustainability.

Ingredients remain the most critical, with 75% taking the time to evaluate the ingredients on a product and approximately 40% of consumers’ perceptions being influenced by specific ingredients.  Sugar was the most dominant concern, with 71% of consumers (and 78% of boomers) looking at the sugar on labels.

Second comes the nutritional value of the product – important for around 66% who take the time to look at the nutritional panel – affecting 40% of consumer perceptions. Consumers believe food should be inherently nutritious and expect clean label to deliver on this promise.

Finally, there is the growing importance of sustainability, with around 20% of consumer clean label perceptions being based on brand identity, sourcing, company practices, and manufacturing methods.

Put more simply – consumers are looking for the labels on the foods they purchase to answer three critical questions: What is it made from? Where does it come from? Who made it? If a product can’t satisfactorily answer those questions then it simply won’t make it into the trolley.

The report revealed the most powerful claims were ‘All-Natural/100% Natural’, non-GMO, no additives/preservatives, organic, and made with real ingredients, all of which boosted a product’s clean position for consumers.

The food industry needs to take note: 84% of millennials are reportedly willing to pay more for natural foods and drinks versus 50% of boomers, and 46% of these aged 18-34 would not buy foods that are not clean label, with 44% of those aged 35-44 years feeling the same way. It is these consumers which continue to drive demand for organic foods – Kerry pointing out that in 2017 sales of organic food are expected to reach 5.3% of the total food market.

Although clean label is at present something which is more of a story in the United States than elsewhere – Kerry’s report specifically highlights the UK, France and Germany as markets where clean labels have yet to assume similar levels of importance. In the UK, however, at least one major food manufacturer has recognised this consumer appetite for transparency – and in the case of transparent plastic pouches for Cow & Gate’s baby meals, has taken it literally – what you see is truly what you get, and for the emerging clean consumer group this is a powerful message. It will be interesting to see if others – not just in baby food – will follow suit.