Is “Clean Label” Clear? How Health-Conscious Consumers Perceive the Trend

Apr 2, 2020

Consumers shopping for healthier food and beverage products are trying to do their bodies good, but deciphering all the different labels is a challenge. “Organic,” “non-GMO,” and “natural” are popular terms that might be a little more self-explanatory, but some descriptors like “clean label” are less so. As food and beverage brands capitalize on the “clean label” trend, understanding how consumers perceive and prioritize it is necessary to understand how “clean” products will perform in-market.

Similar to “better for you,” consumer interpretations of “clean label” are currently all over the map. In theory, “clean label” is supposed to be about fewer and simpler ingredients. Go Clean Label defines it as: “Food products containing natural, familiar, simple ingredients that are easy to recognize, understand, and pronounce. No artificial ingredients or synthetic chemicals.”

But that message may not be getting through to actual consumers. As Roger Clemens, president of the International Academy of Food Science and Technology, said in an interview last year: “Consumers are demanding [clean label]. The challenge is…there’s no definition of what clean label is. It’s based on perception…and everyone perceives it differently.”

Part of the issue could be that the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has not yet defined “clean label” from a regulatory perspective. This ambiguity has caused concern among food scientists and manufacturers about how to produce food and beverage products that fit the bill. In turn, consumers seem to be making blanket assumptions that “clean label” just means “healthy” or “simple.” But the problem is that healthy and simple are themselves broad and hard-to-define ideas.

But is any of this really holding consumers back when shopping?

In our recent study of consumers who are making healthier food and beverage choices, 59% said they’re not impacted by “clean label” in their food and beverage choices—because they either don’t know what it means or don’t consider it when shopping.

Understanding this disconnect with “clean label” and how it plays out in the market is incredibly valuable for product, marketing, and consumer insights teams. What do consumers want? What are their perceptions? How and where are they being educated about the “clean label” term? And how does their understanding of it translate to purchase behaviors?

Here’s what we uncovered in our study.

Ingredients are important, but “clean” not as much

More than half (56%) of consumers read ingredient lists and take them into consideration when shopping. Now, we know from our study that consumers make food and beverage purchases based on the claims that are most important to them. But on its own, “clean” doesn’t come anywhere close to the top of that list. Only 18% of consumers said it was important, well below other claims like “protein,” “low/no sugar,” and “natural,” which occupy the top spots.

When taken within the context of “better for you” claims, 27% of consumers ranked “clean” as important but still not as much as “protein,” “low/no sugar,” and “natural,” “no artificial flavors, preservatives, and sweeteners,” and “vitamins.”

Fifteen percent of consumers only purchase “clean label” products. While this suggests that the idea has caught on for some, enough to be their biggest purchasing consideration, the rest of consumers haven’t completely bought in yet.

“Clean” is confusing

Twenty-seven percent of consumers consider purchasing “clean label” food and beverage products more than other products, but on the other hand, 22% of consumers have never even heard of the term.

Consumers don’t have a unified concept of what the term means, and similar to “better for you,” “clean” has a number of various connotations. For example, 46% of consumers think “clean label” means “no chemicals” which, indeed, is part of its correct definition. But 32% and 31% believe it means “organic” and “non-GMO,” respectively, which are incorrect.

Other technically correct perceptions include “natural ingredients” (43%), “no artificial ingredients” (41%), and “healthy ingredients” (37%), but incorrect meanings to consumers sneak in as well, such as “safe for the environment” (35%) and “sustainably sourced ingredients” (24%).

Consumers buy “clean label” because they perceive those products as healthier, but as we’ve already discussed, “healthier” can mean different things to different people. Some of the concepts that fit with consumers’ interpretations of “healthy” include:

  • Natural (44%)
  • Fresh (41%)
  • No chemicals (41%)
  • No artificial ingredients (37%)
  • Organic (34%)

But “fresh” and “organic” aren’t considered as “clean label”—and so the confusion continues.

“Clean” purchasers are particular

Despite the knowledge gap, 63% of consumers are willing to pay more for “clean label.” And they’ll shop at mass retailers (81%) and grocery stores (58%) to buy clean products, reflecting numbers that are similar to regular category purchasers.

But “clean label” purchasers shop in greater numbers at online retailers (48% vs. 30% in the category), specialty and health stores (46% vs. 30% in the category), and club stores (43% vs. 33% in the category).

Fifty-one percent of “clean label” purchasers are on diets or follow dietary restrictions. And while no specific diet stands out for “clean label” purchasers, vegetarian, low-carb, vegan, and gluten-free rank a bit higher than others.

Certain food and beverage products also fit with “clean label” better than others in consumers’ minds. For example, consumers associate meat and dairy foods and nutrition or protein bars as being more suitable to the “clean label” category than other products, as do most non-alcoholic beverages, including:

  • Milk (49%)
  • Fruit juice (42%)
  • Coffee (36%)
  • Tea (34%)
  • Still water (26%)
  • Milk alternatives (17%)
  • Enhanced water (15%)

Additionally, consumers don’t really consider any alcoholic beverages to be a good fit for the “clean label” category.

Restaurants pose good opportunities for “clean label” too—but not all. Consumers thought quick-serve restaurants (42%), casual or family style dining (37%), and fast casual (33%) were best suited to offer “clean label” options, but didn’t think it would work for fine dining or buffets, which brought up the rear at 18% each.

How brands can think about the “clean label” opportunity

Our study found clear generational differences among respondents. Out of the four generations included in our study—Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, and Baby Boomers—Millennials are the most likely to read ingredient lists, whether they’re shopping for themselves or their kids. There is a real opportunity for you to successfully market “clean label” to this audience, as Millennials ranked it as one of their top-three important “better for you” claims.

It shouldn’t be a surprise then that Millennials are also the generation most likely to purchase “clean label” products and pay more for them too, with Gen Z coming in second place.

As an interesting aside, the Baby Boomer generation seems to have the clearest understanding of what “clean label” means. They interpreted it as “no chemicals” (54%), “no artificial ingredients” (50%), and “natural ingredients” (47%) in greater numbers than Millennials. However, they’re also the least likely to purchase “clean label” products.

We found regional differences in “clean label” interest as well. Consumers in the West and Northeast are more open to “clean label,” and consumers in the West are willing to pay more for it.

If you want to tap into the opportunity with Millennials, you need to start with an understanding of Millennial lifestyles, values, and media consumption. For example, Millennials are twice as likely to be on a diet and they love to participate in sports and outdoor activities. They’re also more likely to be watching baby- or kid-focused television, and they prefer to buy and read entertainment- and food-related books and magazines.

The future of “clean label”

The opportunity for innovation in “clean label” food and beverage products continues to grow. The global “clean label” market is expected to expand 7.2% from 2017-2023, according to a Market Research Future report. The same report shows that the bakery and confectionary segment currently dominates the global “clean label” ingredients market, since this segment relies heavily on food additives to increase product shelf lives.

Combining product innovation with audience insights can help brands like yours target and tailor messaging more effectively and bring greater clarity to clean label products. Even though food manufacturers and the FDA have more work to do to ensure products meet specific standards (however those will ultimately be determined), understanding what consumers think and feel about “clean label” will help align your own product innovation efforts with their needs and desires.

As Ahmed Rahim, the CEO and founder of Numi Organic Tea predicts: “Clean labels with high ethical values are more important than ever, particularly to a growing segment of consumers with special dietary needs, which means lab-created…flavors are not in demand.” He adds: “Consumers want real ingredients from nature…and are seeing their purchasing decisions as a form of activism. They are ‘voting with their dollars,’ supporting companies that align with their personal beliefs and hope for the future.”

Reach out and schedule a call with our team to hear additional insights from our full report on the “better for you” food and beverage trend. We can also share more about GutCheck’s research solutions and how we generate insights that help industry leaders around the world understand and more successfully target their consumers.

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