The Evolution of Clean: Clear Message or Confused Consumers?

Clean eating. Clean label. Clean. Phrases, or concepts, originally understood to be industry terms are now becoming mainstream with consumers. With companies like Panera, touting their clean menus full of clean ingredients, consumers are slowly acclimating to the term clean. The question is: do they really understand what we as an industry mean by clean? And how has the original intent of the word or concept, (whatever you want to call it) changed? Regardless, it is clear that educating consumers while listening to what they believe and desire about clean is necessary.

Let’s take a quick look at the evolution of clean. It is speculated that “clean” evolved from natural, which became a goal for many consumers but also was confusing because it wasn’t defined by the FDA. Natural claims were everywhere and soon lost their luster with some consumers due to the confusion and lack of a universal definition. Industry began using the term “clean” to indicate products with fewer ingredients, that were minimally processed, and whose ingredient list could be fully pronounced and understood by the consumer (who still weren’t aware that these were things being defined as clean from an industry perspective). As a result, many companies worked to clean up product labels with the hopes of winning consumers who didn’t know they should be seeking clean. Activist groups got in on the action and some ingredients began to have a perception of  “dirty” despite the formulation benefits they may have offered. With 64% of today’s shoppers seeking minimally processed foods and over half wanting them to be made of fewer, recognizable ingredients, consumers are getting the clean message.[i]

Clearly Transparent  Along the past few years, the clean waters became a little clearer. Consumer’s definition of clean broadened to include transparency, taking the industry-originated term from a labeling issue to an emotionally charged ethical one. More consumers than ever, especially Millennials, now want to know the source of the ingredients in the products they purchase along with the ethics of the company manufacturing them. As has suggested, clean has as much to do with a clean conscience as a label. As a result, clean label could mean different things to different consumer groups like Boomers or Millennials creating a challenge for developers. Expert Research Chef, Charlie Baggs of Culinary Innovations predicts that developing around a target market is more important than ever, especially important since consumers care about their food more than ever.[ii]

Clean to the Extreme  For some bloggers and celebrities, clean eating is one dirty idea as it has become a diet vs. a guideline. Some consumers associate clean eating with removing whole food groups like dairy or carbs which can be unhealthy for developing teens. There has even been speculation that younger consumers who don’t eat enough dairy will develop osteoporosis later in life and have more broken bones.[iii] Consumers also associate eating clean with eliminating or reducing ingredients like sugar. Reducing sugar is a target for approximately 58% of American consumers and the creation of new “added sugar” guidelines of 10% of the daily caloric intake will soon make their way on to redesigned product labels.[iv] While you are most likely working on satisfying added sugar label changes, there is another idea brewing across the pond with the goal of helping consumers make healthy choices. In Britain, the Royal Society for Public Health is toying with proposing to have labels reflect the amount of cardiovascular exercise needed to burn off a serving of a given product. Discovering that it takes 189 burpees to offset a scoop of cookie dough ice cream might be incentive for some consumers to clean up their act.

There’s a Need to Get Clear on Clean  Clearly, going clean is as much of a conundrum for manufacturers as it is for consumers as the target keeps expanding and muddying the waters. How your organization chooses to tackle clean is an individual decision, at this point, but it is clear that some clean label ingredients might be a good place to start. We’ve got plenty of those and are here to help—contact us today.