What drives consumers to clean-label foods?

27 Jun 2024

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Transparent trend shifts choices towards natural, free-from products

While there is no consistent legal definition for the term ‘natural,’ food consumers often associate it with authenticity and realness. They now seek out products that avoid additives, opting instead for those that feature recognized and trusted components. Discover how their focus on health is drawing consumers to clean-label products. A shift so big, that natural and organic were the most searched topics related to bakery, patisserie & chocolate in 2023. 

Explaining the concept of clean label in food

There is no set definition of clean-label products. Within the food industry, the term is used to describe foods that do not contain ingredients that are perceived as artificial and not easily understood by consumers. Clean-label products contain no additives and use only natural colors and flavors. CleanER label products only use natural colors and flavors and have eliminated one or more additives, as to deviate from the average product in their food category. According to research by FMCG Gurus, the most important aspects of clean-label foods to consumers are naturalness (68%), recognizable ingredients (63%) and knowing the origin of ingredients (61%). The top 5 clean-label interpretations are completed by non-GMO foods and additive-free products.

Natural vs. clean label

Almost eight out of ten consumers like to see the claim ‘100% natural’ on product packaging, FMCG Gurus found. But the term ‘natural’ is not easy to grasp, so food producers must do more than just label their products as ‘natural’ to win over clean-label consumers. At the European Union level, there is no legal definition of the term ‘natural,’ except in the case of food flavorings. For instance, in Belgium, the concept of ‘natural’ is closely tied to organic legislation. Meanwhile, in the United States, the FDA does not currently limit the use of the term ‘natural,’ except for products containing added color, synthetic substances, or flavors. 

Transparency is crucial for food brands. They should clarify their interpretation of ‘natural’: Do they avoid additives, prioritize organic ingredients, or use only recognizable components? Being open and clear fosters consumer trust, and front-of-packaging claims about natural or free-from attributes assist shoppers in swiftly evaluating products.

Shoppers now read labels more closely

Six out of ten consumers report increased attention to ingredient listings in the past year. They express a desire to enhance their eating habits proactively for better health. Avoiding or consuming ingredients deemed ‘bad’ in moderation is a common practice among consumers today. Additionally, food shoppers meticulously inspect product packaging to understand food product composition. While simplicity—fewer ingredients—is preferred, consumers also seek reassurance through free-from claims.

Navigating consumer views on additives

Consumers often worry about hidden harmful ingredients in their foods, masked by complex labeling. Online lists and apps caution against E-numbers due to health risks, making people wary of unfamiliar additives. However, while overconsumption of certain ingredients has health implications, most food additives serve to enhance taste, texture, or shelf life. They play a crucial role in ensuring processed foods remain safe and maintain quality—from factories and industrial kitchens to warehouses, stores, and finally, consumers. Despite thorough research and regulation, some consumers prefer natural and organic products for their simplicity and ease of understanding, providing a sense of control and safety.

Are consumers willing to pay more for clean-label products?

Consumers value transparency so much that half are willing to pay extra for clean-label products, Innova found. Especially in staple product categories, natural claims are important. More than half of consumers (56%) find natural claims important for bread, 47% for bakery products and 42% for breakfast or cereal bars, according to our global Taste Tomorrow survey among over 40,000 consumers.

What do consumers prefer: healthier or more natural?

The clean-label trend reflects a significant shift in consumer preferences toward food. Proactive health choices are becoming more common, and consumers increasingly seek transparent, natural, and simple products. However, these preferences aren’t rigid requirements. According to Innova Flavor research, consumers are willing to compromise on these aspects for added health benefits. For example, 41% of consumers would accept an artificial ingredient if it’s healthier and helps reduce sugar. When consumers understand an ingredient’s purpose, they become more open to accepting less natural options. Brands should take this insight to heart and prioritize transparency and health-focused practices.

Clean-label case studies

Food made from food

LÄRABAR is an example of a brand adopting this trend, promoting itself with the tagline ‘food made from food’. To keep it clean and simple, they use just 2 to 9 ingredients per product for their plant-based bars, cereal and brownies. They even state the number of ingredients on the front of their bar wrappers to be transparent towards consumers. As part of their food-made-from-food ideology, they use no artificial sweeteners or flavors and GMO ingredients are a no-go as well. All ensuring consumers LÄRABAR is a healthy, safe choice.

Organic and free-from treats

We see clean-label innovations showing up in the confectionery section as well. Unreal Snacks produces sweet treats that appeal to consumers wanting to eat more natural, but don’t want to give up their sweet midday pick-me-up. The candy bars, chocolate nuts and peanut butter cups are made with ‘100% real ingredients’, which is explained as ‘no artificial stuff and lots less sugar, in a way that's better for people and the planet’. The snacks are made with ‘simple ingredients’, but do not necessarily have a shorter ingredient list. The chocolate caramel peanut nougat bars are promoted as the ‘100% real upgrade to your favorite’ (meaning Snickers). But the ingredient list of the real snack isn’t necessarily shorter than its famous counterpart. The biggest change is that Unreal uses 70% organic ingredients and 40% less sugar.

5 Clean-Label Brands to Watch

Get inspired by five food brands that have fully embraced the clean-label approach, from fruit juices to veggie deli meats.

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