Cleaning Up Processed Foods BARBARA KATZ and LU ANN WILLIAMS | December 2011, Volume 65, No.12

Shoppers are paying more attention to what they put into their bodies, and that is driving the development and reformulation of products with cleaner labels.

Although the concept of “clean label” increasingly appears to be a priority for food and beverage formulators, this unregulated descriptor remains largely undefined by industry and consumers. In fact, definitions vary by the party involved, with ingredient suppliers, food and beverage manufacturers, retailers, and consumers all having their own opinions of what qualifies as a clean label. But because in the end the only thing that matters is if consumers repeatedly purchase the product, their interpretation is what counts.

Marketers around the globe are working to keep the clean-label message straightforward for consumers with brand names that include words like simple, simply, real, and pure.
Marketers around the globe are working to keep the clean-label message straightforward for consumers with brand names that include words like simple, simply, real, and pure.

A Formulating Strategy
Consumers will not find an aisle in the supermarket dedicated to clean-label foods, nor will they see the words “clean label” on a product. This is because clean label is a formulating strategy that involves the ingredients that compose the product and the marketing jargon used to describe them.

Companies must list all the ingredients on the ingredient statement by their common or usual names. And they must abide by all applicable standards and regulations. Products may also include statements such as “all natural,” “organic,” “no antibiotics,” “no GMO ingredients,” “free range,” and “locally grown” (Roller, 2010). All of these items influence a person’s opinion as to whether the product has a clean label or not.

Formulating clean-label foods most often refers to eliminating chemical-sounding ingredients or any ingredient recognized as being artificial, for example, certain colors and flavors. Most ingredients with a name that implies extra processing, such as modified corn starch, are considered unclean. The concept of wholesome complements this definition of clean label.

Another interpretation of clean label is “simple.” This interpretation focuses on ingredient statements that are short with understandable ingredients. One of the first products to take this clean-label approach was Häagen-Dazs Five. This pint ice cream line focuses on the simplicity and goodness of five ingredients—milk, cream, sugar, eggs, and one flavoring ingredient.

Yet another interpretation of clean label emphasizes transparency, or informing shoppers about what’s inside the product in order for them to make informed purchase decisions. For example, shoppers who want a lower-calorie yogurt might be fine with the fact that it contains artificial sweeteners, so upfront disclosure is welcomed and even appreciated. For example, Dannon Light & Fit states on the front panel that the yogurt contains aspartame and acesulfame potassium.

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