Consumers react positively to terms such as "clean label" and "clean eating," since they view products with those labels as "healthy" and "natural," according to a Mintel report cited by Food Navigator.
The market research firm noted that the definition of "clean" isn't any clearer than the definitions for "natural" and "healthy," so while consumers like to know a product is "clean," some also want to know what it means.
Because of this confusion, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration intends to better define "healthy" and "natural" and also figure out ways to symbolize such claims on package labeling.
FDA initially defined “healthy” in 1994 for inclusion on food labels and then began trying to update the definition in the fall of 2016. In March, Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said the agency was continuing to work on that definition and one for "natural" in order to give consumers sufficient guidance — possibly via an icon or symbol on product packaging.
Now that "clean label" and "clean eating" have been added to our food vocabulary, it's getting even more complicated, as the Mintel report points out. Consumers may have their own definitions of the terms, or they may be waiting for federal regulators to determine what they should mean based on solid science and agreed-upon facts.
Meanwhile, shoppers might reach for a product advertising its "clean label" attributes just as often as they might pick one describing itself as "healthy" or "natural," the Mintel report said. However, "clean label" may only mean there are fewer ingredients in the product and they're familiar ones that don't sound like they came from a laboratory. "Healthy" and "natural" may appeal to consumers in the same way even though there's no specific criteria to go on — and the "clean" product may actually be a better-for-you item than one labeled "healthy."
Food companies can't really fix the situation themselves by defining what the terms mean for their products since having myriad interpretations of the terminology just adds to the confusion. It's probably best if FDA publishes its own definitions that can be regulated, although the difficulty in doing so is obvious from the time it's taking. The agency may also want to come up with easily understandable definitions for "clean label" and "clean eating," but that could prove even more challenging.
Manufacturers could focus in on the problem by better explaining what's in their products so consumers might have a little more clarity about what "clean label" means. A company might say on product packaging that there are only four ingredients in a certain item and they're all organic, from natural sources, or without any artificial ingredients or other additives. Most consumers could understand this message.
Big food companies reformulating to fit this consumer ideal include General Mills, Hershey, Campbell Soup, Kraft Heinz and Nestlé. Not only are they responding to consumer trends, but shoppers are willing to pay more for clean label products, which gives them a big incentive to do so.