- Consumers are moving beyond just looking for clean label ingredients and now evaluate their food based on five tenets: health, acceptable ingredients, functional ingredients, taste and sustainability, according to a white paper from Kerry. The study was based on a survey of 2,100 U.S. consumers.
- The survey showed 48% of respondents agree health is more important than taste, and 69% of consumers look to add functional benefits to their everyday food. Half indicated they would switch products to buy from a company that supports a cause they believe in. And artificial flavors top the list of unacceptable ingredients.
- The clean-label trend is emerging from consumers’ willingness to take a more hands-on approach to evaluating how healthy their food is. More than nine out of 10 read nutritional labels, and 74% say they frequently read the full product label when making purchases. Despite this dedication, 49% of consumers say there is not enough information on product packaging to help them meet their dietary needs or lifestyle preferences.
Health is now on the menu for most consumers today. In fact, most find natural ingredients and clean labels more important than brand recognition and product descriptions when making decisions about purchasing food products, according to a recent survey from Beneo.
However, the public perception of clean label — there has never been an official definition — has been evolving. Several years ago, clean label was a differentiator for manufacturers to cater to consumers who were conscientious about what they put into their bodies. Now, having products with easy-to-understand natural ingredients, as well as information about the ingredients themselves, has become the norm. Kerry's white paper showed the importance consumers place on what is written on the package has grown since 2019. Three years ago, 39% were willing to switch from their usual brand to one that provides more in-depth product information. Today, 75% of consumers feel that way.
To respond, companies are offering more information on their packaging, as well as giving consumers the opportunity to engage with products further through programs including SmartLabel and HowGood. These programs provide instant access to detailed information on ingredients, allergen information, health claims and sustainability practices, sometimes through scanning QR codes.
Some manufacturers have also found that less is more when it comes to on-package information. Brands including RXBAR and Haagen-Dazs have only a handful of ingredients, which are listed on the package in plain English, giving consumers incentive to try the products.
This push for fewer ingredients and more pronounceable names has left some companies stumbling as they try to work out replacements for ingredients that have fallen out of favor with consumers. From the 164 ingredients that Kerry looked at in its study, unacceptable ingredients from across generations include artificial colors, xanthan gum, high fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors and hormones.
Not only are consumers looking to eliminate certain ingredients, but they are simultaneously looking for products including ones with functional benefits. The top five ingredients they want to find, according to Kerry, are omega-3s, green tea, honey, coffee and probiotics. On top of that, consumers are also looking to eliminate certain ingredients including sugar, sodium, cholesterol and fat from their diets, while still retaining taste.
Faced with a tug of war of demands, the food industry has found itself having to pick its battles. Is adding functional ingredients always beneficial? Should taste be sacrificed for a cleaner label? Finding a middle ground has pushed the industry toward more transparent practices and labeling as manufacturers vie for consumers’ purchases. Nestlé has committed to removing artificial flavors and colors from its chocolate products. Similarly, Hershey will prioritize simple ingredients, transparency and responsible ingredient sourcing. Mars is mapping out a five-year plan to replacing artificial colors in food for humans with ethically and sustainably sourced natural ones, something on which the company says it is steadily making progress.
Some of those battles are also educational. Ascorbic acid may sound like something straight out of a lab, but it is simply the chemical name for vitamin C, which is the way manufacturers need to refer to it on their labels. Regardless of what the ingredient is, some consumers reject anything with a chemical name. According to a research study on misinformation by InsightsNow, one in 10 young adults said they want to see dihydrogen monoxide — the chemical name for water — banned from foods and beverages. Explaining this to the general consumer, however, could prove to be a long, uphill battle.
Another potential pitfall associated with cleaner labels is the expense and difficulty associated with replacing ingredients. It can often be a paradoxical choice. Consumers demand reductions in sugar, but are also concerned with what is being used to replace it. Not all sugar substitutes are created equal. Kerry’s white paper recommends the company's TasteSense Sweet Modulation, but consumers could find this solution less palatable than the more familiar refined sugar — even though TasteSense can be labeled as "natural flavor." Still, if manufacturers simply reduce sugar content, they risk altering the flavor of a product, which is something fewer consumers are willing to tolerate.
Kerry is not the only company searching for solutions from the laboratory. Ajinomoto is also offering additives to boost taste for manufacturers looking to clean up product ingredient profiles. Innophos and Cargill are also looking to food scientists to extract and add flavors without dirtying up ingredient labels.
With so many demands on manufacturers to deliver clean labels, functional benefits, good taste and sustainable practices in each product, satisfying consumers' demands is an ongoing endeavor. Giving consumers exactly what they say they want for every product, however, will be impossible. Manufacturers will instead have to educate consumers about their choices when it comes to ingredients and product composition.
It's likely that a good portion of this education will come down to integrating digital technologies into labels. Not everything can fit onto a package, and consumers are looking for more. Kerry reported 49% of consumers say there is not enough information on packaging to help them meet dietary needs or lifestyle preferences.
Adding a digitally integrated component would allow manufacturers to not only explain and define ingredient choices, but also demonstrate their sustainability initiatives and their progress toward achievement. A company showing it is sustainably minded and acts upon the values it professes could be a differentiator going forward. Half of the consumers Kerry surveyed said they would switch brands to support more sustainable options, and shoppers have been willing to pay more to feel like they are helping the environment. However, reports find a disconnect between sustainability promises and companies’ actions. If companies are able to show they are actively working toward those goals while simultaneously cleaning up their labels and offering good taste to consumers, there is a good chance they will earn loyalty.
At the same time, consumers also have to realize that when it comes to attaining perfection in the food they buy, one cannot always have his cake and eat it too.