A new report from L.E.K. Consulting says suppliers are developing cleaner, more natural solutions to replace artificial food ingredients in response to increasing consumer demand. This evolving space presents a major opportunity for ingredient firms, investors and retailers to jump on the clean label bandwagon, the global management consulting firm said.
Industry examples of this trend include Campbell Soup and Kellogg, both of which took all artificial flavors and colors out of their products, and Ferrero, which removed both the preservative TBHQ and hydrogenated oils from its Butterfinger candy bar, L.E.K. noted.
The report describes innovations manufacturers are using, including gellan, guar, xanthan and acacia gums to replace carrageenan as a thickener and emusifier; natural mold inhibitors made with naturally fermented sorbic acid instead of calcium propionate; stevia as a sugar alternative; food enzymes to enhance texture, visual appeal, shelf life and healthiness; and processed fruit and vegetable pieces and powders to lend sweetness, color, taste, feel and nutritional benefits to foods and beverages.
According to a 2018 L.E.K. survey cited in the report, more than 60% of consumers look for products with labels reading "no artificial ingredients," "no preservatives" and "all natural." Innova market research from 2018 goes a step further, reporting 91% of U.S. consumers believe food and beverage options with recognizable ingredients are healthier.
It's not surprising that ingredients firms are responding to this trend by introducing innovations with a better chance of being seen as cleaner label — and potentially attracting more purchasing dollars.
Peter Walter, L.E.K. managing director and co-author of the report, said in a release the key to success and ultimate survival for food ingredient companies is to be aware of these recent clean label developments.
"And for investors, deals are abundant. Those in private equity with a tight grasp on where to position themselves to play in the ingredients space will stand to profit the most," he said.
Today's CPG manufacturers are being challenged to be more transparent about their food ingredients because consumers are much more aware of how processed and artificial ones could harm them, the report said. Besides Campbell Soup and Kellogg, L.E.K.'s report mentions product reformulation efforts to remove artificial ingredients by Mondelez and Nestlé, as well as by the Panera and Jimmy John's restaurant chains.
Those are not the only large food companies heading in this direction. Hershey has pledged to favor simpler ingredients, responsible sourcing and transparency in its products, and Mars announced a five-year strategy in 2016 to swap out artificial flavors with those that are more sustainably sourced.
While consumers are avoiding artificial ingredients and turning to more clean label products, they also don't want the familiar items they like to taste any different. This presents another obstacle for food makers since reformulations take time and cost money — and the result may not be exactly like the original.
General Mills learned this the hard way when it launched naturally sourced colors in its Trix cereal recipe in 2016. Some longtime fans were not pleased with the relatively drab cereal. As a result, the company brought back the artificially colored version the following year and made it available along with the naturally colored one.
Chances are the clean label trend will persevere since most consumers prefer fewer and more natural ingredients with names they can understand — and that don't sound like they came from a chemistry lab. According to a 2018 online survey of 3,000 consumers in the U.S and Europe from Beneo, clean labels and natural ingredients were more important when making a purchasing decision than brand recognition and product descriptions.