Attempting to define "clean food" is like stepping on a figurative land mine.
The new Panera clean food campaign has consumers scratching their heads. “Uh, ‘clean food’? What does that even mean?”
The contention of marketing wordsmithing is one that repeats itself with each generation. This generation's most common semantic-battle is arguably around the word "clean"*.
*One of the reasons there has been such an intense focus on "clean label" product development, is because there is no definition for "natural". Retail and food service authorities have stepped in and created their own "clean label" guidelines as a filter for the products allowed on their shelves or menus (such as Whole Foods and Panera).
Numerous industries are using the notion of “clean” in one way or another e.g. food and beverage industry, hotel and Airbnb® rentals, personal care CPG, fashion, graphic design, paper industry, paint companies, etc.
DESIGN THINKING: DEFINING "CLEAN" IN DIFFERENT INDUSTRIES
The word "clean" has psychological, physiological, philosophical, religious/spiritual, and political undertones; it’s also synonymous with “pure”, “simple”, “natural”, and “unadulterated”. Since the word “clean” has infinite definitions, there is no single, objective understanding. It’s safe to say the spiral-staircase of confusion around the word “clean” has blurred communication lines amongst brands and consumers.
“Since the word ‘clean’ has infinite definitions, there is no single, objective understanding.”
HOW ARE FOOD & BEVERAGE COMPANIES ADDRESSING THE CHALLENGES OF DEFINING “CLEAN FOOD”?
Originally “clean label” was strictly thought of as a movement related to the ingredient declaration on food and beverage packages, quite tangible. But as the clean label industry begins to progress and come of age, we are starting to get to the true core of the consumer-driven “clean label” movement.
A clean conscience.
This is powerful stuff.
Some food labeling agencies are breaking down the different grades of clean label into several categories. Two of the highest levels of clean label pertain to sustainability and environmental practices, which have nothing to do with the number of ingredients on a box of granola bars.
We spoke with Kira Karapetian of Label Insight, the market leader for product transparency, to learn more about how they're approaching "clean label". Karapetian explained, "’Clean label', like 'natural' is not a defined or regulated term. In fact, the scale is varied and broad, based on a wide spectrum of data and analysis. It includes considerations of artificial vs. natural, organic vs. GMO, sustainability, fair trade, humane treatment of animals, and even heart healthy. The way people think about food is changing. They care more about what’s in the products they purchase and how they were made than ever before. ‘Clean label’ is a response to this demand for transparency."
The way people think about food is changing. They care more about what’s in the products they purchase and how they were made than ever before. "Clean label" is a response to this demand for transparency.
No longer does “clean food” only mean less ingredients, less artificial, less unpronounceable items. “Clean food” has gone from a physical demonstration on a food label, and expanded to psychology and ethics: I feel good supporting this purpose-driven brand and I sleep well at night knowing I support good.
This shows consumers are beginning to understand their buying power on a totally different level using capitalism as the vehicle. One dollar is one vote.
But the bigger question here is, why now? Why have a significant number of consumers just recently started truly caring about the ethical nature of capitalist decisions on a massive scale?
Obviously there has been a sub-set of consumers who have historically fought for Fair Trade, biodynamic-farming practices, and OSHA laws e.g. the strawberry industry in California. And yes, you said it, [insert eye-roll here] Millennial push for corporate transparency has been an influential catalyst in the “clean label” movement (those whippersnappers have really shaken things up!).
But Millennials aren’t just demanding more corporate transparency, they’re demanding ethical business practices, sustainability, reducing carbon footprints, supporting locally grown agriculture — ultimately the reevaluation of our broken food system.
BIG FOOD IS LISTENING TO LITTLE CONSUMERS
Within the past 2-3 years, food manufacturers have finally felt the heat of mass consumer demand. Pushing the 500 lb. gorilla companies to listen to consumers and execute cleaner labels, business ethics, and true sustainability — aligning policy with ethics is ultimately good business.
And there you have it, “clean food” is a clean label and a clean conscience.