Keeping it Simple

by Allison Sebolt
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When it comes to food labeling, less has become more. Under increased pressure from both consumers and regulatory entities, food manufacturers are working to offer products with fewer claims and ingredients and instead focus on the quality of the ingredients that are used.

“We’ve seen a lot of consumers moving toward saying they want fresher, less processed, more real foods,” said Laurie Demeritt, president and chief operating officer at The Hartman Group, Bellevue, Wash.

In this quest for more less processed foods, Ms. Demeritt said consumers look for indicators such as see-through packaging, expiration dates, where the product is in the store and whether it’s refrigerated or not to tell them how fresh the food is.

“(Consumers) turn it over and look at the ingredient list,” Ms. Demeritt said. “They sort of eyeball it to say, ‘Is it long? Is it short? Does it have words in it I can pronounce or not?’ I think clean labeling is part of this bigger movement, but I wouldn’t say it’s a trend in and of itself. It’s sort of a cue or a symbol to this larger goal they are seeking, which is things that are more real and less processed.”

She said consumers not only want the ingredient list on the label to be short as a way of classifying something as having a “clean” label, but they also look at the imagery on the label itself and notice whether there is any white space, and whether there is a picture of the raw ingredients as opposed to the final product. All of these are positive indicators to consumers of a clean label. Another indicator of a clean label is if the packaging tells a story about the product, such as the story of a farmer who helped produce the product.

“There are certainly a lot of health callouts and functional benefits that are still on consumer radar screens, but larger and more big picture is they believe better health is cued through things that are more real and less processed and less industrialized,” Ms. Demeritt said.

Simplicity seems to be the way to go. From 2005 to 2008, there was a 65% increase in new products using the words “simple” or “simply” in the product or brand name, according to Datamonitor, New York.

Ms. Demeritt said while there have been issues with food safety due to recent food recalls, this is not what is primarily driving consumer desire for simplicity and clean labels. Instead, she said it is basic consumer desire for more healthful products and a desire to go back to the basics.

In terms of product categories that are most successful and have the most opportunities for clean labels, Ms. Demeritt said pasta sauce and juice are examples of categories that should cue “real” and don’t require further processing. Overall, she said food products consumers may trace back to something grown in the ground are product types consumers expect to have the least amount of processing by the time it ends up on the shelf.

She said companies need to avoid excessive health messaging callouts as packaging on many products is becoming cluttered with such messaging. She said this often leads consumers to believe too much is being added to the product to be able to make those claims. She said consumers are more interested in the inherent nutrition in a product.

In a recent Institute of Food Technologists webinar on clean labeling, Gary Dunlap, senior vice-president, Group Head Crisis & Management, Edelman Public Relations, Chicago, reinforced this idea, presenting information from regulatory officials that said various research suggests excessive frontof-pack labeling approaches are likely to be confusing and counterproductive to consumers.

According to the 2009 International Food Information Council Foundation Food & Health survey, of consumers who have made dietary changes during the past six months, 64% said their reason was to improve their overall well-being with 61% reporting improving physical health as their reason and 61% concerned about losing weight. In addition, the top source of information guiding consumer food and health practices is the food label with 61% of consumers reporting they use the food label for information. Also, 69% of consumers said they look at the Nutrition Facts Panel when deciding to purchase or eat a product, and 67% said they look at the expiration date. Twelve per cent of consumers look for the ability to pronounce ingredient names on labeling.

Yet with all of this interest on the perceived goodness in the ingredients of a product, taste is still the No. 1 factor influencing consumer purchases, the IFIC said, as 87% of consumers said taste impacts their decision to purchase a product.

Mr. Dunlap said disclosure on labeling is being driven by the rising rates of “contamination,” allergies and obesity. In addition, “junk” foods are under scrutiny, and restaurants are increasingly being required to post calorie information on menus. The definitions of organic and natural have been confused with sometimes unclear definitions, Mr. Dunlap said. In addition, school lunch programs and vending machines are under more scrutiny.

Mr. Dunlap emphasized that recent food recalls have led consumers to make some changes in their purchasing decisions and the issues have forced companies to be more transparent.

Will there ever be a point when products become too clean? Do some food products need synthetic ingredients for preservation?

“In some cases, a natural ingredient can provide the same functionality as a synthetic ingredient,” said Alex Fink, marketing director at Kemin Industries, Inc., Des Moines, Iowa. “It depends on the food matrix, the desired functionality, and the list of plausible options. Some food technology companies are working very hard to identify new molecules from natural sources that can provide the same or better functionality than synthetic ingredients.”

He said if a food product needs to make it through traditional distribution but can’t due to the absence of an ingredient to maintain freshness and safety, then it has a limited value to everyone.

Products that are doing a good job with clean labeling include the Häagen-Dazs Five line, which uses only five ingredients. In addition Campbell’s Select Harvest Line features a limited number of ingredients used and the company works to explain what each of the ingredients are. On Kraft Foods Inc.’s web site for its Triscuit products, the text even starts off reading, “At Triscuit, we believe less is more.”

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