NEW ORLEANS — How consumers perceive clean label food and beverage products is becoming more complex as the market for dairy and meat alternatives grows. In some instances, consumers seem willing to tolerate a longer ingredient list if they conclude the finished product is more sustainable or healthier than its conventional counterpart.
“Sustainable nutrition is running up against clean label,” said Rachel Cheatham, Ph.D., founder and chief executive officer of Foodscape Group, L.L.C., Chicago, during a June 5 presentation at the Institute of Food Technologists’ annual meeting and food expo, held June 2-5 in New Orleans.
During her presentation, Dr. Cheatham used the Häagen-Dazs brand of ice cream to demonstrate how the trend is evolving. A decade ago, Häagen-Dazs introduced its Five variety of ice cream, which only featured five ingredients on the label. She said the Five variety came out before clean label had fully blossomed as an industry trend.
Jumping to the present day and using the Häagen-Dazs Trio variety as an example, she noted that the label is longer than the Five variety, but still contains ingredients that are familiar to consumers. Then she showed the ingredient panel for a non-dairy variety of the Trio line.
“Now the list is getting longer,” she said. “Is this clean or not clean label? I’m not going to put down the law on one side or the other, but I want to draw your attention to the question of if that consumer wants to keep vegan, pure vegetarian or, if nothing else, go non-dairy, that ingredient label has more going on than the original? I think this is where that tradeoff is going to come in the minds of the consumer.”
Dr. Cheatham said a similar scenario is unfolding in the plant-based meat space. Using Beyond Meat’s Beyond Burger and Impossible Foods’ Impossible Burger, she said the Beyond Burger features a long ingredient list while the Impossible Burger includes genetically modified ingredients.
“I dare say this is a space where the consumer may not have realized what is happening,” she said. “What we are going to need to know from the consumer, and the results are going to vary, obviously, is what are the tradeoffs they are willing to make? Do they want a plant-based burger? Do they want it to ‘bleed?’ And do they want it more than knowing a cow was killed? I can’t answer that, but these are some of the questions we are going to face.”
Adding more complexity to the situation, Dr. Cheatham used the cereal category as an example of conflicting trends. When General Mills, Inc. reformulated Trix cereal using colors perceived as natural, the company faced a backlash from consumers who felt the quality of the product had been eroded.
“Yet in the same portfolio, the Kix consumer is different from the Trix consumer,” she said. “In the Kix case, you can see colors are coming from vegetables and fruit juices. I think it’s a good example of knowing who is looking at your product.”
The examples demonstrate that there is no single definition of clean label, Dr. Cheatham said.
“But don’t let that deter you,” she said. “Just because there is not one definition doesn’t mean there aren’t anchor points that you can strategize against.
“Be sure to consider sustainability in the equation. That may be where you can push the envelope in this whole conversation around what is clean, clean eating and clean label.”