NEW ORLEANS — Clean label may not be neatly defined, but food companies can convey the concept in five ways.

“There is a huge opportunity in finding new space within clean label because it’s a broad topic, and there is no regulation yet,” said Yasemin Ozdemir, market analyst, Innova Market Insights, a research firm based in Duiven, The Netherlands. Ms. Ozdemir discussed the future of clean label during a presentation at the Institute of Food Technologists’ annual meeting and food exposition, held June 21-24 in New Orleans.


In 2013, 23.5% of global food and beverage launches included a clean label claim, rising steadily from 21.5% in 2010.

“Innova Market Insights has three claims at the moment that we consider clean label and that you can easily find in our database, and they are ‘natural,’ ‘no additives/preservatives,’ and ‘organic,’” she said. “But there are also some new claims arising, and a lot of companies are shifting away from using ‘natural’ and moving towards new value propositions because there is a credibility issue and a lack of regulation in ‘natural.’ People want to eat more products with ingredients from nature, but because companies have used it so loosely, there has been a credibility issue lately.”

Fewer consumers today buy into ‘natural’ claims, possibly out of skepticism, Ms. Ozdemir said. Thirty-four per cent of U.S. consumers in 2012 considered the claim important when buying food, down from 41% in 2008. Moreover, the number of products launched with a natural claim has stabilized over the past three years, as companies explore other ways to convey a clean label.

Consumer perceptions of clean label vary. When asked to define natural, 49% described a product with no preservatives, 47% said it has no artificial flavors, and 32% said the product is in its natural state, such as meat, fruits or vegetables. Another 32% of consumers defined natural as not genetically modified, 39% said it has no artificial colors, and 35% said it has no artificial sweeteners. Sixty-one per cent of U.S. consumers indicated that highly processed foods are a top concern for them.

“Manufacturers and retailers are taking initiatives; some retailers are reformulating products in their own private label lines,” said Ms. Ozdemir, citing Wal-Mart and Safeway as examples. “And then there are retailers having a list of banned ingredients. Whole Foods has that, Kroger has it, Safeway has it. I think most of the retailers have a list of ingredients they won’t allow in the products they sell in their stores.”

Several food makers, including Kraft Foods and Coca-Cola, recently have reformulated products to remove artificial or controversial ingredients.

“The claim being used most at the moment is no additives/preservatives,” Ms. Ozdemir said. “This is quite an easy claim to make compared to ‘natural,’ which is more risky or ‘organic,’ which is a totally different story.”

Among global product launches with a clean label claim, soft drinks, including sodas, juices and iced teas, accounted for 50%, followed by sauces and seasonings at 13%, baked foods at 11%, dairy products at 10% and ready meals at 9%.

“Another interesting discussion in the U.S. is non-G.M.O.,” Ms. Ozdemir noted. “This is increasingly becoming part of clean label.”

Fifty-three per cent of U.S. consumers said they wouldn’t buy foods with bioengineered ingredients.

“As expected, 34% of all non-G.M.O. products are observed in North America,” she said.

Sales of Non-G.M.O.-verified products reached $5 billion in 2013, up from $3.5 billion in 2012, with recent introductions from such big brands as Cheerios, Grape Nuts, Smart Balance and Ben and Jerry’s.

“Clean label is here to stay,” Ms. Ozdemir said. “And I think it’s very interesting to see new pathways in clean label, whether it’s explicit claiming, finding new value propositions, or implicitly by branding or packaging transparency.”

Click for a slideshow of five ways in which companies may convey clean label.