Panera sandwich, Chipotle burrito
Key players like Panera and Chipotle showed it was possible to deliver on a clean food promise in a mass-market context.

Spotlight on simple

Consumer demand for simple ingredients has moved into the mainstream “with extraordinary velocity,” Ms. Kruse said.

“(Consumers are) demanding foods that are clean and free-from artificial sweeteners, antibiotics, G.M.O.s,” she said. “I think the primary driver is … the impact of the fast-casual segment because key players like Panera and Chipotle showed it was possible to deliver on a clean food promise in a mass-market context. Major chains are all over this bandwagon. It would be easier for me to tell you who is not engaged somehow in cleaning up the menu.”

Papa John’s, for example, has announced a major initiative to reformulate its menu, which will cost the company $100 million a year, Ms. Kruse said.

“Why are they doing it?” she said. “Because they want to appeal to millennial families.”

Papa John's pizza clean label menu
Papa John’s recently announced a major initiative to reformulate its menu.

The trend extends into grocery retail, underpinned by a significant number of retailers and packaged food companies announcing a clean label commitment in the past year.

“One of interesting facets to this whole phenomenon is that it’s one of the very rare food trends that began on the supermarket side and then migrated to food service,” Ms. Kruse said. “About 95% of food trends in this country start in food service and work their way gradually into the retail grocery channel. This has been just the opposite.”

Recent innovation centers on “simple,” a descriptor that, while undefined, may resonate more with mainstream consumers than words like “organic” and “non-G.M.O.”

“If you’re the average consumer, you may not understand the concept of organic, and if you don’t know what organic means, you sure don’t know what G.M.O.s are,” Ms. Kruse said. “Simple is all-encompassing. We are just now beginning to see this consumer friendly approach to simplicity making its way into restaurants.”

McDonald's Simple Delights menu
McDonald's is testing a menu dubbed Simple Delights in Southern California.

In March, McDonald’s Corp. registered the phrase “The simpler, the better” for potential use in marketing, and the chain is testing in Southern California a menu dubbed Simple Delights, Ms. Kruse said.

On the packaged food side, such brands as Heinz ketchup, Lay’s potato chips and Keebler cookies have launched products positioned as simple.

“I really like this simplicity thing; I think it could have legs,” Ms. Kruse told participants attending the presentation. “So, if there’s a way to make it work for you on your menus, by all means do it, and then promote the living daylights out of it.”