Shopper searching for clean label bread
Research shows that consumers scan for certain ingredients when evaluating packaged foods.

KANSAS CITY Tired of hearing the term “clean label”? Well, it’s not going away. How a brand chooses to address the clean label movement is very personal because there’s no formal definition, yet many companies claim to be doing it.

Darren Seifer, The NPD Group
Darren Seifer, food and beverage industry analyst for the NPD Group

“In the 1980s and through much of the 1990s, consumers largely tried to avoid certain substances like fats or cholesterol because they were thought to be harmful,” said Darren Seifer, food and beverage industry analyst for The NPD Group, Inc. “Around the turn of this century, consumers became more concerned with getting more ‘good’ substances like whole grains or omega-3s in their diets. Now, in addition to eating more better-for-you foods, new priorities are coming into focus for consumers like eating foods in their pure form.”

According to NPD data, more than 30% of consumers said they are cautious about foods with preservatives, compared with 24% just 10 years ago. The trend for other food additives followed the same progression.

Food coloring in macarons
Some food additives add color to baked goods.

What’s a food additive?

There are basically two categories of food ingredients, those the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.) approves as food additives and those Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS). The latter is a designation that has either been given by the F.D.A. to commonly used food ingredients, such as flour, sugar and salt, or a company can self-affirm an ingredient to be GRAS by making available scientific data and information deeming the ingredient as safe for its intended use.

Both GRAS and approved additives often improve the integrity, safety and even nutritional quality of baked goods. Other food additives aid the flavor and color of baked goods.

But now, consumers question the use of additives. When they see a long, unfamiliar name among the listed ingredients, they often think the additive is a complex chemical, even a dangerous compound. Uninformed consumers might find “ascorbic acid” offensive, which is the chemical name for vitamin C.

Albumen = egg whites
Albumen may be labeled "egg white" to keep ingredients lists more consumer friendly.

“Marketers would be wise to examine their ingredient labels to understand whether their key consumer targets might find anything objectionable based on media coverage or even simply by how pronounceable an ingredient is to the average consumer,” Mr. Seifer said. Some ingredients can be listed by more familiar names. For example, “egg white” is much more consumer-friendly than “albumen.”