Woman reading nutrition panel
Inundated with such terms as “natural” and “organic,” consumers now have a new label term to ponder.

Defining labels

Ms. Conaghan finds that manufacturers increasingly opt to use terms that lack regulations or are easier to guarantee in their supply chain. Most importantly, manufacturers have to determine which claims they may safely make to comply with government regulations and consumers’ desire for clean label and transparency.

Inundated with such terms as “natural” and “organic,” consumers now have a new label term to ponder, according to Liz Moskow, culinary director for industry consultants Sterling-Rice Group, Boulder: “transitional organics.”

“It takes time to transition farmland from traditional farms to organic, it moves slowly in that direction, so it’s not quite there — but product is more organic than previously,” she said.

She said probiotic labeling is picking up, too.

“With new products coming out left and right, they’re starting to become more regulated.”

The International Probiotics Association, working with the Council for Responsible Nutrition, has created guidelines for “probiotic” labeling. Criteria include listing what specific probiotics are contained “and requiring that manufacturers prove they’re alive when ingested,” Ms. Moskow said.

What do the increasingly used “healthy” and/or “natural” terms mean on a label? The short answer is the terms are unregulated, for now. A new definition for "healthy" is currently in development by the Food and Drug Administration in response to consumer and nutrition advocates concerned that it may be misleading.

Ingredient assurance

So many new terms are “ethereal, nebulous, fluffy and fuzzy,” said Patty Johnson, global food analyst for Mintel. Referring to the research company’s Menu Insights database, Ms. Johnson said the term “minimally processed” has become a positive selling point for prepared foods, packaged meat, poultry and seafood.

Poultry products with free-from claims
Poultry products featuring a variety of "free-from" terms

Verifying ingredient sources at the manufacturing level has taken on new importance, too. Providing seafood fished out of “sustainable waters” leads companies such as Raw Seafoods, Fall River, Mass., to work with its suppliers to ensure the seafood it uses is Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)-certified, said Walter Zuromski, CEC, CCE, the company’s director of R&D.

“Part of the MSC certification is traceability — knowing where the fish are caught,” he says. “We work with some of the largest retailers in the world and for our added-value product (perhaps fish with a spice rub), where we’re buying seafood is important.”

For such companies, further certification is the norm. Safe Quality Food Institute (a division of Food Marketing Institute) provides what’s known as SQF certification.

“It’s a program recognized by retailers — ACME, Wegmans, Whole Foods, etc. — all are interested in the transparency of our manufacturing procedures,” Mr. Zuromski said.

Also with transparency in mind, start-up companies like Boulder-based start-up LoveTheWild are making ingredient provenance a marketing point that may set them apart from the competition. The branded meal kits featuring clean ingredient sauces sell to over 600 stores.

“It’s a non-sexy frozen fish company that works with only the best aquaculture companies that are super transparent with their sources,” Ms. Moskow of the Sterling-Rice Group said.