According to Euromonitor, global sales of healthy food in 2017 amounted to about 1 trillion dollars. However, the notion of health benefits is not objective and is constantly changing. What is considered healthy now? How do brands use it? What changes are taking place and what are the forecasts for the future?
We have prepared a series of longreads that will help to gain insight into this topic. This is the first article in the series.
What is a clean label?
The clean label is not an official but actively used term. Clean label products are:
- Minimally processed products and products with a short list of ingredients
- Products without artificial, chemical ingredients and ingredients that are not understandable to the consumer (such as, glutamate sodium 1-substituted, E-121)
- Products without ingredients having a negative image (e.g. palm oil, corn syrup)
How did it all start?
A burst of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other diseases in the second half of the 20th century led to a distrust of the food industry. The food became available but dangerous.
The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 regulated for the first time the indication of some ingredients on the package, so that consumers with health issues could make a safe choice. This gave rise to a wave of fears and doubts of “healthy” consumers without particular disorders: if the package indicates “gluten-free”, then is gluten harmful? Very quickly, simple labels turned into more complicated ones: “Fat-free” -> “Trans fat-free”, “Additives-free” -> “GMO-free”, etc.
63% of Russians believe that the shorter the list of ingredients, the more useful the product is
78% of Russians are confident that the benefits are inversely proportional to the number of artificial additives.
71% of Russians are willing to pay more for food and drinks that do not contain unwanted ingredients.
The most frightening ingredients for Russians:
- Artificial flavors and preservatives
- Antibiotics and hormones in animal products
- Sodium glutamate
More than 90% of Russians are confident that these elements are harmful to their health and their family’s health.
Fear of the unknown
Fear of certain ingredients is caused by ignorance rather than knowledge. At the level of instincts, we are programmed to the familiar and understandable products — food experiments thousands of years ago were accompanied by a serious risk of death from poisoning.
In January 2015, a survey was conducted in the United States, and more than 80% of participants voted for mandatory labelling of DNA-containing products. DNA is contained in any plant and animal product, not all respondents knew about this and preferred to prohibit the incomprehensible. Just in case.
The case with a familiar GMO abbreviation is also ambiguous.
In 2016, more than 100 Nobel laureates signed an appeal to Greenpeace, the UN and governments around the world to reconsider the negative attitude towards genetically modified products. Science does not know of any confirmed example of the negative impact of transgenic products on human and animal health.
Nevertheless, the results of research are not recognised by most organisations, consumers and politicians. Since 2016, it is possible to grow GMOs in Russia only for research and examination, Meduza reports.
“When people do not understand the subject, it is very difficult to communicate meaningfully and it is possible to argue only at the level of “I agree” or “I do not agree” — this applies in particular to GMOs. The population as a whole is afraid of everything new, which gives politicians a convenient chance to “take care” of the health of the population and block these new things,” says Valery Ilyinsky, Founder of Genotek Medical Genetics Center, in an interview with RIA-Novosti.
The truth about the health benefits or harms of food products is often relative. Relativity at the moment is that a clean label makes a product more appealing to most consumers.
Food product manufacturers can achieve the clear label in several ways.
Clean Label strategies
Replacing the ingredient with a more “clean” one, while retaining the functional and organoleptic properties of the product and its nutritional value.
- Natural flavors, colorants, preservatives and sweeteners instead of artificial ones
Remove incomprehensible ingredients
- BPA (bisphenol A) free
Certain efforts of an R&D department may lead to the reduction of the amount of consumer-dissatisfying ingredients without sacrificing functional or organoleptic properties of the product.
- Reduce the sugar or salt content
Since the “cleanliness” and health of the product are subjective things, it is best to accompany the composition change with brand repositioning, or at least with active communication of the new proposal.
- A limited release, homemade recipes, hand-made, authentic taste are the right meanings and words for such a strategy.
If the original product and brand do not suggest a clean label (for cost reasons and prices on the shelf for example), then it is possible to launch a new product line that meets the demand for a clean label.
In addition to the above methods, companies resort to legal ingenuity, which allows for a new description of the old composition on the package. This method allows avoiding the increase in the cost of products that often occurs during to transition to a clean label. However, the disclosure of such a method is fraught with reputation risks.
The level of consumers’ anxiety and their distrust of the food industry continue to grow. The transparency requirement covers both the ingredients in the product and the way they are grown, processed, stored, etc. The clean label essentially turns into the entire clean supply chain.
Is this model scalable? What price are consumers willing to pay for a new “cleanliness”?