Clean Labels: Simple Arithmetic

by Jennifer Barnett Fox
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The old saying that actions speak louder than words has become increasingly evident within the natural food category. As demand continues to grow, grocery stores and an increasing number of convenience stores are adding real estate to stock products once found only in health food markets.

For a growing number of consumers, the purchase of better-for-you foods imparts a feeling of control over their personal effect on the planet as well as on familial health and well-being. Manufacturers of these products have the opportunity to build trust through a partnership with consumers to provide health benefits and simple elements of comfort through the foods they purchase and consume.


For some, the purchase of natural and clean-label products represents a notion of a back-to-the-basics simplicity, whether real or perceived. In addition, consumers also superimpose on these products their personal convictions about corporate and environmental responsibility and health needs, which further blurs the line between food for nourishment and hard-to-define sustainability initiatives.

New England Natural Bakers, Greenfield, MA, pairs natural ingredient nourishment with nurturing of the environment. The company donates 10% of profits from the sale of products such as its Chocolate Omega, Maple Nut and Antioxidant granola bars to social and environmental sustainability products.

Recent research from The Hartman Group, Bellevue, WA, found that beyond environmental claims, consumers link sustainability to terms such as simple living, authenticity, simplicity, control and nurturing, to name a few. Sustainability can be an additional vehicle to market natural and better-for-you products. One caveat is that all claims must be solid and well researched to withstand public opinion within the realms of social media. One false or misleading claim can “go viral” in the blink of an eye.


According to a December report conducted by Packaged Facts, a research and analysis group for consumer goods, Rockville, MD, consumer familiarity with foods that can provide benefits beyond basic nutrition, or functional foods, is at an all-time high, with 92% of Americans able to name a food and its health benefit.

One basic but rather important change in the marketing of better-for-you foods during the past year is using packaging that merely suggests the presence of better-for-you ingredients without being plastered with a multitude of claims. Many manufacturers are finding success through the casual mention of health benefits along with a Web site where more information can be found.

The Nielsen Co., a global research firm in New York, NY, predicted the current economic struggles will continue to lead people to a simpler way of life. The group forecasted that this pursuit would contribute to increased sales of foods with natural and wholesome benefits. In 2008, natural claims increased on new food and drink launches while fortified or plus claims dropped 20%. Within the natural category, no additives and preservatives, organic and whole grains were the most frequent claims featured globally on new products.


In November, Caravan Ingredients, Lenexa, KS, conducted a panel asking consumers to define what better-for-you meant to them. The panel found a consensus among consumers that better-for-you products are generally low in fat, sugar, salt, calories and additives. Natural was defined by the group as products that are minimally processed and free of chemicals and preservatives.

“Consumers are the key driver shaping the landscape of these categories,” said Abby Ceule, marketing manager, specialty ingredients, Caravan Ingredients. “When consumers are able to identify with the foods they are consuming, their view of perceived value and benefit goes up.”

Combining consumer research and the company’s product portfolio, Caravan Ingredients approached the demand for health and wellness products from two angles. The company’s Invisible Goodness line provides a “stealth health” approach to produce products with balanced nutrition and a primary focus on great taste. Ingredients such as fiber are emphasized while others such as sodium are reduced. The line includes a muffin mix and a bread and bagel base. The Nutrivan line pinpoints particular needs or concerns from manufacturers and consumers for customized offerings that target weight management, satiety, heart health, prenatal nutrition and bone health as well as the emotional health considerations of mental focus and energy.

R.W. Garcia Co., San Jose, CA, has been manufacturing all-natural tortilla chips and other snack products for more than 20 years. Julia Lin, marketing specialist for the company, said the definition of natural, better-for-you and functional foods continues to evolve. “For most consumers, I believe that the terms natural and betterfor-you imply that there are no additives or preservatives and that the product is made with ingredients you can read and understand,” Ms. Lin said. Designed as healthy snack alternatives, many of R.W. Garcia’s products are wheat- and gluten-free, and all are free of cholesterol, trans fats and GMOs.

The mainstream media also highlighted the growing appeal of simpler, better-for-you foods. Phil Lempert, Supermarket Guru, was recently quoted in a Washington Post article, “Simplicity Becomes a Selling Point” written by Jane Black, saying, “It’s a convergence of health, food safety, taste and traceability,” Mr. Lempert said. “People are reading labels more carefully than they were previously. When they pick up a product and it has 30 ingredients and they don’t know what half of them are, they are putting it back on the shelves.”


Frito-Lay’s Happiness is Simple advertising campaign combines the basic elements of health, the environment and simple snacking enjoyment. The Plano, TX-based manufacturer highlights its signature Lay’s potato chips as made from only farm-grown potatoes, all-natural sunflower and corn oils and less than 1 /12 teaspoon of salt per ounce. “We’ve reduced fat and calories; that’s reductive,” said Aurora Gonzalez, spokesperson, Frito-Lay. “Now we look at how can we add pluses. Whole grains are a good example of that. Another part that is complementary is the simplicity of ingredients.”

For multitasking moms, the appeal of authentic health is a more prominent purchase driver than fortified-ingredient claims, according to research conducted by Just Kid, Inc. (JKI). The Norwalk, CT-based company’s Mom Study assessed the relevance of more than 90 food benefits and 60 product categories at breakfast, lunch, after-school snack and dinner eating occasions. The 30-minute online survey of 3,600 moms, including more than 700 African-American and more than 700 Hispanic mothers, reported that 86% of moms ranked “healthy and nutritious” as the most important characteristic of an ideal food. When asked to rate the importance of a variety of nutritional benefits and attributes, JKI found that moms were more interested in simple benefits of “fresh” and “balanced nutrition.” Calcium and protein were ranked mid-level, while omega-3s and choline fell at the bottom of desired attributes.


Good news about the strength of the bread market could also be attributed to messages of simplicity. Mintel, a Chicago, IL-based research organization, originally predicted bread to grow 2.1% in 2008, but the company‘s latest figures reported the bread market increased 7% this past year, with greater growth estimated through 2013.

Tribeca Baking Co., Carlstadt, NJ, has found success through its old-fashioned and clean-label approach, according to David Allen, vice-president of sales and marketing. “This is good, clean food that people have eaten forever,” Mr. Allen said. “Today, people are more aware of the foods they are putting in their bodies, but they still look for quality and good value, too.” In response, Tribeca Baking is working with its partners to produce smaller sizes of its clean-label products such as sandwich rolls and bread loaves for two people.

Whether it’s an established product or a new release, manufacturers must continually reassess consumer needs and what food means to them. Food is no longer solely nutritional nourishment, how it’s manufactured, where it’s purchased, who ultimately consumes it and how empty packaging is dealt with all determine the success of a product and its manufacturer today and in the future.

“As consumers become more aware and educated about the foods they consume, their perceptions will change on what is good for them and their families. Consumers are turning products over and reading labels more, inquiring as to what ingredients are good from them, and essentially, they are defining what natural, better-for-you and functional mean to them,” Ms. Ceule concluded.

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