Reading food label
Consumers are seeking products with the absence of ingredients they perceive to be negative.

KANSAS CITY — Ingredient trends might bring to mind a cartoon about a ghost. Surveys show many consumers seek transparency in the sourcing of ingredients and in the marketing of products, and they also seek “friendly” ingredient lists. Yet make no mistake: Consumers want “real” ingredients.

“Consumers are changing their definition of health and wellness,” said John A. Bryant, chairman and chief executive officer of The Kellogg Co., Battle Creek, Mich., in an April 28 annual shareholders meeting. “We go back over time, health and wellness was defined as lower fat, lower calorie, defined as added vitamin fortification, etc. Now increasingly, health and wellness means the absence of negative. It could be G.M.O.-free, gluten-free, any number of definitions along those lines — simple food.

“To address this, the company is going through the largest innovation program in history as we aggressively change our foods to ensure they are on trend with long-term needs of our consumers.”

John Bryant, Kellogg

Results from the International Food Information Council Foundation’s 2017 Food & Health Survey released May 16 backed up Mr. Bryant’s thoughts. When the on-line survey of 1,002 Americans aged 18 to 80 asked how they defined a healthy food, 15% said free from artificial ingredients, preservatives or additives was their No. 1 reason, which ranked behind high in healthy components or nutrients at 27% and part of an important food group needed to build a healthy eating style at 17%.

Other answers were natural at 9%, low in unhealthy components or nutrients at 8%, minimally processed at 8%, organic at 7% and non-G.M.O. at 5%.

Generation-wise, millennials are leading the clean label/transparency trend, said Hank Cardello, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a non-partisan policy think tank in Washington where he directs its Obesity Solutions Initiative. Millennials tend to be more skeptical, he said.

Millennial reading food label
Millennials are leading the clean label/transparency trend.

“They don’t want any marketing mumbo jumbo,” Mr. Cardello said. “They want to know what they are eating, where it comes from and what it is.”

Attitude-wise, two groups are leading the trend. “Well-beings” make up about 20% of the population, he said.

“These are people that walk the talk,” Mr. Cardello said. “These are people that look for non-G.M.O., organic, gluten-free, etc.”

Hank Cardello, Hudson Institute

Another group, making up about 35% of the population, includes people that are confused and looking for guidance.

“The clean label notion has a lot of appeal to them,” he said. “I think that helps them with their confusion.”

In the IFIC Foundation survey, 78% said they encounter a lot of conflicting information about what to eat/avoid, and 56% said the conflicting information makes them doubt the choices they make.

Confused shopper
Conflicting information about food and nutrition is making people doubt the choices they make.

Mr. Cardello said he recognizes labeling strategies may reduce skepticism among consumers.

“I think consumers ought to know what they’re eating,” he said. “I’m all for that. I see it as a good step but not necessarily a solution for something like obesity.”

The number of calories in a product has more of an effect on obesity, he said. Food companies also could focus on “stealth health,” or slowly improving the nutritional profile of their products without promoting the improvement.

“Just make your products with better ingredients,” he said. “Sell them in smaller portions, etc.”