Consumers are wary of additives in their food.

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.

“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, The NPD Group Inc., a consumer research company. “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.

What’s a food additive?

There are basically two categories of food ingredients, those the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves as food additives and those Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS). The latter is a designation that has either been given by FDA 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 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.

“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.”

Simple and transparent

There are two approaches to clean label, often done simultaneously. There’s clean-label formulating, which is all about using a minimal number of ingredients as well as simple ingredients with readable names. Then there’s clean-label marketing; it’s all about transparency and disclosure. It often includes statements about what the food does not contain.

Clean-label marketing is also about connecting with consumers on a personal level. There might be a story about the product’s origins or ingredient sourcing. It might include descriptors such as “artisan” and “hand crafted.”

Some might refer to clean label as the clean-eating or real-food movement. It incorporates health, animal welfare, social justice and environmental sustainability. Buzzwords associated with this movement include “fair trade,” “free range,” “green,” “local” and “organic.”

In November 2015, Panera Bread, St. Louis, announced its commitment to using only cage-free eggs in its egg dishes as well as baked sweet goods. At the end of April 2016, Los Angeles-based La Brea Bakery, North America’s leading artisan bread company and part of Aryzta, followed suit. It will transition to cage-free eggs this year. La Brea earlier announced its intent to become non-GMO certified by the end of 2016.

"Clean label" means different things to different people.
The consumer connection

Today’s consumers want products made with ingredients that are understood, expected, authentic and easily pronounced.

Interestingly, research shows that consumers do not evaluate every component of a product individually. Rather, their method of elimination is to scan the label for certain ingredients that they personally avoid. If they discover them among the contents, the product is returned to shelf.

“The term ‘clean label’ resonates differently among consumers globally. Moreover, a third of consumers (34%) do not actually have any understanding of what it means at all,” said Melanie Felgate, senior consumer insight analyst, Canadean, a market research firm. “This may reflect the fact that the term is more widely used in industry than as a marketing claim. However, as the clean movement gains mainstream traction, as reflected by the popularity of social media hashtags such as ­#cleaneating, it is important that marketers understand what ‘clean’ actually means to the consumer.”

Canadean’s fourth-quarter 2015 global survey revealed that most consumers who do recognize the clean-label term most likely interpret it to mean products free from artificial ingredients, containing only natural or organic materials, or are ­chemical- and/or pesticide-free. A smaller proportion of consumers also associate it with other attributes such as allergen-free.

On this, Ms. Felgate said, “The clean-label term generally resonates with consumers as an indicator that a product is natural or chemical-free. However, the fact that a significant proportion of consumers don’t understand the term or interpret it to mean, for example, that a product could be gluten-free, suggests that brands should continue to place their marketing focus on core benefits, rather than simply promoting their products as clean.”

David Sprinkle, research director, Packaged Facts, a market research company, said, “Health and wellness in the current vernacular is defined by what a product doesn’t have, such as artificial ingredients or preservatives, more than by what is in it. This is a trend expected to continue and grow in 2016 and beyond.”

It’s a trend that’s also being rewarded. Earlier this year, Prevention magazine named Sprouted Seven-Grain Premium Wraps from Angelic Bakehouse, Cudahy, WI, a winner in its sixth annual 100 Cleanest Packaged Food Awards. The wraps are free from GMOs, dairy, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, artificial sweeteners and preservatives.

“The Angelic brand has been built using the highest standards of ingredients and quality without sacrificing taste,” said Jenny Marino, the bakery’s president and CEO. “We insist that clean, good-for-you food be delicious and exciting.”

Indeed, with many baked goods, ­namely desserts, we must never forget that the purpose of the product is to be enjoyed. If cleaning up the product makes it any less pleasurable, consumers won’t buy it even with the perfectly sanitized label.

With staples such as breads and buns, most notably those used in foodservice, price often drives ingredient selection. When some “less than made by Mother Nature” ingredients are removed, breads and buns may mold or stale more ­quickly. This leads to food waste and increases product cost. If the fast-food burger costs too much, consumers won’t buy it.