State of Clean Label Around the World: Global Similarities, Geographic and Generational Differences

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As clean food becomes the global standard, we found the unique values and needs that influence the purchasing decisions of consumers in each region

The people have spoken, and no matter what language they use—from English to Thai to Portuguese—they are demanding foods free of chemicals and made from a short list of sustainably sourced ingredients.

"Clean label” has been a rallying cry for years, but in the Instagram age—where trends and preferences change more quickly than ever—it’s difficult to pin down exactly how location, culture, age and other factors are shaping the clean label movement and creating unique challenges and opportunities.

To capture the state of clean label around the world, we sat down with consumer insight experts from four regions—Europe (EU), North America (NA), Latin America (LATAM) and Asia Pacific/Middle East/Africa (APMEA).

Keep reading to see how your region stacks up, learn what to expect next from clean-label-seeking consumers and access fast facts worth considering along your clean label journey, wherever you may be in the process.

Defining Clean Label: What Consumers Really Want
Worldwide, “clean label” is industry shorthand for healthy, safe and sustainable foods and beverages, yet the phrase lacks a clear definition and remains largely foreign to consumers. So, how should you talk about—and market—your new and improved products?

Overwhelmingly, the term “natural” seems to inspire the greatest confidence among consumers, despite the vagueness of the actual claim. This finding is supported by our regional experts as well as a recent “Trends in Food Science & Technology” review, which included 72 studies, 32 countries and more than 82,000 participants.

One reason for the universal likability of "natural" is that consumers can infer it relates to whatever stage matters most to them: how food is grown, how it’s produced or what’s in the final product.

If you’re searching for a more diverse range of claims, consider mirroring the language (and hashtags) already used by shoppers in your region, particularly when developing front-of-pack claims. (Of course, check in with your regulatory committee first, as criteria and restrictions change by country.)

Ask U.S. consumers what they’re looking for, and you’ll hear words and phrases including “whole foods”, “organic”, “clean”, “real”, “better for you”, “sustainable”, and “GMO-free”, says Soumya Nair, Director, Marketing Insights, for Kerry NA.

In Europe, you can expect similar language, with an emphasis on how a product will impact a person’s physical well-being or the environment, says Nanette Solan, Senior Insight Manager for Kerry EU. “Free-from” claims are popular there and also in APMEA, where shoppers show favour for products labelled as pesticide-, allergen- and additive-free.

The language and consumer understanding of clean label is most different in LATAM, where clean label has an overt connection to “being healthier” and the term has a different translation for local languages, says Maressa Viana, Senior Marketing analyst for Kerry LATAM. There, consumers often think of clean label as being synonymous to nothing artificial and more natural (aka “in natura”) as well as other health claims such as organic or toxin-free.

KerryDigest Fast Facts:
  • The term “natural” resonates worldwide.
  • Other effective claims mirror the language (and hashtags) already used by shoppers.
  • Consumers in NA are swayed by GMO-free, organic and sustainability-focused labelling.
  • Shoppers in LATAM are interested in better-for-you foods.
  • APMEA residents want sourcing transparency and pesticide-free claims.
  • EU consumers are looking for all of the above.

Clean Label Growth: We’re Past the Tipping Point
It’s impossible to pinpoint the origin of the clean label trend. It may even be accurate to say the movement has been here all along, that it was just confined to natural grocery stores until the recent popularization of food movements like Paleo, the increase in widely-publicized food recalls and our food-photo-obsessed culture.

A quick Google search for “clean label” shows one of the earliest mentions came in 2013, and the majority of articles published in 2015 and 2016 were still taking time to explain the term. Food Business News named it “trend of the year” in 2015, a fact that further underscores the recent and seemingly meteoric rise of clean label.

Of course, it’s consumer shopping habits that propel a movement, and this one has been growing behind the scenes for years. In the U.S., clean label has risen in prominence and proliferation due in part to the simultaneous growth of the organic, natural and non-GMO movements as well as a number of large-scale food recalls. Today, a full 82% of U.S. consumers believe clean label is important, says Nair, and almost as many are evaluating ingredients called-out on food packages.

The sea-change has happened in parts of APMEA, too, where food scandals have resulted in food distrust. "In the highly influential country of Japan, 94% of consumers report that they check product labels when shopping”, says Cassandra Kaul, Marketing Insights Manager for Kerry APMEA. “We believe those behaviours and expectations for high-quality, safe products will continue to gain momentum across all markets”.

Despite differences in the number of new products each region releases each year, manufacturers everywhere are working hard to catch up to clean label demand. Solan says that between 2012 and 2016, Europe saw clean label launches grow from 19,974 products to 30,774. During the same time period, the number of clean label launches in Brazil increased from 2,512 to 5,045, says Viana.

KerryDigest Fast Facts:
  • Clean label is growing steadily in all regions.
  • Food scandals/loss of consumer trust play a part in the proliferation of this trend.
  • Adoption of clean label by influential countries is accelerating growth elsewhere.
  • Consumers everywhere are paying attention to ingredient lists and health claims.

Clean Label and Age: Generational Preference
Clean label has been broadly termed as a millennial trend, and learning about ingredients and the sourcing and processing of food and beverages is right in step with the millennial values of transparency, authenticity and sustainability.

But the relevance and impact is high also among the baby boomers and GenXers, says Nair, echoing a sentiment shared at the 2017 SupplySide West show.

Indeed: Research highlighted in the recent Kerry NA white paper “Beyond Clean Label” found 86% of millennials and 89% of those with dependent children say clean label impacts their purchasing decisions.

A similar multigenerational appeal can be found in APMEA. “Consumers with more access to media sources—including young people and parents of young children—are putting more pressure on food producers and manufacturers to provide a secure food supply such as block chain technology”, says Kaul. For example, in countries like China and Vietnam, clean label infant formula is in high demand because parents and grandparents seek products they can trust in the wake of food scandals.

In Europe, clean label priorities change by generation and gender, although Solan says it remains important to 74% of 18 to 45 year olds and 75% of those who are 46 and older. “Salt, sugar and fat reductions are more appealing to older consumers, while environmentally sustainable solutions resonate mainly with younger cohorts”, says Solan. “Younger consumers pay more attention to the authentic experience provided by clean label solutions while female consumers focus on the health benefits of them”.

Latin American consumers of all ages have shared values, but the claims they find appealing differ by age. A survey conducted in Brazil by GlobalData found that people aged 18 to 54 want natural and organic products free from artificial ingredients while older people look for labels that advertise products free of pesticides, chemicals and toxins.

KerryDigest Fast Facts:
  • Millennials and parents of young children tend to be most eager about clean label.
  • Consumers of all ages are interested in the health benefits of food.
  • Segmenting target audiences by age and gender may help you determine top claims.
  • Environmental concerns resonate most with young EU and NA consumers.

Clean Label Premiumisation: The Value for Consumers
Sourcing healthier ingredients comes at a price, and around the globe consumers seem willing to shoulder an increase in cost of between 1% and 5%, says Viana. Globally, this spendthrift attitude is due in part to the assumed and proven health and environmental benefits of clean label foods and beverages. But there are two other influences that can’t be ignored: socio-cultural pressures and socioeconomics.

A recent Neilsen study found that U.S. households earning more than $100,000 annually are frequent buyers of clean label products, and a highly visible percentage of lifestyle bloggers, Instagram stars and other ”influencers” also espouse clean eating. Like wearing “athleisure” on a weekday, eating clean is one way consumers of all income demographics can achieve an aspirational life, if only for the duration of a meal or snack.

“In the U.S., 75% of consumers indicate they are willing to pay more for food with a cleaner label with 88% of millennials saying they would pay more”, says Nair But this trend isn’t always so clear cut: In Europe, smaller packs of more premium brands are more popular now than they used to be. “It appears that even if people aren’t willing or able to spend more money, they are open to getting smaller quantities when the quality is higher”, says Solan.

Clean label in APMEA is often reliant on imported products, which typically carry a higher price tag. “Up to 50% of clean products in the UAE and Indonesia and 68% of those in Singapore are imported, primarily from the U.S., UK and Australia”, says Kaul. Despite the higher price, sales are strong and growing steadily. When consumers are able, they are willing to pay extra for the association of a quality product with a promise of security.

KerryDigest Fast Facts:
  • Globally, consumers are willing to pay a premium for clean label products.
  • Increased spending is influenced by factors including assumed health benefits and the depiction of clean eating as aspirational.
  • Millennials, particularly those living in NA, may be most willing to spend more.
  • Brands that want to avoid increasing prices could instead try smaller packages.

Clean Label Categories: How Consumers Prioritise
When someone adopts a cleaner diet, they generally don’t make the change one novel purchase at a time. Instead they seek out frequently eaten staple foods and make a broad sweeping change, according to our regional experts.

While these dietary staples vary by location, bakery products such as GMO-free or organic baked bread seem to hold universal appeal.

Our experts have identified other regional trends: EU consumers are demanding clean dairy. APMEA shoppers are too, along with clean label snacks, infant formula and meat. Meat is of top concern in NA, along with shelf-stable boxed sides and frozen meals. In LATAM, clean label launches are on the rise in juices and fruit beverages, snacks, meat, dressings and sauces and dairy.

Where is clean label of less consequence? Among novel and indulgent categories such as snacks, sweets, ice cream and alcohol.

However, says Nair, as health claims such as protein-rich, low-sodium, low-sugar and low-carb infiltrate these categories, nutrition and clean eating will be of more consequence even in sweets, treats and drinks. As these products are reformulated due to the recent focus on reducing sugar and other ingredients, it might be wise to consider also cleaner ingredients and processing options.

KerryDigest Fast Facts:
  • Around the world, clean label bakery items are in greatest demand.
  • Dairy products are a top concern in EU.
  • Clean label meat, shelf-stable boxed sides and frozen meals are desired in NA.
  • APMEA shoppers are looking for clean label dairy, snacks, infant formula and meat.
  • LATAM is experiencing growth across categories.
  • Indulgent items face the least pressure from clean label.

Clean Label Packaging: A Necessary Next Step
As healthy food becomes ubiquitous, clean label consumers are scanning shelves in search of healthier packaging, such as minimal containers made of recyclable or compostable materials. In APMEA, this is at an early point of emergence with mostly niche brands and start-ups launching products with sustainable packaging, says Kaul. In LATAM, consumers may still be swayed more by attractive packaging than eco materials. But in EU and NA, consumers increasingly want food and beverage products that are clean inside and out.

“Packaging is a means to convey to consumers attributes of freshness, health and real and wholesome ingredients”, says Nair. “The relevance of clean label packaging is undeniable”.

As more clean label products are launched, manufacturers will need to consider packaging that meets a similar criteria: natural, sustainable and free from chemicals.

New packaging technologies are already disrupting the industry, including transparent films, compostable packaging and edible capsules which safeguard soups, desserts, drinks and more. A scan of recent studies in the journals “Carbohydrate Polymers” and “International Journal of Biological Macromolecules” show that many more new technologies are in the works.

But minimal packaging is only part of the solution. A recent Mintel report suggests that producers should also enhance the functionality of food packaging in an effort to reduce food and product waste. Among other things, this means packaging innovations should prioritise keeping food fresh and safe for longer.

Savvy packaging companies have such products in the works: The journal “Recent Patents on Food, Nutrition, and Agriculture” keeps track of some, and a recent review of patents for meat and muscle-based food products suggests that solutions in development include “antimicrobial and antioxidant packaging coatings and inserts, sensors or indicators that identify spoilage and freshness, functional engineering customisations, improvements to packaging integrity, leak or tamper detectors and environmentally sustainable options”.

Whatever option you choose, with packaging it’s also important to follow the first rule of clean label—call out attributes on the front and back of the pack.

KerryDigest Fast Facts:
  • Consumers equate clean packaging with clean foods.
  • Consumers value sustainable and minimal packaging.
  • Manufacturers should also strive to make packaging more functional.
  • Clean packaging innovation is in development, but more options are needed.

Clean label is no longer a novelty offering; consumers from around the world are  looking for foods and beverages that are healthy, sustainably sourced, minimally processed and even responsibly packaged. For help with clean label reformulation, ingredient sourcing and consumer insights, contact Kerry.

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