Consumers: Come ‘clean’ with food labels

From soups to cereals and everything in-between, some well-known companies have committed to removing artificial ingredients from their products in an effort to fulfill a growing consumer desire for “clean labels.”

According to market research, global sales of clean label food and beverage products are forecasted to reach $180 billion by 2020 — up from $165 billion in 2015. In fact, in one survey of 1,300 consumers across Europe, North America and Asia-Pacific, more than half the respondents said they would spend 10% more on a food or beverage that contained ingredients they recognized and trusted; 18% said they would pay 75% or more extra.

While there is currently no FDA definition for “clean label,” data has shown that it can mean different things to different consumers. However, some of the main points many agree are necessary for a product to claim a clean label include a simple and short ingredient list, no chemicals, artificial preservatives, colors or flavoring agents, and must be minimally processed and contain ingredients that are easy to understand.

“Clean label is a tool to reestablish trust,” said Ewa Hudson, the global head of health and wellness, nutrition and ethical labels for a market research firm. While she said packaged food is a prime area for clean labels, other product categories with growth potential include dairy, juice, sauces, dressings and condiments, baked foods, and oils and fats.

Going forward, Hudson said, the clean label category may become “quite blurry.”

“What is healthy these days?” she asked in the article. “When I started working on health and wellness 10 years ago it was products with reduced fat, reduced sugar, gluten-free, etc. It was straightforward. Then consumers realized some brands were being reformulated with more ingredients. Then we saw the movement to health around protein, good carbs, whole grains and seeds as opposed to reduced fat or reduced sugar.”

At each stage, she continued, manufacturers have responded, and they are now responding once again by providing product transparency to consumers.

However, for food and beverage companies making a significant investment in the manufacture and marketing of products perceived as clean label must ensure their supply chain is able to verify the claims being made about products, Ryan Fournier, an international trade associate with a St. Louis-based law firm, explained. Otherwise, we warned, companies may find themselves embroiled in litigation.

Take corn for example, he said, “it is argued that because of the use of corn it is not natural, because 50% of corn is GMO corn.”

To mitigate legal claims, Fournier presented a checklist manufacturers may want to use to ensure their products align with the claims they are making.

  1. Make sure all actors in the supply chain are knowledgeable about an ingredient’s end use, Fournier explained. “Condition an ingredient’s purchase on the clean label principles that must be substantiated.”
  2. Request a supplier’s manufacturing processes for specific ingredients to make sure they are documented.
  3. Take advantage of the Food Safety Modernization Act’s (FSMA) Foreign Supplier Verification Program (FSVP). While the FSMA focuses solely on health and safety, he noted, it may be feasible for companies to incorporate ingredient verification procedures into the FSVP process.
  4. Develop standard operating procedures for product development, and for every clean label claim. “This must involve R&D, marketing, global sourcing and legal,” he said.
  5. Carefully review web site language, and determine whether clean label claims could be interpreted as applying to all products. It is also important to review social media feeds for catch-all phrases that may prove difficult to defend in court.
  6. Create a system for internal auditing to ensure sourcing and processes align with claims.
  7. Be prepared for increased involvement from consumer watchdogs and state actors as the meaning of clean label expands.

By following this or a similar checklist, Fournier explains food companies can better understand what their labels mean and if they can be considered “clean.” Having this evidence and data readily available can help you can take steps to prevent action against you from a complaint, he said.

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