Canadian attitudes to food are changing rapidly, with increasing numbers of consumers paying more attention to food labels. Their search for healthier foods is at the root of the clean label trend.
What is a clean label?
There is currently no regulated definition in North America. The general consensus describes clean labels as:
- shorter, simpler ingredient lists with non-chemical-sounding names that consumers recognize and can pronounce;
- free of artificial ingredients and additives;
- minimally processed;
- “natural”, as close to their natural state as possible; and
Today’s consumers have a long list of demands regarding processed foods. Safety is an automatic assumption – although the increasing severity and frequency of recalls in recent years is causing some mistrust. They fail to understand that processed food is not the same as homemade. Not only does their food have to be healthier, it has to be great tasting, convenient, portable, affordably priced and stay fresh longer.
In addition, distributors and retailers want longer shelf life to facilitate inventory management, allow sufficient time for sell-through and reduce losses.
This challenges food processors to find alternate ingredients and methods to maintain product quality and safety. Although many artificial ingredients and additives are approved by Health Canada and FDA, they would not meet the clean label definition, nor would consumers find them acceptable. One recent example is azodicarbonamide (ADA), commonly used in bakery products and flour. Consumers pressured Subway® restaurants to remove the additive from their bread.
Motivated by rising consumer sentiment in favour of clean labels, some national brands are reformulating products to differentiate their brand from competitors. McCain® Foods has invested heavily, already having “reworked over 70 recipes” according to their website. In the battle for market share against Nestlé Delissio® pizza, McCain® claims their reformulated pizzas contain “simple, wholesome ingredients like you would use if you were making pizza at home.” In comparison, Delissio’s ingredient list has far less appetite appeal.
ACE Bakery was founded on the principles of only using “the simplest natural ingredients” with “no added preservatives”. That is their brand promise. At a foodservice trade show, they demonstrated their clean label point of difference, using Brioche buns as an example: ACE Bakery’s 7 ingredients that are commonly found in home kitchens were stacked up beside their unnamed competitor’s 28 ingredients. It was a powerful visual.
Being first to market is an advantage, to establish your brand as a purveyor of healthier food and get a jump on the competition. So now is the time to act. Gradually, as more and more brands move to clean labels, this will no longer be a point of difference.
Can they have their cake and eat it too?
At the end of the day, if consumers want natural food they need to re-evaluate their priorities, minimize the use of processed foods and return to home cooking. But who has the time? Plus not everyone has the ability or desire. Processed foods fill those needs. And if they can be made with healthier ingredients and fewer additives, it’s a bonus!
© Birgit Blain & Associates Inc.