Clean Label Isn't Losing Momentum, So Where is it Headed?

The trend toward "cleaner" products is largely driven by consumer perception, which is somewhat of a moving target in this arena since the standard is constantly evolving and the definition varies based on the consumer group.

Laura Dembitzer, Director of Marketing & Communications

June 8, 2017

4 Min Read
Clean Label Isn't Losing Momentum, So Where is it Headed?

Caribou recently made the bold decision to use only clean label ingredients in its beverages, and created a list of more than 70 ingredients the company has blacklisted. Panera made a pledge to remove artificial flavors, sweeteners, colors and preservatives from its products, and to be more transparent by displaying calorie and sugar content information on signage for self-serve beverages. Chipotle declared it will remove all artificial colors, flavors and preservatives from food menu items. These are just a few of the more recent examples of leading fast-casual and quick service restaurants (QSR) that are publicizing their commitment toward cleaner label products.

Brands producing clean label products are just as pervasive in the ready-to-drink (RTD) beverage and packaged foods categories—and it should pay off. Euromonitor predicts the clean label market will be worth $180 billion globally through 2020, an estimate that the market research company considers conservative.

The trend toward “cleaner” products is largely driven by consumer perception, which is somewhat of a moving target in this arena since the standard is constantly evolving and the definition varies based on the consumer group. Here are three of the most influential sub-trends that are manifesting in clean label:

Natural Function

Consumers want more out of their food and beverages, and the clean label consumer wants natural ingredients with an inherent benefit such chia seeds for their omega-3 content or turmeric for its anti-inflammatory properties. The most desired functional health benefits consumers are currently seeking are increased energy and improved digestion and cognition. So, while the clean label consumer might not be drinking the traditional energy drinks like Red Bull and Monster, they are consuming products like Guayaki, which contains yerba mate tea and High Ball that contains organic caffeine and guarana for energy.

As this trend continues to gain momentum, more brands will incorporate natural ingredients with inherent function as opposed to fortification. The functional food and beverage market has experienced consistent growth over the last several years with no signs of slowing down. According to a report by Technavio, the functional food and beverage market will increase by 7.8 percent each year through 2021, and the next generation of functional beverages will be clean label.

Clean Label Sweeteners

There are a few categories of ingredients that are at the forefront of the clean label discussion; artificial flavors, sweeteners, colors and even stabilizers. Of those, the ingredient getting the most attention (albeit negative) is artificial sweeteners.

The recent study published last April by Boston University researchers, which found that diet soda consumption may lead to stroke and dementia, has only further demonized sweeteners like aspartame and sucralose. However, consumers don’t want to compromise on sweetness or the overall flavor of their beverages. They want the same sweetness without the calories, which leaves sugar alcohols, stevia and its derivatives and monk fruit.

Sugar alcohols like sorbitol, mannitol and erythritol have been used in food and beverages for decades, but are now also starting to be scrutinized. Beverage developers and ingredient suppliers are investing and focusing heavily on creating new technologies that reduce the amount of sweetener needed, and help combat the off-notes and bitter aftertaste associated with natural sweeteners. Expect to see these new ingredient technologies enter the market this year. For more on how the leading consumer brands are addressing sugar reduction, read my March blog post.

Certifications and Claims

Certifications provide an opportunity for brands to distinguish themselves. In addition to mainstream certifications like “Non-GMO Project Verified,” “Organic Certified,” and “Vegan,” we are seeing many new certifications like “Bird-Friendly,” “Salmon Safe,” “Low FODMAP,” “Demeter Certified Biodynamic,” “B Corp Certification,” “Responsible Epicurean and Agriculture Leadership Real Certified.” Since there is no standard definition or certification for “clean label” (yet), it seems the more certifications you have the more transparent your product is, and therefore the more premium it is. In addition to certifications, there are numerous claims and descriptive terms that are not as clearly defined that brands utilize for the same purpose, to capture consumer attention and set themselves apart from competitive products. For the most part, these terms can be used to help position products as clean label without going through the certification process. These claims include terms like artisanal, craft, natural, fresh, hand-made and grass-fed.

Where is it Headed?

Clean label is constantly evolving. Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of food and beverage ingredients and product claims, and are more discerning about which products to purchase.  The beverage categories that have recently seen the greatest amount of growth are those that are being positioned as cleaner label, such as sparkling water and juice hybrids instead of soda, plant waters or waters with enhanced with functional ingredients, certified organic dairy beverages, and wider variety of plant-based dairy alternative beverages.

I’d love to continue the conversation about clean label beverage development or reformulation. As always, you can email me at [email protected].



About the Author(s)

Laura Dembitzer

Director of Marketing & Communications, Flavorchem

Laura Dembitzer is the marketing director at Imbibe, a Chicago-based flavor and beverage development company. Dembitzer works with beverage brands and retail chains to help them innovate and create products from the initial stages of development all the way through to commercialization and launch. She is focused on monitoring trends in the food and beverage industry in order to provide market insights to brand owners and senior decision makers. Her insights inform critical product-development decisions in order to formulate and develop products for long-term success. Dembitzer earned her bachelor’s degree from McGill University and her MBA from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Prior to joining Imbibe, Dembitzer launched a boutique bakery business and her products were sold at retailers throughout Chicagoland, as well as through a custom-built website focused on targeting kosher-conscious consumers. She ran all her own marketing and sales, so she knows a thing or two about brand building and trendspotting.


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