Date: 18/02/2019

The modern consumer is increasingly demanding and informed, and because of this has higher access to information about foods, which is observed on what he or she eats. Nowadays, a big part of the population already has a general idea about how eating habits can affect health, both in a positive and negative ways.

Products with extensive ingredients lists, unpronounceable scientific names and aggressive processing make some consumers suspicious. These people associate these factors with a distancing from what is considered by them as being natural and fresh foods.

This trend has led to the beginning of Clean Label, a movement that looks for taking a step back when the subject is food. More natural products, and with simpler compositions are just the start of a wide concept that can embrace many definitions.

The fact is that clean label is already a reality and it’s very close to become a normative. It is therefore necessary to understand how this new food market movement can influence the production chain’s dynamics.

In this post we will learn the fundamentals of clean label, which is still not very well defined and that may cause some confusion, and how this new concept affects R&D sectors inside the food industry.

But after all, what is a Clean Label product?

The Clean Label concept came from a request of the people to get a feedback of what is considered “real food”. According to these consumers, in the ingredients list, only what is considered necessary should be written and no synthetic and artificial additives.

Clean label is a term used to refer to the nutritional trend that looks for to highlight healthy foods that do not have synthetic and artificial additives in their formulation.

In real life, the clean label project works like this: the supermarkets publish the additives and ingredients lists that are not allowed to be present in the products to be commercialized by them. Some American supermarkets that are part of this include Aldi, Whole Foods and Kroger.

Some of the non-accepted ingredients are synthetic antioxidants, various sweeteners, various preservatives, artificial colorings, among others. With this description, it’s already possible to see that clean label has high doses of subjectivity. That is, the ingredients are “banished” according to what the consumer understands as non-natural, unnecessary and/or bad for health.

This way, additives with difficult to pronounce names and that the consumer doesn’t understand the function in the product can be understood as a negative ingredient without actually causing any kind of damage to the organism.

One example is the carrageenan gum, a widely used thickener/stabilizer in various formulations that shows up in some lists of non-accepted ingredients. However, carrageenan has already been scientifically proven to be safe to the human body.

To avoid this kind of confusion, it is necessary that the companies create ways to make each listed ingredient function clear. The transparency can be a powerful weapon when it comes to changing pre stablished concepts that aren’t necessarily true.

Actually, this transparency is a fundamental part in the clean label concept. It is also recommended that the scientific names are changed for more usual names, for example the use of “vitamin E” instead of “tocopherol” or “tocotrienol”.

The Clean Label guidelines and how they dictate foods’ formulation

Some basic guidelines must be followed so that a product can be considered a clean label. They are:

  • 100% natural product: all ingredients must be of natural origin, which means that synthetic additives have to be out of formulation. Also, GMOs can’t be present.
  • Short and simple ingredients list: formulations with an extensive list of ingredients give mistrust to consumers. Furthermore, the few present ingredients must have common names, easily identified by the public. 
  • Minimally processed: products that had few transformations are seen as the closest to what is considered natural by the consumers.

The clean label concept, however, is extremely broad. 8 in every 10 consumers don’t know what it means, even though they realize it is something positive. This way, the presented guidelines not always will apply to all cases.

Each type of consumer might have its own clean label definition, which will vary according to its specific necessities.

For example, celiac people usually accept more extensive lists of ingredients, as long as this means the complete elimination of gluten from the formula, while still maintaining an acceptable flavor. On the other hand, diabetics who don’t want to lose the sweet taste, easily accept the presence of sweeteners in their products.

How the R&D sector is affected by clean label

The clean label requirements represent a big challenge for the R&D formulators. A lot of creativity, experiments and a look for new solutions must be put in practice to adapt to this new emerging era.

Some of the ingredients that can’t be used provide essential functions to the product, which makes it difficult to find a similar replacement. Further, there is also the pressure to keep the same sensory characteristics, since the consumer doesn’t want to give up the taste he/she is used to.

Yet, some viable solutions are already available on the market. This is the case of some natural chicken and pork flavours. These are 100% natural and don’t have any type of additives in its composition, following the requirements to be considered clean label. Versatile, they can be used as flavor enhancers for sauces, seasonings, cookies, among others.

To replace synthetic antioxidants such as BHA, BHT and TBHQ, vegetal extracts rich in antioxidants may be used. The complementary effect between its components guarantees protection against oxidation of products that are rich in lipids.

Regarding the minimum processing requirement, the baby food market has presented treatment by high hydrostatic pressure as a solution. In this way, the use of high temperatures is avoided, which preserves more sensitive nutrients, eliminates the use of preservatives and increases the sensory quality of this type of product.

Trend or Reality?

The clean label is no longer a trend, but a proved reality. An analysis shows that 73% of consumers would pay more to consume a product in this category.

Another important issue is related to the financial movement of clean label products in the USA. In 2015, revenue of around 150 billion dollars was reported, and the projection is to reach 180 billion in 2020.

But even with the increase in sales, the clean label products are still considered a niche. Many conventional additive replacements are expensive, which ends up raising the products’ final price.

The clean label products’ distribution system is still small, and sales points demonstrate a recent interest in this type of product. Just think about the way organic products were bought a few years ago, something that was done only at specialized fairs or directly with producers, making it difficult to find.

In order to overcome the challenges related to high costs and the distribution system, an increase in the scale of production is necessary.

This may be possible by investing in marketing and, most of all, teaching the consumer about the benefits of using 100% clean label products.


Even without a strict definition, the clean label concept has already invaded the market and has become a reality. In order to keep up with competitors, food companies’ R&D sectors need to look for new alternatives that are in accordance with the rules of this new philosophy.

To have natural and quality ingredients from trusted suppliers is the first step in formulating foods that meet the expectations of the modern consumer. As the stated in projections, this type of initiative has everything to become lucrative businesses for the food industry.