The clean-label “trend” has been in the spotlight for quite some time now. According to a July press release from Innova Market Insights, almost 28% of global food and beverage launches that the market research firm recorded in 2018 used one or more “clean-label claims,” which include natural, organic, no additives/preservatives and GMO-free. In the United States, the figure is even higher: 39%.

But the consumer-driven clean-label movement actually goes well beyond those four claims these days. It now demands “a return to real food and transparency through authenticity,” notes Go Clean Label (, a free digital resource that bills itself as the voice of clean label. “Food products containing natural, familiar, simple ingredients that are easy to recognize, understand and pronounce.”

The length of the ingredient statement also matters to consumers. In a November 2018 blog post, Maria Velissariou, chief science and technology officer for the Institute of Food Technologists, wrote: “Essentially, clean label means making a product using as few ingredients as possible, and making sure those ingredients are items that consumers recognize and think of as wholesome — ingredients that consumers might use at home.”

Moreover, the definition of clean label — as defined by consumers, since it’s not an actual scientific term — continues to expand.

“There have been associated rises in interest in related clean-label areas such as vegan-friendly, raw and paleo diets, and also in the focus on minimal processing, including the use of techniques such as cold-pressing and high-pressure treatment,” Innova Market Insights said. “This is running alongside increasingly wide ethical concerns, including fair trade and sustainability, packaging, the environment and animal welfare.”

Although Innova Market Insights noted that flavor is still the No. 1 driver influencing consumer food and beverage purchasing decisions, I believe that today’s food processors — including dairy processors — would be wise to consider consumers’ rapidly expanding clean-label-related expectations in product development and marketing efforts.

“The clean-label trend has broadened into a wider movement, focusing on an increasingly mindful consumer trying to make responsible food choices that are not only tasty and healthy, but also sustainable and ethical,” said Lu Ann Williams, director of innovation for Innova Market Insights.


No one-size-fits-all approach

The broadening definition of clean label certainly presents a challenge for dairy and other food and beverage processors. And because each consumer differs as to which aspects of that definition he or she values most, it’s almost impossible for one product to be “everything-clean-label” to everyone.

What’s more, it probably shouldn’t try to be. It’s more important than ever, therefore, for processors to understand and cater to the product’s target demographic.

It’s worth noting that generational differences come into play within the clean-label space. For example, according to C+R Research, Gen X consumers are less likely to be concerned about ingredients and additives than millennials and baby boomers are (

The product’s packaging probably shouldn’t try to be everything to everyone, either. In its “Global Packaging Trends 2018” report, global market research firm Mintel noted that too much information on the product label — even if that information is tied to clean-label efforts — can lead to consumer confusion. Instead, the focus should be on the clean-label aspects that are most important to the target audience.

“The ‘essentialist’ design principle bridges the divide between not enough and just enough of what’s essential for consumers to make an enlightened and confident purchasing decision,” Mintel said. “Brands must bring the next generation of clean label to packaging design to provide a moment of calm and clarity for shoppers in an increasingly hectic retail environment.”

Of course, dairy companies could — and probably should — use avenues beyond the label to elaborate on a product’s clean-label story. Brand-related websites, social media and targeted email messaging all present opportunities for doing so.