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Clean and Clear Labels: The Need for Simple Claims and Packaging for Maximum Transparency

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We live in an age when consumers are demanding more and more information about the ingredients in the products they buy. And this call for transparency isn’t limited to food alone; manufacturers and retailers of cosmetics, cleaning supplies, and other household items are all expected to provide detailed product labeling or risk losing customers.

While it is difficult to argue that having all the information and being safe is a bad thing, the increasing demands have strong ramifications for manufacturers. New product development, product reformulation, and public understanding and acceptance are all impacted. Here, we take a look at that impact and explore how companies are responding to consumer demand for clear labeling.

In 2015, manufacturers and marketers made the move from what they called “clean labeling” to “clear labeling”—the implication being that they were offering maximum transparency. This has been a direct response to public demand.

The consumer in the new millennium is requesting more information than ever about their food ingredients. Home cooking has transformed to include more global and gourmet flavors. The at-home chef wants both convenience and the ability to prepare nutritious meals from scratch using entirely fresh ingredients. They are socially engaged, seeking the story behind the product—the personal story. And they tend to have strict guidelines as to what they will and will not accept in their food. Fats, for example, should be natural, as should sugars. Furthermore, when it comes to additives, there is a growing conventional wisdom that “if you cannot pronounce it, you should not be eating it.”

All of this is providing food manufacturers with a challenge: to find alternative ways to make products healthier, and more effective ways to relay a message of good nutrition to the consumer.

Relaying the message effectively can be a struggle, in part because of the perception that complicated chemical names automatically indicate that an ingredient is artificial and, therefore, best avoided. As the food manufacturer knows, it is not always so simple. Sometimes that complicated name is nothing more than the chemical formula for a basic ingredient; in such cases, this can be remedied by using its more common name—one way of providing more clarity or transparency. Then there are certain starches, preservatives, and other additives that are functionally necessary to ensure consistent product quality and shelf life. From a price perspective, artificial versions of these ingredients are usually the most cost-efficient. Natural alternatives are often much less readily available, and their use can triple a product’s price—a result that will displease many a customer. Those involved in product development at food manufacturing companies are now having to go back to their culinary roots as they work to produce consistently high-quality products that are not cost-prohibitive and meet the labeling expectations.

What to include on the label itself varies greatly according to the manufacturer. Currently, there is no formal definition of "natural" provided by the Food and Drug Administration. Even in the European Union, the word is defined only as it relates to food flavorings. Where just a short time ago, “natural” was a popular buzzword on food packaging, it has lost popularity now, precisely because it is vague. Instead, consumers are looking for other key phrases that may similarly lack a clear definition: “simple,” “gluten-free,” “organic,” “minimally processed,” and so on. But unless customers have substantial knowledge of the entire manufacturing process of a dish, how can they possibly know what “minimally processed” might indicate?

Regardless of these issues, it is clear that transparency in labeling is no longer confined to niche organic stores. The demand for clear labeling has gone mainstream. The question now facing those in the food and personal care industries is how to adapt to the ever-changing demands while continuing to guarantee the quality and safety of the product.