In recent years, the subject of clean labelling has steadily climbed the agenda, and the trend remains a major driver of activity across the industry.

But with no legal definition of ‘clean label’, the meaning of the term varies between countries and application segments. While clean label presents opportunities for the food sector, particularly with regard to front-of-pack positioning statements, it is harder to ascertain what message will be most successful with target consumers.

Ingredients Insight gathered key decision-makers from leading global food brands at the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel in London, UK, where they talked in depth about what clean label entails.

Topics included consumer perception, market segmentation, trust in authorities, and communicating with consumers; the conversation also touched on genetically modified ingredients.

It was an open and frank discussion, instigating a dialogue that will likely continue into 2014 and beyond.

Perception of health

Aaron Edwards: Clean labelling creates some real opportunities. Beyond just a list of recognisable ingredients on the back of the pack, consumers consistently tell us that they also prefer to buy foods that were cooked or made using similar processes to those in their own kitchen.

Sarah Dowding: I don’t think it’s a massive trend, but there was a time when some food companies were saying ‘made in our big kitchen’. Even if you are boiling water, because you’re doing it on such a large scale people don’t think it’s the same as boiling water at home. They think it’s somehow different and something they don’t understand.

Alice Cadman: We have several baked products, but they’re not necessarily lower in fat or calories. They’re considered wholesome because ‘baked’ is a really powerful word.

SD: Consumer research indicates that people will see foods without artificial colours and flavourings as healthier, so organic food gets healthy status even though it could, for example, be higher in fat or sugar. When people talk about health-related claims, the top of their agenda is often no artificial ingredients. In fact, that has no impact on the actual health credentials of the food.

AC: I think there’s an interesting link between organic and clean labelling because organics started to grow at the point when less-clean labels became a consumer issue. For some consumers, it was a way of responding to products that didn’t have great labelling. Unfortunately for the organic movement, it also coincided with a time of economic uncertainty, and because of the cost of creating an organic product, it hit a rock.

"The E number was created as a clear sign from the European Commission that these ingredients were totally evaluated and safe. It failed the moment it was launched because of consumer perception that these substances were carcinogenic."

Tony DeLio: I started an organic food company. It actually did very well, but for most consumers, organic is about a lack of chemicals and pesticides. So when we started to combine that with processed food, it didn’t work. If you’ve got an organic product and processed it, you’ve done harm to the basic premise.

Helen Munday: People have a perception of what something is, and, of course, the reality may be different. They see certain words and ‘healthy’ is the ultimate one – ‘natural’ equals ‘healthy’, ‘organic’ equals ‘healthy’ – because they latch onto things and they don’t complicate them.

Do you want to play a game with these things? Do you want to say something to people that are facsimiles for something they want to hear? Or do you want to do it right? I think as manufacturers you have to do it right, because although they have facsimiles of what they think is right, eventually someone will bump that myth. And if that happens that is not good for the manufacturer, the industry or the consumer in the long run.

AC: How could we express clean label in a way that’s interesting and motivating to consumers, and legal?

AE: We take an annual look at consumers’ impression of ingredients, and what they want to see on front of pack, and what their expectations are about how it matches up with back of pack. We do that now across 17 country markets, so it’s all over the world. A lot of markets are still trying to understand where the consumers are headed in this space, but the reality is that consumers in Germany have different priorities than they do in France, Spain and the UK.

A lot of what I do is trying to help food companies’ position so they get it right. German consumers would like to see some kind of certification; so, for example, organic is doing well there. And because of the milk scandal, Chinese consumers are very sceptical right now regarding dairy products.

We did some recent research in China involving three cities. We had mothers saying that if the ingredient list was too short, they didn’t trust it. However, if it was too long, they didn’t like the look of it because it had a lot of chemicals in it. If it was too short, then it was too simple, someone must be cheating.

Most of us work in areas where you have good practice, but I believe the answer depends on what specific geography your consumer lies in, and it’s probably not the same front of pack for each of those consumers. So it’s not about rules around what can and can’t go on the back of pack.

To go back to what consumers tell us, they believe that when they’re eating minimally processed foods made with ingredients that they know from their own store cupboard, they feel as if it’s better for them. Who knows if it is or not?

Trust in the industry

Patrick Coppens: I used to be responsible for the legal aspect of label claims. The thing I always told the marketers was, suppose you were a consumer, would you feel misled if you read this or not? And often that’s a very important check because in many cases they say yes, actually, I would feel misled. So that’s very easy.

HM: Officially, there is the ‘average consumer test’. If the average consumer doesn’t get what you’re saying, just don’t say it. And that’s really what you need to come back to.

Karin Nielsen: Is the average consumer test updated according to how diverse our society has become? It’s just so funny that we’re trying to identify ‘Mr Average Consumer’, when we have such an ethnic diversity and different cultures, different in socioeconomic status.

HM: In our company, it’s very clear that we can do product executions in certain countries that we might not in another, and we have to look at each country in its own right.

PC: Something can be completely misleading in one region, and not misleading at all in another. It really depends on the tradition, the habits, the understanding in the region.

HM: I think what’s incredibly important is that you have people who are in positions of influence, such as the European Food Safety Authority, which is respected and trusted. People don’t always trust governments, but they do generally trust experts. As a food industry, it’s very important that we make sure we have an equivalent body that people will look to and they will trust.

KN: I live part-time in the Mediterranean, and I don’t think people trust authorities at all there. People trust the health message more than they trust the authorities’ endorsement.

TD: I think it varies greatly by country.

PC: On a European level, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) should be, and certainly is, the organisation that deserves the most credibility in the area of food safety. But it’s the consumer associations and representatives that are criticising the FSA the most in relation to conflicts of interest. So they undermine its credibility.

HM: That’s very important, when the regulator takes a stance to say ‘we hear what you’re saying as consumer groups, but we’ve looked at the science and this is what it tells us’.

PC: The consumer groups do not accept the science; a typical example is aspartame. The FSA says consistently that aspartame is safe, but there are interest groups that say ‘we don’t believe that, your science is biased’.

TD: Look at high-fructose corn syrup in North America. Same thing.

KN: We’ve just done a social media survey on aspartame attitudes among consumers and the perception is very negative.

AC: The noise around aspartame has been evident for a long time, and it doesn’t seem to have affected sales.

PC: What you see is, of course, that a lot of manufacturers have replaced aspartame or are slowly decreasing the level, so when it’s really critical they can immediately remove aspartame and still have the same taste. So it has an influence – companies are very careful.

AC: So you can foresee a time when aspartame is replaced by something else completely?

PC: If, at a given moment, it loses credibility for one reason or another, companies will replace it. Look at the Southampton study into tartrazine. Scientifically, this is nothing to worry about, but what you see is companies reformulating products using other colouring substances.

AC: Having something like tartrazine in a children’s product just felt wrong. Perception is reality – consumers thought it was bad, and therefore we respond to our consumers.

PC: As soon as you have an ingredient, and that starts to happen, the ingredient is doomed.

HM: The sad thing is when ingredients get lost from the market for no good reason. Some of them are safe, they’re technically very useful and they do exactly what they say on the tin.

Lauren Bandy: Isn’t that what E numbers are coming under threat from – consumers perceiving that they’re not good, so we need to remove them? It’s not because they’re not so good. The fact remains that it’s an E number, it’s safe.

PC: This is a very good example. E stands for Europe, don’t forget that. The E number was created as a clear sign from the European Commission that these ingredients were totally evaluated and safe. It failed the moment it was launched because of consumer perception that these substances were carcinogenic. So it’s very easy to bring down trust.

KN: In the colour industry, they try to differentiate the colours on the label, and expand under the E numbers to explain what is natural in origin and what is synthesised.

PC: The most important trend is to use natural ingredients as colourings. Get rid of the E numbers but use extracts from food. Beetroot juice, carrot juice, whatever.

KN: But what about lycopene or beta-carotene? These have an E number, so there is a dilemma there.

HM: It sounds better as beta-carotene, because of all the history and baggage. I think that’s where we come back to transparency. If you try to put something in something else’s clothing, guess what, someone’s going to bust you.

AE: As a food industry, we’re our own worst enemy when it comes to consumer trust. Since the horsemeat scandal this year, we’ve never had consumers be so uptight about the origin of their meat.

GM foods

AE: There’s another thing I wanted to bring up that I think is quite interesting − I know it’s quite a hot topic − which is the growing importance that ‘certified organic’ seems to be playing in the US as a proxy for non-genetically modified (GM).

I think there’s this perception of fear that is related to the unknown, and I don’t believe that the bulk of US consumers have ever confronted this, and now it’s coming alive. So a big issue in the US agricultural production system is what do we do, now we’re pretty far down this track?

PC: Suppose that you’re a consumer and you do not want to have any food that you eat related to GM. Well in Europe you have to label GM when it’s a product derived from or produced from GM material, but you do not need to label it if a GM production aid is used during the production. That means that still
you can have a product without any labelling that has genetically modified enzymes. For the consumer, is this an ethical matter?

AC: So is it possible then that in some circumstances to obtain a clean label you use the genetically modified organism (GMO) enzymes to get there?

TD: Sure, it happens all the time.

"On a European level, the food standards Agency (FSA) should be, and certainly is, the organisation that deserves the most credibility in the area of food safety."

AC: What does that say about the principle of clean labelling?

KN: It’s a very fluffy principle in my personal opinion.

PC: Clean labelling is not a legal permit. Everyone defines it in the way they want.

KN: To some extent, it’s about building consumer trust. It’s about transparency, because consumers are looking for a more transparent supply chain.

AC: Yes, but because you don’t have to tell them about this particular thing, how transparent is that really? What does that mean for our desire to improve the consumer’s trust in food?

PC: I don’t think you can blame companies for doing what the law allows them to do. What we are discussing here is it’s perhaps not transparent for the consumer who really cares about GMO.

Who is forming consumer opinions? Suppose we all declared GMO in the products, probably not many consumers would care, but you would immediately be killed by those interest groups that go against GMO. So the opinion of the consumer doesn’t count, it’s the opinion of the interest groups that want to target something.

TD: If you ask any consumer what they think of the GMO, they’re going to say no.

AC: Actually, in some parts of Asia, GM is a good thing, because they like the science. What will become interesting is, as there’s more and more pressure on food supply – i.e. there isn’t enough of it – how will people’s attitude towards GM change? Now, I don’t have strong views one way or the other, but I’m told there are scientific breakthroughs in biotech that will deliver more food. And if that’s what the world needs, will people embrace it?

HM: When something new appears, people will always do a risk-benefit analysis. In many cases the risks are not actually real but perceived, and the stronger the benefit the less they will worry about the negatives – which in most cases are not proven anyway. If there is something they really want, they will go for it, even if it seems risky in the early days. Look at mobile phones – when they first came out there were lots of stories that they caused cancer, but you don’t hear much about that anymore. If there is a big enough benefit the little voice of doubt just goes away.

Sanjay Solanki: It’s not the people who need it who say they don’t want the GMO, because it does strike me that some of the things we’re doing are driven by a bunch of non-governmental organisation activists, who speak on behalf of Africa. The average consumer is not particularly militant now.

Communicating with the consumer

AE: So let me ask you a question, for the food companies represented here, how much influence does recent social media and/or informal organising of consumers impact your product development and your external communication?

HM: First of all, you need to engage, and make sure that you’re being understood and that you’re understanding where the consumer’s coming from. There’s a meeting of minds – they’re not worrying about something they don’t need to be worried about, and we’re not chasing after something unnecessary. But if we understand that there is genuine concern, then we need to meet that need.

SS: To build on that, the chocolate brands are on Twitter. So that’s our forum now for communication. I think the reason it happens is the efficiency of the spend to the proportion of consumers you reach.

KN: I’d like to ask you, Kiril, because you’re dealing very much with the day-to-day retail side, how much do you think retailers are influencing your business versus consumers directly?

Kiril Gelsinov: They’re a major part in our decision-making, and we mainly follow the FSA regulations. But those regulations are also being followed by the big stores, so we have to follow our customers’ requirements.

AC: I’d also argue that retailers have as good, if not better, insight into what the consumer wants than anybody else.

TD: They know exactly what they’ve purchased.

PC: Well, they are not afraid to change products, that’s the thing. If you are an established company with established brands, you will maintain the quality and standard of your brand as much as possible, because that is your asset. But retailers have far more flexibility to change, and therefore they perceive trends and impose them on the manufacturers. And that also stimulates a lot of product development, because companies really have to innovate in order to meet certain criteria.

HM: It’s not always negative. Look at all that stuff we had over the last couple of years where consumers got to vote to bring back their favourite product, which had actually disappeared and they wanted to see again. Consumers would say, ‘I’ve always wanted this variety of something, please invent it for me’. So they’re not always saying ‘take something away from us’ sometimes they’re saying ‘please give it to us’.

TD: Consumer-driven innovation.

PC: The merit of the clean-labelling movement, apart from what it delivers to consumers, is it has led to a lot of improvements in manufacturing. I think that’s a very important aspect.