Clean and simple – back-to-basics product development

24 April 2017

The ‘clean-eating’ trend has inspired a back-to-basics approach in product development. Katie Woodward explores what has contributed to this consumer shift and where it may lead.

Clean eating is a relatively simple concept. Instead of eating more of one thing or cutting back on another, the idea is about understanding where the food came from and how it ended up on your plate.

Eating ‘real’ foods that have been minimally processed or refined is encouraged, and this has led to a demand for simpler products.

Flexible thinking

The trend was a central theme in Innova Market Insights’ ‘Top Ten Trends’ list (see box on page 106 for ithe top five) for 2016. New products claiming to be ‘organic’ rose from 6.3% in the first half of 2013 to 9.5% in the first half of 2015, and the report also notes a rise in ‘free-from’ product launches and ‘flexitarian’ (this is a recently coined portmanteau term that combines 'flexible' and 'vegetarian' to describe a person who has consciously reduced their intake of meat for health reasons without completely removing it from their diet) options. What exactly counts as clean eating, though, and how are food and drink companies meeting consumers needs?

Greater transparency

The clean-label approach advocates greater transparency and a focus on simpler products with fewer artificial additives, and this has driven a surge in products that can be labelled ‘organic’ or ‘real’.

Advances in mobile technology – and particularly in social media – are making it easier for consumers to analyse products at the point of purchase. As information is increasingly taken online, food manufacturers can adopt a more minimalist approach with labels, but still share the product’s ‘story’, charting its journey from field to fork. It is hoped that the higher levels of transparency this requires from manufacturers will ultimately build trust with consumers.

“Consumers want to know the truth. Labels have got to be simple, straightforward and very transparent. It’s all about trust,” explains Charlotte Commarmond, Ingredion’s marketing director for Europe.


The message is clear: consumers want simple, healthy food. And it is a message that the free-from trend has tapped into. Innova reported that the share of gluten-free products jumped from five to 9% of global food and drink launches from 2010 to 2014.

This evolution is a consequence of consumers – particularly millennials – becoming more aware of, and interested in, the ingredients in the food they are consuming. While some are forced to turn to free-from products due to health issues (an estimated one in 133 people in the US suffer from coeliac disease, and a staggering 40 million people in the US are lactose intolerant), many more are now selecting gluten and/or dairy-free products as part of a healthier lifestyle. Before long, the outdated perception that free-from represents a product of necessity, rather than pleasure, will be forgotten.

Flexible eating

As health-conscious consumers continue to search high and low for ways to eat better and cleaner, new trends and diets emerge to cater for their demands. Since the early 2000s, new opportunities for flexitarians have emerged. While 7.3 million people in the US are vegetarian, an additional 22.8 million are flexitarian and this is a trend that shows no signs of slowing down. The health benefits are numerous: a recent study published in the journal PLoS Medicine found that a flexitarian diet was associated with a 20% reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Environmental impact

It’s not just the health benefits that are attractive. Many consumers are concerned about sustainability and animal welfare, and this combined focus on the advantages of environmental and personal health is a huge driver of the flexitarian lifestyle.

"Consumers want to know the truth. Labels have got to be simple, straightforward and very transparent. It’s all about trust." 

Annabelle Randles, co-founder of the UK-based online eco-retailer, By Nature, and author of ‘The Flexitarian’ blog, explains that many factors are driving the shift towards flexibility.

“In the wake of the 2013 horsemeat scandal, many people started losing confidence in the integrity of the meat supply chain and decided to do without meat,” she explains.

“Last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that processed and red meat consumption were linked to cancer. This was followed by dietary guidelines in the Netherlands, China and the UK advising people to eat less meat.”

Indeed, meat production requires unsustainable levels of water, land and energy use – something of which consumers are becoming increasingly aware. A University of Oxford study on the benefits to the environment of dietary change predicted that a flexitarian regime could reduce global mortality by as much as a tenth and food-related greenhouse gas emissions by up to 70%. The benefits of flexitarianism are palpable and it’s a diet that’s easy to stick to.

The future

Clean-label, free-from products and flexible eating are here to stay, but how can we expect these trends to evolve? A recent Ingredion report highlights ‘getting personal’ as a developing theme. Improved genetic understanding will see the emergence of a more personalised approach to nutrition and diagnostics-based food.

“Through self-administered diagnostic profiling, consumers will identify their own lifestyle triggers and select foods to suit them, effectively bringing in personalised food consumption,” the report notes.

“In some instances, this could be free-from – for example, as gluten or allergen-free – and in others it could be with added ingredients for specific functions, such as protein, fibre or vitamin D.” Diet regimes may also become personalised to suit a specific consumer’s DNA profile.

The digital era

Advances in technology will also continue to influence eating trends as consumers increasingly use social media to connect to issues such as food sources, farming methods, ingredients knowledge and production methods. “The need to label organic food [as such] could become obsolete,” the report adds.

The organic label will be increasingly replaced by information denoting provenance, seasonality and locality. This, in turn, could influence packaging, as manufacturers refer to farms with images of life-size ingredients in their natural states.

Randles predicts that plant-based alternatives replacing animal products will be the next big trend. “Fake meat, which does not strictly qualify as clean eating, that looks, tastes and feels like the real thing is being developed, as well as egg and dairy replacement,” she explains. The hope is that such advances will drive a return to more simple, natural and efficiently produced food.

The demand for clean, simple and natural food will continue to grow as we head towards 2020 and beyond. Indeed, the snowballing effect of the health and wellbeing trend, driven by conscious consumer decisions to eat clean, shows no signs of slowing.

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