Clean label: the next generation

By Laura Cassiday

In This Section

September 2017

  • The definition of “clean label” varies, but usually includes a lack of artificial flavors, colors, and preservatives, and simple ingredient lists with no unpronounceable or “chemical-sounding” additives.
  • The next generation of clean label also encompasses ingredient sourcing and ethical issues.
  • In response to consumer demand, many companies are reformulating their products to have clean labels, despite a lack of scientific evidence that such products are more healthful.

Simple recipes. Pronounceable ingredients. No artificial flavors or colors. Foods your great-grandmother would have made. Although the definition of “clean label” varies depending on whom you ask, the clean label trend has its roots in a distrust of synthetic food ingredients with “chemical-sounding” names that consumers do not understand. Whether or not fears of these ingredients are justifiable, many manufacturers and restaurants are reformulating foods to clean up their labels. Even as they do so, the definition of clean label continues to evolve, now encompassing such far-reaching attributes as an ingredient’s traceability and a company’s ethics.

Clean label 1.0

A recent survey of 1,300 consumers in Europe, North America, and Asia found that 76% of respondents would be more likely to buy a product that contains ingredients they recognize and trust (Ingredient Communications,, 2016). In addition, more than 52% of respondents would be willing to spend more than 10% extra for products containing these ingredients. Consumers in the United States are willing to pay the highest prices, with 44% willing to pay 75% or more extra for ingredients they recognize and trust.

These survey results highlight the increasing importance consumers place on recognizing and understanding the ingredients on a product’s label. Consumers typically trust ingredients that can be found in their home kitchens, such as milk, eggs, and flour, whereas they often distrust ingredients that sound like they came from a chemistry lab, such as potassium sorbate and mono- and diglycerides—notwithstanding decades of safe use in foods.

“Consumers are demanding cleaner labels, but even the consumers themselves do not understand exactly what that means,” says Jeff Hilton, chief marketing officer and co-founder of BrandHive, in a recent FoodNavigator-USA webinar. “So while the demand is being consumer-driven, it’s unclear what exactly consumers are looking for.” A 2015 global survey by Canadean Ltd. Research Reports found that 34% of consumers worldwide admit that they do not understand what clean label means (Fig. 1). The three most popular clean label attributes were “free from artificial ingredients” (36%), “natural/organic claims” (34%), and “no pesticides/chemicals/toxins” (31%). Surprisingly, only 11% of respondents defined clean label as “simple/short ingredient lists.”

Figure 1

FIG. 1. Global survey: What does the term “clean label” mean to you? Credit: Canadean Ltd. Research Reports, Q4 global consumer survey, 2015.

In an attempt to define their own clean label policies, some restaurants and supermarkets have compiled lists of unacceptable ingredients (so-called “no-no lists”) for their foods. In 2017, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) evaluated the clean label programs of four major chain restaurants (e.g., Chipotle Mexican Grill, Panera Bread) and nine major chain supermarkets (e.g., Kroger, Whole Foods). The report found that all of the companies excluded additives that have a small risk of serious adverse effects, such as the artificial color Red 3, the artificial sweetener aspartame, and the artificial preservative TBHQ—all of which, at very high doses, have been shown in some studies to cause cancer in laboratory animals. All of the companies also prohibited many artificial ingredients that CSPI considers safe, lacking any evidence to the contrary, such as modified food starch (a thickener, stabilizer, and emulsifier) and calcium propanoate (an artificial preservative). “None of the companies’ clean-label lists limit the amounts of sodium or added sugars, which cause far more harm than all other additives combined,” notes the CSPI report.

None of the four restaurants’ clean-label lists apply to beverages, which are a major source of some of the riskier additives, such as added sugars, artificial sweeteners, and synthetic food colors. With the exception of Whole Foods, which applies their “unacceptable ingredients” list to all foods and beverages sold in the store, the supermarkets only excluded the prohibited ingredients from their house brands.

Who really cares about clean labels?
A recent survey of 1,000 American adults (C&R Research, 2017) found that the definition and importance of ‘clean label’ varied by generation:

Baby Boomers
The idea of clean label resonates most strongly with baby boomers (age 57 to 74 years). The top five clean-label priorities for this generation are the amount of sugar, sodium level, trans fats, artificial sweeteners, and high-fructose corn syrup. Clean-label concerns are driven primarily by age-related health issues.

Millenials (age 21 to 35) are only slightly less concerned about clean labels than baby boomers. The top five clean-label priorities for millenials are the amount of sugar, all-natural, amount of protein, sodium levels, and preservatives. In general, millenials are young and in good health, but have the luxury of time to think about, shop, and prepare food.

Generation X
Gen Xers (age 36 to 56) are the least likely to care about clean labels. Their top priorities are whether the product is on sale, all-natural, amount of sugar, hormone-free, and trans fats. Generation Xers are juggling careers, children, and aging parents, so they have less time to worry about clean-label issues.

Source: C&R Research, 2017,

Clean label 2.0

The definition of “clean label” continues to evolve, making it difficult for food formulators to keep pace. “Where consumers began on the clean label movement—I call it ‘clean label 1.0’—was all about less is more, simple is better. It was about what’s not in the product, such as artificial colors and flavors,” says Hilton. “What I think has happened now with clean label 2.0 is that consumers are going beyond that and wanting to dig down deeper into how the products are sourced, where they were sourced, more transparency regarding that sourcing, and they want to better understand the history of the product.”

According to Hilton, “free-from” claims are merely expected. Now consumers want to know details about the agricultural methods used to produce the ingredients, such as GMO or pesticide usage, how the workers are treated, environmental sustainability, and fair trade practices. For animal products, consumers want to know about antibiotic and hormone use, animal welfare, and whether animals are cage-free, grass-fed, or free-range. Even a company’s social mission and business ethics face scrutiny. Many consumers also look for a compelling story behind a brand—how it came to be, and the people behind the brand. Communicating all of the above, in addition to “free-from” claims, on a single package label can be challenging.

Going clean

Many food companies are reformulating their products in response to clean label concerns. However, it is often difficult to find natural replacements for tried-and-true synthetic ingredients that do not compromise efficacy, increase price, or affect sensory attributes of the food. Table 1 shows possible clean-label replacements for some ingredients that are not considered clean-label, either because they are produced synthetically or have unfamiliar, “chemical-sounding” names.

Table 1

TABLE 1: Clean-label replacements

In 2015, chocolate manufacturer Hershey pledged to remove GMOs and transition to simpler ingredients in its products. Jim St. John, senior director of chocolate product development at Hershey, told ConfectioneryNews that switching from GMO sugar (beet) to non-GMO sugar (cane) was simple because the ingredients perform the same function (Nieburg, O., 2016). Sometimes, cleaning up labels is as easy as renaming ingredients: “sodium bicarbonate” became “baking soda” on Hershey product labels to be better understood by consumers.

Much more challenging was finding replacements for tocopherols, malic acid, and ascorbic acid. Tocopherols, also known as vitamin E, are antioxidants used in Hershey’s Cookies ‘n’ Créme chocolate to keep the milk in the white chocolate from going rancid and to prevent off-flavors. Although tocopherols are natural preservatives, their chemical-sounding names cause some consumers to view them with suspicion. In the US, tocopherols can be declared on labels as “vitamin E,” but Hershey did not want to give the impression that the chocolate bar is fortified. “We haven’t found a tocopherol replacement yet,” says St. John. “It’s a difficult one. We’re also questioning whether it should be replaced.”

In other reformulation efforts, Hershey removed the emulsifier polyglycerol polycrinoleate from its Milk Chocolate, instead increasing the cocoa butter percentage to improve the chocolate’s flow properties. Artificial vanillin was replaced with a natural flavor, which required more than a year to identify. St. John notes that artificial vanillin has more consistent flavor effects than its natural replacement. “[Artificial vanillin] has a particular flavor effect on chocolate . . . it kind of mellows and smoothes chocolate flavor delivery out,” he says. “We had to do a lot of testing to come up with the new flavor, and to be frank, it’s a lot more expensive than vanillin.” In Hershey’s Brookside brand, malic acid—a natural flavor from fruit—was replaced with apple juice concentrate, a more recognizable, though less consistent, flavor ingredient. Although the reformulation efforts have decreased the efficiency of manufacturing and increased the cost, Hershey has not passed the price increase onto consumers, says St. John.

According to Marlene Schmidt, who is Nutrition, Health & Wellness Manager at Nestlé USA, Nestlé defines clean label ingredients by the “kitchen cupboard” standard. “These are ingredients that a consumer can recognize and trust, and that they may just find in their own kitchen at home,” says Schmidt, in a recent FoodNavigator-USA webinar. Nestlé has committed to cleaning up the labels of many of its products, beginning with the company’s best sellers. In 2017, Nestlé shortened ingredient lists and removed unfamiliar ingredients from their Skinny Cow ice cream line, and began sourcing milk from cows not treated with rBST.

Nestlé has also undertaken the challenging task of reformulating frozen dinners that are customer favorites, including Stouffer’s Lasagna with Meat Sauce and Stouffer’s Macaroni and Cheese. “I can’t say enough that we don’t want to compromise on taste for our consumers,” says Schmidt. “So what we do when we start this process is really work closely with our chefs and our food technologists. These two groups of experts work hand-in-hand to conduct multiple rounds of taste testing with our consumers. Then, once we agree upon a recipe, we take it out to even a larger group of consumers.” Schmidt notes that the Macaroni and Cheese required 15 different test recipes to achieve a clean-label product that tasted the same or better than its predecessor. At the 2017 AOCS Annual Meeting and Industry Showcases in Orlando, Florida, a Hot Topics Session focused on “Clean Label Ingredients and Processes for Food and Beverages.” Several speakers discussed promising new approaches to clean-label ingredients. Supratim Ghosh, assistant professor of food and bioproduct sciences at the University of Saskatchewan, in Saskatoon, Canada, presented his research on the use of pulse proteins as natural stabilizers of oil-in-water emulsions. Pulses are edible seeds of plants in the legume family, and pulse proteins, such as pea protein isolate (PPI) and lentil protein isolate (LPI), are natural emulsifiers.

Ghosh and his colleagues investigated the ability of an LPI solution to stabilize emulsions in several commercial beverages (apple, orange, and vegetable juice; lemonade; kefir; and soy milk). The researchers found that they obtained more stable emulsions with smaller droplets if they pre-homogenized the LPI solution prior to forming an emulsion. The pre-homogenization step may expose buried functional groups in the globular LPI proteins, enhancing their emulsification properties. Ghosh added the pre-homogenized aqueous LPI solution (95 wt%) to canola oil (5 wt%) and formed a nanoemulsion by high-pressure homogenization. They then mixed the LPI nanoemulsion with the beverages at different inclusion rates to assess their appearance and taste. The vegetable juice produced the most desirable results (Fig. 2). At the highest inclusion rate of LPI (15%), the vegetable juice retained its flavor and body, with only a slight change in bitterness, appearance, and oily mouthfeel. None of the other juices was able to mask the bitter aftertaste and oily mouthfeel of the LPI nanoemulsion.

Figure 2

Fig. 2. When added to vegetable juice, an LPI emulsion induced cloudiness in the beverage, as desired, without signficantly affecting flavor. Beverage at left, 100% vegetable juice. Middle, 91% juice, 9% LPI emulsion. Right, 85% juice, 15% emulsion. Credit: Supratim Ghosh

Also during the clean label Hot Topics session, Mark Stavro, global marketing director at Bunge, discussed clean label trends for vegetable oils. Consumers are increasingly seeking minimally processed, natural, and non-GMO vegetable oils, says Stavro. Traceable, sustainable origins for the oils are important. A clean-label vegetable oil is expeller- or cold-pressed, rather than hexane-extracted, undergoes minimal refining, and contains natural antioxidants, such as rosemary or chamomile extract, rather than synthetic antioxidants such as TBHQ. Examples of milder refining conditions include using citric acid or enzymes rather than phosphoric acid for degumming, and using physical rather than chemical refining to eliminate the need for alkali neutralization with sodium hydroxide. Chemically modified oils, such as hydrogenated, partially hydrogenated, or brominated vegetable oils, are not considered clean label. According to Stavro, few vegetable oils are currently making claims of a low glycidyl ester content, but this is an area of growing importance to consumers.

What’s in a label?

If a manufacturer expends the time and money to reformulate a product, they want to effectively communicate the product’s clean-label attributes to consumers. However, much of the information consumers seek will not fit on the product packaging. As a result, in 2015 representatives from 90 manufacturers, retailers, trade associations, and special interest groups created SmartLabel ( SmartLabel is an online platform that allows consumers to search for detailed information on the more than 7,000 products that currently carry SmartLabels. An estimated 34,000 products will have SmartLabels by the end of 2017. Consumers can search for products on the website, or scan SmartLabel QR codes on product packaging. SmartLabel provides information such as ingredients lists, allergens, “free from” claims, GMO disclosures, third-party certifications, and sourcing practices.

In 2016, a clean-label certification scheme called GoCleanLabel was launched ( To become GoCleanLabel-certified, a brand must undergo a product evaluation, in which the ingredients are compared to “unacceptable ingredients” lists from influential supermarkets and restaurants such as Whole Foods, Panera, Kroger, and Trader Joe’s. If the product meets clean-label criteria, the manufacturers may use the GoCleanLabel-certified logo on their packaging, website, and marketing materials. Because the definition of clean label changes frequently, the certification is only valid for 12 months, after which the product must be re-evaluated. Consumers and food industry professionals may search the GoCleanLabel website for specific ingredients, and the site will indicate whether or not the ingredient is considered clean label.

Other third-party certification schemes with relevance to the clean label movement include USDA Organic, Non-GMO Project Verified, and RSPO-certified (for palm oil). Recently, a company called BioChecked launched a “non-glyphosate” certification. Companies submit product samples to a partner lab for testing and provide a list of all ingredient sources. If no traces of glyphosate are detected, the product can display the Non-Glyphosate Certified seal.

The dirty truth about clean labels

The clean label movement is one of the hottest trends in the food industry, and it only appears to be growing in scope and magnitude with each passing year. However, the movement is not without its critics. The American Heart Association (AHA) recently issued statements to the effect that “clean label” does not equal “healthy.” Products with clean labels can still be loaded with sugar, salt, and fat. In comments submitted to the US Food and Drug Administration about the use of the term “healthy” on food products (, AHA President Steven R. Houser notes that in surveys, many consumers define “healthy” by such criteria as organic, minimally processed, natural, non-GMO, or free of artificial ingredients. “Definitions for many of these factors are not clearly defined in law nor agreed upon by stakeholders,” says Houser. “Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, there is not sufficient scientifically sound evidence linking them to health outcomes.” The AHA supports reserving the term “healthy” for foods that satisfy the 2015-2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Other critics worry that the clean label movement will cause manufacturers to stop fortifying foods with vitamins and minerals, many of which have “chemical-sounding” names. Indeed, according to Euromonitor International, between 2010 and 2015 there were declines in fortified iron, vitamin A, and vitamin K consumption in North American, and in fortified vitamin A, vitamin C, and vitamin D consumption in Western Europe (Menayang, A., 2016). Cutting fortified vitamins and minerals is an easy and cost-effective way to shorten ingredient lists. Also, because some vitamins are produced from genetically modified organisms or feedstock, manufacturers may cease fortification to obtain non-GMO certification. Because fortified foods are an important source of vitamins and minerals for many people, some dietitians worry that the clean label trend will result in negative health consequences. For example, in the United States, flour, pasta, and other grain products are routinely fortified with folic acid, a B vitamin that, when consumed by pregnant women, reduces the risk of neural tube defects in infants.

A downside of clean label claims is that they could increase litigation risks for manufacturers. Like “natural” and “healthy,” “clean label” has no legal definition and is therefore open to the interpretation of the consumer. Some natural flavors contain synthetic non-flavor ingredients, such as artificial preservatives, colors, and emulsifiers. And some natural ingredients are produced by fermentation processes using genetically modified organisms. If a “reasonable consumer” could be misled by such clean label claims, then the manufacturer may be hit with costly and damaging lawsuits.

Many food formulators worry that the clean label movement unfairly demonizes safe and legal ingredients that have been used in foods for decades with no evidence of adverse health effects. Synthetic food additives have been rationally designed and improved over the years to be highly efficient at what they do, whether it be preservation, emulsification, or flavoring. Natural alternatives, if they exist, are typically less efficient and more costly. The irony of the clean label movement may be that its proponents wish to turn back the clock to great-grandmother’s days, when great-grandma might have been happy to have access to time-saving, effective, safe, and inexpensive ingredients that kept her food fresh longer.

Laura Cassiday is an associate editor of Inform at AOCS. She can be contacted at