Clean Labels: A Story of Consumer Clout
Linda Gardner Phillips
Healthy eating experts recently cheered along with Walmart executives as they unveiled a new grocery logo in Washington D.C. Yes, Walmart’s new “Great for You” logo stars in a fresh campaign and is leading the ‘clean’ labeling trend sweeping the food industry.
As more shoppers seek nourishing food at lower prices, Walmart’s “Great For You” program piggybacks on their thrifty slogan, “Save money. Live better.” “No family should have to choose between food that is healthier for them and food they can afford,” stated Bill Simon, Walmart’s President and CEO.
The move reflects the power of consumer voices. “Moms are telling us they want to make healthier choices for their families, but need help deciphering all the claims and information already displayed on products,” says Andrea Thomas, Walmart’s Senior Vice President of Sustainability.
Walt Disney is not far behind. By year’s end, they anticipate having a “Mickey Check” seal of approval on food products sold in stores and Disney parks and resorts, in alignment with nutrition standards the company itself is devising.
The term “clean label” is well known in Europe, but just gaining traction in North America, despite familiar terms like “heart healthy” and “low-fat.” The “Great for You” logo is a ‘clean’ label – a seal designed to appear on package fronts to spotlight foods that meet higher health standards.
Clean labels are not the same as nutrition labels, but can provide a bright cue for quick shopping decisions. Overall, many people do want to eat better. Over 54% of shoppers have tried healthier recipes in the last year, yet fewer actually read the nutrition labels of foods they regularly buy, according to the Shopping for Health 2011 survey. Clean labels highlight natural, minimally processed and additive-free food, and signal ingredients with familiar household names – and fewer of them. Since there isn’t nationally accepted criteria as to how clean labels are defined, some influential corporations, such as Whole Foods Market, Walmart and Disney, have voluntarily created their own guidelines in an effort to meet market demands.
Similar to how the IFANCA Crescent-M logo identifies halal certified products, the “Great for You” logo, “Mickey Check” icon and Whole Food’s “Health Starts Here” icon are a quick and easy visual shortcut to healthier fare. Whole Food’s “Health Starts Here” icon identifies plant-based, nutrient-rich foods for the grocer’s niche of health conscious consumers. Walmart shoppers can expect to spot the “Great For You” logo on fresh items such as eggs, bagged arugula, and organic milk, and packaged products such as pasta, beans, canned greens and olive oil.
“We opened our first store 30 years ago to provide natural foods as a delicious and healthy alternative to the increasing amounts of highly processed foods with artificial ingredients,” says the program’s leader, Margaret Wittenberg, Whole Food’s global vice president of quality standards.
What’s behind the growing clamor for ‘clean’ food? Usually, a big media story can spark popular interest. In 2007, a widely publicized Lancet research study in UK linked synthetic food colors to hyperactivity. The resulting outcry from parents and consumers had the European Parliament responding by requiring clearer labeling of foods containing these dyes.
The clean label movement now enjoys popularity in Europe, where grocery shoppers prefer upbeat labels about the benefits of good ingredients. These labels focus on products’ healthy ingredients such as fiber, whole grains, protein, Omega-3, and antioxidants. North Americans also see optimistic messages, such as “heart healthy”, but according to researchers, traditionally tend to put their money behind labels which emphasize a lack of bad ingredients, such as “no additives” or “low-fat.”
In recent years, books like Michael’s ‘Pollen’s Food Rules: An Eaters Manual’, which became a bestseller, have further demystified and fuelled the interest in eating simple foods.
The food industry plays close attention to consumer desires, and created clean labels to make it easier for shoppers to identify healthier items. Food package design also plays a surprisingly significant role in shopper awareness. Recent research shows simple labels are perceived as “less processed.”
The consumer advocate Marion Nestle notes in her book, ‘What to Eat’, “You cast your vote for your choice of food environment every time you put something in your shopping cart or order off a menu. If enough people vote with you, changes will happen.” If shoppers see clean labels as a sign of better nutrition, and continue to buy these products, their purchasing actions will keep healthier foods on the shelf.
It is in consumer’s interest to keep the momentum going. After all, Walmart’s clean label initiative promises large-scale implications for the American diet. The chain plans to open new grocery stores in USDA designated food deserts (low-income neighborhoods with little access to healthy fare; see related story “Food Deserts: Scarcity in the Lands of Plenty”). Walmart is also working directly with manufacturers to improve many packaged foods by removing excessive salt, sugar and calories, and will be allowing other brands to use the “Great For You” seal if they meet its stringent requirements. What’s more, as manufacturers rework their food formulations and consequently their nutrition labels, they will likely serve up the same improvements to other stores and their customers. The ripple effect will invariably extend beyond Walmart’s aisles.
Health advocates recognize and support clean labels as a stepping stone to better diets. “Those two moves by Walmart ultimately should save thousands of lives each year that might otherwise be lost to heart disease or stroke,” said Michael F. Jacobsen, the co-founder of The Center for Science in the Public Interest
But Linda Lee, an educator and Walmart shopper in Libertyville, Illinois, says, “If Walmart really wants to make a change, they should put all of the junk food in one aisle, and fill the rest of the grocery section with healthier choices like fresh, locally-grown produce, hormone-free meats, and bulk whole grains.” And, New York Time’s Tom Laskawy wonders if Walmart, the nation’s most influential retailer, really needs “five years to enact a 10 percent reduction in added sugar in its products?”
Even if buyers prefer honest, transparent labeling, they may not always make healthy choices. In 2008, New York required larger restaurant chains to include calorie information on their menus. Not surprisingly, fewer calories per meal were consumed at McDonalds and KFC, subsequently. However, at Subway, which positions itself as the healthier option, average caloric intake actually went up almost 20%. People seemed to believe it was okay to consume excessive amounts of a healthier food, overlooking the fact that cumulatively calories were still adding up. Even so, readily available information is better than no information at all.
Whatever shoppers crave, the marketplace will eventually deliver. The clean label trend sprouted because shoppers called for more nutritious groceries. If clean labeling has arrived at Walmart, halal products on mainstream grocery shelves can’t be far behind. The caveat? Halal consumers must continue to ask for these products and vote with their dollars (see related story “Halal – Is it Here Yet?”).
As author Marion Nestle says, “The choices you make about food are as much about the kind of world you want to live in as they are about what to have for dinner. Food choices are about your future and that of your children.”
About the Writer: Linda Gardner Phillips is a writer and the Director of Public Relations for Deerpath Farm, a conservation community north of Chicago. She also blogs for Enjoy Illinois, the official blog of the Illinois Office of Tourism.