The Clean Label Trend
Consumers’ growing interest in the transparency of their food and other consumables has led the food industry to adopt the term “clean label,” which is one of the latest marketing buzzwords. This movement has grown steadily over the years as more consumers pay particular attention to the number and familiarity of ingredients in the products they spend their hard-earned money on. These consumers often choose clean labels because of their concern for both human and environmental health.
The term “clean label” generally refers to food, beverages, and other consumer products with easy-to-understand labels. These products are made up of natural, organic ingredients and free from unbeneficial additives and synthetic chemicals. Contrary to popular belief, a clean label does not necessarily imply only a few ingredients. Rather, it implies more functional or kitchen-level ingredients. In other words, products can contain lengthy ingredient lists if the ingredients are real.
Consumers who choose clean labels mainly for health reasons typically choose products that align with their health goals and, in most cases, protect them from reliance on highly processed foods loaded with artificial additives and preservatives. A 2017 article by Heitor A. Paula Neto et al. published in the journal Frontiers in Immunology showed that certain additives often found in highly processed foods negatively impact the immune system, resulting in various side effects like weight gain, metabolic health issues like insulin resistance, and gut microbiome imbalances. With clean-label foods, ingredients are nutrient-dense, while artificial additives and preservatives are replaced with kitchen-level ingredients like herbs and spices.
Consumers interested in clean labels understand the consequences of exposure to food allergens and other questionable ingredients, which explains why they invest in brands that support their well-being. They are aware of the benefits of consuming quality products made with functional, natural, simple, and minimally processed ingredients. Such consumers have been known to choose products free from pesticide residues; heavy metals; high fructose corn syrup; artificial colors; flavors; sweeteners like aspartame, saccharin, sucralose; synthetic growth hormones; or hydrogenated oils.
One ingredient that is often avoided is red dye 40. According to a 2023 article from the Cleveland Clinic, red dye 40 contains benzene, a known cancer-causing agent. The same article notes that red dye 40 has also been linked to hyperactivity in children, including ADHD.
Environmental sustainability is also important to those who follow the clean-label trend. These consumers sometimes shop at their farmer’s market for locally and seasonally grown produce, buy organic and/or fair-trade products, and appreciate recyclable packaging. Increasing awareness about how a person’s food choices impact the environment explains why many prefer to invest in brands with environmentally sustainable practices. For instance, burning fields is known to deplete soil nutrients, and the increased use of agrochemicals has been linked to a decline in biodiversity and water contamination, and eventually, these chemicals can enter the food chain.
Clean-label consumers choose products or brands with a complete list of ingredients, those that are responsibly sourced in the supply chain, and those that have sustainability certification labels issued by third-party independent bodies. According to research cited in a 2022 Cargill article, almost sixty percent of global consumers surveyed indicate they are more likely to purchase products labeled with a sustainability claim.
One such claim is the EU Ecolabel. Launched by the European Commission, the EU Ecolabel indicates that a company’s products and services have met high environmental standards. Other common labels include B Corp, Rainforest Alliance, Certified Vegan, Fairtrade, OEKO-TEX, Climate Neutral, and USDA Organic.
To stay competitive in the marketplace, product manufacturers have responded to consumer demands for clean labels by reformulating their products. Some have replaced synthetic food colors with natural food colorings from ingredients like freeze-dried berries, turmeric, beets, and matcha powder. Some companies are also seeking certifications, such as organic, gluten-free, non-GMO, kosher, halal, and eco-friendly, to further assure consumers of their commitment to product quality and safety.
Clean label is related to halal certification as well. “Halal is concerned about each ingredient in the product and each chemical that is involved in the process. Halal also includes other [materials] that may come in touch [with] or may contaminate the product such as lubricants, processing aids, packaging materials, and cleaning chemicals,” explains Saeed Hayek, quality manager at IFANCA. He goes on to explain that the food industry has become very complicated and that a product may contain over fifty different ingredients, which makes it hard for a halal certifier to track each ingredient and understand if it was sourced from halal sources or not. He notes that consumers also have a hard time understanding these ingredients and identifying halal acceptable products.
“With clean labels, less ingredients are involved, clear ingredients are [being] used, [and] most unnecessary artificial preservatives, colors, flavors, and chemicals are [being] avoided. Products with clean labels are considered more [halal]-friendly,” says Hayek. He notes that an additional aspect of clean label is healthy products, which are also important to halal certification.
A good way to start finding clean-label products is by paying attention to what you consume and reading ingredient labels. It’s important to note that product ingredients are listed in order of quantity, so paying particular attention to the first few ingredients will be helpful in your purchase decision. Do your research to know the brands that promote your core values, and shop at your local farmers’ market for whole, unprocessed, nutrient-dense foods.
Clean labels are popular with consumers for their health and sustainability benefits. Health-conscious consumers have become more interested in the way their food and other consumer products are processed, which is evident in their growing preference for clean labels. It’s noteworthy that the “cleanliness” of product ingredients exists on a spectrum that depends on consumers’ familiarity and knowledge of the ingredients. Whatever your reasons may be for choosing clean labels, be sure to invest in reputable sources whose claims have been verified.
Omolara Funmilayo is the owner of nourishedsupermom.com. She is a certified nutrition and holistic wellness coach. She supports her clients by giving them the tools they need for transformation in health and wellness for themselves and their families.