Getting Ready for a Clean-Label Future

A generational change is currently underway regarding how consumers think about food and make their daily culinary and dietary choices. On the culinary side, there is an evolution from past traditions and familiar styles of food previously preferred by families, to a wider-ranging experimentation in foods from diverse cultures and regions. We are truly becoming a world food culture; foods and flavors once reserved for "them" (meaning others, not ourselves) are now being embraced by "us." On the dietary side, a newer generation of Americans is seeking foods that are simpler, less processed and closer to the perception of being local or regional, versus products and ingredients perceived as "more processed" or made in big impersonal factories.  The irony, of course, is that many of the newer, simpler, seemingly "farm-fresh" foods are actually made in large food processing facilities utilizing the QA procedures, gleaming chrome food-making systems and food safety protocols that are required by modern food safety protocols.

One major challenge facing the food industry is how we can meet / exceed the desires & expectations of consumers for simpler, clean-label foods, while still meeting all of the safety protocols demanded by both regulators and by consumers themselves.  Yes, consumers want food that, for example, feels like it was made yesterday on a stove top and displayed today at the local farmer's market. At the same time, those consumers also want assurance that they will not be at risk for food-borne illness, nor that the food will degrade or separate or lose color or suffer any diminishment in quality, taste, texture, mouth-feel, etc.

What we propose is that the sweeping generational change in consumer culinary and dietary preferences needs to be accompanied by an equally sweeping change in the industry itself. Older processing systems made for a different era and a different diet need to be changed out. Highly-processed and "multi-syllabic" ingredients need to be replaced with newer, simpler but still-functional alternatives. Colors maintained by non-natural color additives need to be changed to natural alternatives. Formulas made with 22 ingredients need to be re-invented and re-introduced to the market with 6 ingredients.

The need for this change is widely but not universally acknowledged by the industry. On the one hand, there is a noticeable evolution in how the industry perceives natural and clean-label products. For example, industry ads, articles, sessions at conferences, posters at trade show booths, etc. clearly spell out the growth of more natural, clean-label products and the increased use of more natural, clean-label ingredients.  On the other hand, there is still widespread skepticism on the part of many in the industry regarding this change to simpler, clean label foods. Food scientists and others express concern that the "ground rules" of food, as it were, are changing away from known systems to an unknown system with unknown cost and unknown benefit. These concerns are valid, because established food-makers cannot change out massive, expensive systems on a whim or a fad, nor can they reverse direction based on a whip-saw of shifts as consumers jump from one culinary fashion to the next to the next.

That said, when the broader generational aspects of society are fully considered, the arc of evolving consumer trends is moving permanently in one direction - the direction of simpler and clean-label foods. Trans fats are vanishing formula by formula; they aren't coming back. Artificial food dyes are being de-listed. Modified food starch is being replaced. High-sugar formulas are changed out for lower-sugar alternatives. Artificial sweeteners, while still widely used, are called out in more negative press every day, with a decrease in consumer acceptance. Foods with dozens of ingredients are on a "watch list" for simpler reformulations.

Is this change good? Is it bad? As with most complex issues in society, there are no pat answers or easy fixes. However, we think that the "smart money" will place its investments in those changes and innovations which assume a much greater and more prominent role for clean-label foods. History sometimes indulges in nostalgia but it does not fundamentally reverse direction. After all, not so long ago much of our grandparents' food was fried in lard; today we see that and think "Huh? How could they do that?" Our guess is that, someday in the future, our descendants with simpler, clean-label diets will look at much of what we put in our products today and think likewise.