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Seeking answers from clean labels

Consumers are increasingly asking more questions about the foods they are eating.

Sysco Shape October 2014

With a growing number of consumers displaying a deeper interest in the food that winds up on their plates, manufacturers, retailers and restaurateurs are looking to provide their customers with transparent and useful information enabling them make more informed purchasing decisions.

The questions raised by this new generation of inquisitive consumers can encompass a wide range of concerns. Many focus on the addition of “artificial,” “processed” or “chemical-sounding” ingredients in their food, maintaining that “natural” equates with “healthful” or “wholesome.” However, others are seeking information on a broader range of issues that touch on such diverse topics as the provenance of an item, whether it is local and sustainable, whether it is organic or allergen-free or contains saturated fat, and, if it comes from an animal, whether it has been humanely raised.

“These consumers want to know what's in their food and how it is made,” says Libby Mills, a registered dietitian, nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “They're looking for authenticity and ingredients that are familiar — not additives or preservatives. That definitely includes foods in their most natural form — foods they might buy for their own home.”

While industry experts had been slow to agree upon a term that encompasses this type of all-inclusive transparency, over the past year or so the phrase “clean labeling” has begun to emerge as a catch-all expression touching on most of these sometimes disparate concerns.

“A lot of these things have begun to fall under the umbrella of “clean labeling,” Mills says.

However, some debate over the terminology remains. “Clean labeling is a component of a larger trend,” says Darren Tristano, executive vice president of research firm Technomic Inc., in Chicago. “We've begun to call it 'radical transparency.' It's the expectation of the consumer to have [comprehensive] information about food that they consume at restaurants or purchase from retail sources.”

As a part of this “radical transparency,” Tristano says some foodservice operators are pushing the envelope to address customers' expectations concerning their food items. “People want to know where the animal is sourced, how it's produced, whether it's antibiotic- and hormone-free, how fruit and vegetables are produced, whether they're organic or pesticide free, as well as other things,” he says.

This evolving trend has prompted some restaurateurs to step up their use of environmentally friendly terms like “natural,” “fresh” and “local” on menus. According to Datassential, 20.3 percent of all restaurant menus in United States contained the term “natural” in 2014, up 3 percent from 2013 and 65 percent since 2005. Meanwhile, the term “fresh” was found on 87.6 percent of all restaurant menus in 2014, while “organic” and “local” were found on 18.7 percent and 11.3 percent of all menus, respectively.

Not every consumer, however, is overly concerned with the concept of clean labeling. Technomic's Tristano says the emerging trend appeals to a younger generation of consumers, like millennials, and affluent customers who can afford to pay the higher price points that often accompany such food items. “Lower income consumers and older customers are less concerned about such things,” he says. “They're still looking for value.”

In general, though, clean labeling tends to appeal to those individuals who have made the decision to limit their intake of artificial or overly processed foods.

“When some people talk about clean labels, they're thinking of food that doesn't contain loads of ingredients … food that doesn't contain a lot of chemicals,” says Joy Dubost, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and director of nutrition and healthy living for the National Restaurant Association. “If people don't know what [a particular chemical] does in food, then it's not seen as having a clean label.”

However, Dubost continues, “Everything we eat contains chemicals. I cringe when people talk about 'lack of chemicals.' [Those] ingredients are used for a reason. If you remove some chemicals, you wind up with increased problems down the road.”

Dubost maintains the United States' food supply has never been safer. “Our food is nutritious and high quality,” she says. “We can trust in the food supply and the checks and balances that are in place … with the [Food and Drug Administration] and the other regulatory bodies.”

In the meantime, members of the food and restaurant industries are exploring ways to address consumers' questions about ingredients in the food supply. While no new federal legislation has been introduced that would seek to further regulate food labeling in some way, the Grocery Manufacturer Association, or GMA, recently introduced an initiative to make the process of determining whether an ingredient is “generally recognized as safe” more transparent. GRAS is a designation indicating a product is lawful for use in food.

Among other things, the GMA says it will create a database of food additives — including chemical preservatives, flavorings and thickening agents — along with the scientific findings companies have made to determine that the substances are GRAS.

But while interest in the ingredients and provenance of food appears to be on the rise, Tristano says it hasn't reached a level at which most consumers use it to make their decision about where to dine out. “In general, [Technomic has found] that while 60 to 65 percent of consumers indicate they would pay more for this type of food, it hasn't really emerged as a driving factor of their behavior. Consumers are still lead by taste, value and good service. They still go to a restaurant where the food is good.”

On the other hand, experts advise suppliers and restaurateurs to monitor the trend. Dubost allows that while clean labeling is “not a priority at this point” for restaurateurs, “they should be mindful of what consumers are asking for. I sense that there will be continued demand for transparency in the food supply.”

“Consumers are more educated and want to know about the food they are eating and how it fits their values,” Mills says. “I think we'll see a lot more of that.”


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