Let’s just say you’ve had a strawberry cream cheese muffin on store shelves for a while now. Historically it’s been a great product, but sales have been declining as of late. What is your initial reaction? Maybe a new marketing campaign?

Or, you might think about improving the recipe itself. You know the strawberries alone are loaded with high fructose corn syrup, artificial colors, artificial flavors, and other added ingredients. With more consumers reading ingredient declarations, you figure this might be turning people away. So, you decide you need a cleaner label.

But what does that mean exactly? And what do you do next?

Clean label – (loosely) defined

At the heart of the clean label movement is an underlying shift in people’s perceptions about food and what it should be. Kerry Sikorski, Quality Compliance Manager at Van Drunen Farms, has noticed the change specifically reflected in how parents feed their children:

“When I was a kid, we had fruit punch and juice with flavors like Groovy Grape, or Wacky Watermelon. Was there any real watermelon in there? Absolutely not. Today, mothers give their children 100% fruit juice, or better yet, real fruit.”

Parents want their children to eat real food with real nutritional benefits. But it’s not just for kids. Adults, too, want whole, clean foods not tainted with artificial or added ingredients. This clean label movement has saturated the industry, sweeping in at the tail end of related trends like organic, non-GMO, all-natural, and the like.

At its most basic level, clean label refers to food products that have fewer ingredients, and simpler ingredients at that. It alludes to more than just being honest about what’s in your product; it means moving away from highly processed ingredients and toward ingredients from natural sources.


Fresh frozen vegetables and herbs offer clean label solutions

Unlike government regulated terms like organic or non-gmo, no set regulations exist that you must meet in order to claim a clean label product. Anyone can claim clean label, so naturally, the definition varies a bit from brand to brand, and sector to sector.

Since no one’s waving any red flags, clean label has suffered some abuse at the hands of brands willing to spin the term to meet their marketing and sales goals. Though there’s no checklist of do’s and don’ts, there are certainly industry expectations associated with clean label food products.

Guidelines – 3 things to avoid

Sikorski notes 3 main things brands should avoid to appeal to clean label consumers and meet industry expectations. You’ll find these standards are all interconnected, but distinguishing between them may aid you in determining how to create your own clean label product.

1. Synthetic ingredients

“Synthetic” refers to anything man-made. Synthetic ingredients might replicate something found in nature, but they are usually produced in a lab. These ingredients are often cheap and effective to use, but the clean label movement rejects these as admissible ingredients. Many common added colors are synthetically produced.

2. Highly processed ingredients

In reference to the clean label movement, “processed” refers to complicated formulations, or using more ingredients than necessary. Processed is the opposite of simple, whole food. For example, rather than achieving apple flavoring with several complicated ingredients, a clean label would achieve it with one ingredient: real apple. Clean label consumers want to see recognizable, simple ingredients on packaging – not long words they can’t pronounce.

Minimal processing may still align with the greater goals of clean label. Freeze-drying fruits and vegetables, for instance, only removes water. This results in minimally-processed ingredients that retain the integrity of whole foods. 

3. Artificial ingredients

Artificial denotes something fake or counterfeit. Processors achieve artificial flavorings or colors by combining several ingredients to mimic a more desirable one. For example, cherry flavor may be achieved by combining apple juice, pear juice, and other added ingredients.

Artificial ingredients may or may not be natural, but they always stand in for something they’re not. Clean label consumers want to know that what they’re consuming is what it says it is. If they purchase a cherry-flavored product, they want to be sure cherries were actually used in the making of it.

Why a clean label might be perfect for you

Clean label falls naturally into line with the other industry trends mentioned earlier – organic, non-GMO, all-natural, etc.

Some of you might be cringing right now thinking about the price tag associated with some of those value-adds. However, unlike organic or non-gmo, a lack of government regulation generally makes a clean label product more affordable to achieve.

There’s no initial fee associated with a clean label claim. It may cost something to clean up your formulation, or reimagine your product lines, but you have the liberty to go about that however you choose, and many brands have gotten creative while cleaning up their labels.

For example, add a real fruit or vegetable powder for natural color, and possibly claim a fruit or vegetable serving. Or, use a colorful vegetable for both color and a fiber claim. Figure out how to make your product more attractive in more than one way, and get more ROI on your commitment to clean label.


Add natural flavor, color and nutrition with single-ingredient, freeze-dried fruits and vegetables (shown: edamame)

Trust your customers so they can trust you

Thus far, we’ve explored what clean label means to the industry and what that means for you. But do you want to really learn what a clean label looks like? Ask your customers.

Don’t let the lack of a clear-cut definition for clean label trip you up. Your customers should drive your definition of what clean label ingredients look like. What they perceive to be better for their children and their families will drive buying decisions.

Relying on perception does not give way to another marketing ploy. Clean label is more than some text plastered across your packaging. Label-reading customers will determine what they want to see in the products they buy, and they won’t be fooled by cheap alternatives.

Brands that do clean labeling well build a relationship of transparency and trust with their consumers. Brands would do well for themselves to ask What is my customer really looking for? And How can I best serve my customer?

So put on your customers’ shoes. Look at your labels. What do you see?

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