Is “clean” the new healthy?

May 9, 2018
3 min read

Like “natural,” clean-related terms such as “clean eating” or “clean label” do not have formal definitions. In general, clean eating refers to eating whole, natural, unprocessed foods, and avoiding artificial ingredients and highly processed foods. For some, clean eating can include different types of elimination diets, such as vegan, dairy-free, or gluten-free, and often aligns with what US consumers already consider healthy: natural, freshly made, organic, and preservative-free. In fact, two in five US consumers agree “no artificial ingredients” is important when shopping for food and drink.

Similarly, clean label often refers to products with free-from claims, simple ingredients and minimal processing. The concept of clean label has been used by the food industry for many years, but clean-related terms have now emerged as part of consumers’ vocabulary as a new way to say “healthy.”
44% of US consumers trust the health claims on food/beverage packages.

Have healthy claims lost their credibility in the US?

Controversy has tarnished consumers’ perception of healthy claims and consumers are using other criteria to define what healthy means to them. In fact, only 44% of US consumers trust the health claims on food/beverage packages, according to Mintel’s US research on better-for-you food and drink trends. Unlike the term “natural,” “healthy” is defined in the US by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However, the relevance of the current definition of healthy has been questioned as recommendations for public health and nutrition have evolved.

An opportunity for “clean” claims

While the FDA is currently reviewing its definition of healthy and will likely be more inclusive of foods with healthy fats, confusion over dietary advice has created an opportunity for clean-related claims to resonate with a seemingly simple, better-for-you message. Using the word “clean” as a claim is appearing in different ways on pack, such as clean label, clean eating, clean food and clean ingredients.

Products with clean claims are perceived as healthy and natural, but struggle to meet the benchmark for tasty and trustworthy, according to Mintel Purchase Intelligence. Consumers who viewed food and drink introductions with clean claims launched in the US between January 2016 and February 2018, for example, were more likely to perceive them as healthy and natural compared to respondents viewing all food and drink introductions during that period. However, the term “clean” can also be polarizing and even confusing. While some consumers said they liked that a product was clean, several asked what clean meant.

Focus on what actually makes a product healthy

Too many claims on a package can lead to claim fatigue and hurt consumers’ perception. Brands should focus on essential messaging to ensure consumers are informed rather than confused. In order to maintain a clear message, brands can avoid using vague claims and instead, focus on the healthy attributes – eg fiber or wholegrain – that consumers are looking for to further encourage them to purchase better-for-you products.

Stephanie Mattucci
Stephanie Mattucci

Stephanie Mattucci is the Associate Director, Food Science at Mintel. Prior to Mintel, Stephanie worked as a food scientist in R&D for an ingredients company.

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