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Last updated: 04.03.19

Customer Confusion Over Clean Labelling

Whether you’re involved in the production of food, the retail of it, or even in catering, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of the clean labelling concept. It’s often touted as a great initiative, but there are some problems, and it’s still not properly understood, even by those working in the food industry. Let’s take a look at what you need to know.

So what does clean labelling actually mean?

Clean labelling generally refers to the practice of keeping the product label free of ingredients that the typical consumer wouldn’t understand or recognise, which generally includes artificial colourings and long-winded chemical names. This means placing a focus on familiar, commonplace ingredients that can be easily read and decided upon. So it’s not just about the label itself; it’s about actually keeping these ingredients out of the products themselves.

The big problem with the concept of clean labelling is that it’s about public perception; there are no hard and fast rules, and regulation doesn’t come into it at all.

Misleading buzzwords

Let’s take the term 'natural' for example, which is a clean labelling favourite. This is one of the most common marketing terms in recent years, and it doesn’t just apply to food; cosmetics and toiletries are also frequently emblazoned with wording that shouts about the product’s 'natural' credentials. The idea is that something natural is something better. This can make people feel as though it might be higher quality, that it might be less likely to cause any kind of adverse effect, and perhaps also that the production of the product is more environmentally friendly. Above all, 'natural' products are widely believed to be healthier.

However, 'natural' is not a protected term under EU law - it only applies to water. Here in the UK, guidance was issued which suggests that the word natural should not be misleading, and it should therefore describe products and ingredients that are naturally occurring and don’t involve man-made chemical changes.

The clean labelling movement is therefore one of some debate. On the one hand, there is undeniable value in making it far easier for consumers to properly understand what they’re buying and eating. If they can read the label, recognise and understand all of the ingredients, then they can make better and more informed choices.

However, an ingredient being natural does not in any way mean that by default that it is superior to an artificial ingredient, which is much of the reason neither EU nor UK law protects the term. Individual ingredients have their own merits, but whether they or natural or man-made is generally not relevant. Palm oil, for instance, is a natural ingredient but is hugely damaging to the environment, and there are many artificial flavourings that are efficient to produce and have no adverse effects. As a result, customers can easily confuse a ‘clean label’ product with one that is definitely healthy, superior, or environmentally friendly.

What to keep in mind

The takeaway is that customers need to think carefully about the products they’re buying and not fall for what are in many cases simple marketing tricks. It’s far more important to do a little research and understand exactly what you’re looking at when reading a label, rather than allowing the label to tell you what it thinks you want to hear. And food retailers need to take this on board too. It’s all very well giving consumers what they think they want to hear, but it’s far better to make quality products that are safe to eat and have a low environmental impact than follow a trend that might not be all that it seems.

What does our food industry expert think?

At Virtual College we work with many industry experts who have developed years of experience and us help understand and shape the future of the industry.

Their experience is invaluable in spotting trends, which can help shape new courses and develop the latest content to keep you informed about what’s happening in your industry.

I think the industry is clear what is meant by clean labelling - it is a term that was driven by retailers more than 5 years ago ...they wanted products that only contained ingredients consumers would recognise from their kitchen cupboards.

It has meant a lot of artificial ingredients, flavours and colours were removed from foods.... but this article is right to say that it does not always mean you are eating healthily and ethically as a result.

In the last few years several 'celebrities' have adopted regimes or diets that cut out certain food groups and shun anything processed etc. They refer to this as 'clean eating' which is not the same as clean labelling, where no foods are skipped from your diet, but you would just eat versions of them free from artificial ingredients.

E-Numbers are often shunned/ misunderstood by consumers as they are thought of as 'not clean'. E-Numbers are code numbers preceded by the letter E, denoting food additives numbered in accordance with EU directives.

These can be given to artificial and natural ingredients, but often consumers assume an E-number is not natural.

As for palm oil, last year most retailers were keen to see us shed it, however now they recognise that controlled forestry in areas where this grows is actually less environmentally damaging than if the farmers were to switch to something else.

Producers have to keep an ear to the ground otherwise they can easily be caught out as food is like fashion and changes quickly.