But it's a puzzle that must be solved if firms are to stay ahead of the competition. National Starch says research, conducted by MMR, indicates that over 70% of consumers usually, or always, read the claims or descriptions on the front of packaging, and 60% read the ingredient list. It also highlights significant regional differences, even within Europe. "For example, consumers in Italy are the most likely to read claims or descriptions on the front of packs and 92% consider a short and simple ingredient list to be important," says Aaron Edwards, director of global wholesome ingredients business at National Starch Food Innovation.
This pressure has caused some manufacturers to jump on the 'natural' bandwagon without fully understanding the full implications for their processes or what the term really means. Adrian Short, director of Ulrick & Short blames retailer pressure to come up with "solutions tomorrow" to boost sales and deal with the ever-changing demands of consumers. He gives a word of warning on knee-jerk reactions: "If a food producer flashes the word 'natural' across the front of its product's packaging, it brings a lot of restrictions on ingredients that can be used."
What is the matrix?
The first part of the puzzle to be solved is defining what a clean-label product is. This has been the subject of much debate and confusion on the part of consumers and manufacturers. In response to this, Leatherhead Food Research launched a research project titled: 'Clean labelling consumer perceptions and implications for food and drink manufacturers'.
The research aimed to identify how consumer perceptions of clean-label ingredients differ according to grouping and location and what implications this has for manufacturers. It also set out to identify the current and future impact of the natural ingredients boom and consumer demand for clean labels. The working definition for clean-label used in the report was: 'Seeking natural alternatives to food additives as, when these are listed on labels as the named ingredients rather than by Enumber, it gives the food product a clean-label'declaration'.
One of the questions the study asked was an open-ended one: what 'natural' meant to consumers. Overwhelmingly, the most popular response was the term 'organic' especially with consumers aged under 25 in the UK. Second was 'No chemicals/artificial substances added', then came 'Coming from nature', followed by 'No additives', 'Hormone free' and 'No artificial flavours'.
But it's not just consumers who have differing views on the terminology. Manufacturers also have a tendency to disagree.
Ulrick & Short's director, Adrian Short simply defines clean-label as: "Free from chemical additivess and E-numbers", while Aaron Edwards at National Starch Innovation says it means: "Free from chemical additives, simple ingredients listing and minimally processed".
Edwards says there is still no industry-wide consensus in Europe on what is meant by the terms 'clean-label' and 'natural'. "National Starch Food Innovation reviewed the market to develop a clear definition for clean-label in Europe, which we think still rings true for consumers," he says. "Increasingly concerned with what goes into their foods and beverages, consumers are still looking for products that are free from chemical additives, have simple ingredients lists and are minimally processed."
The organisation commissioned market research that, it says, supported this definition by highlighting the fact that claims such as 'low or reduced fat/sugar/salt', 'natural/all natural' and 'no artificial ingredients' are most likely to prompt consumers to switch brands.
Jon Arzberger, product manager for health at ingredients distributor Azelis stresses the fact that natural and clean-label do not always go hand-in-hand. "There is an assumption in some people's minds that all natural products are clean-label and that all clean-label products are natural. Unfortunately, this isn't always the case. Natural and clean-label are marketing concepts and can be a little hard to tie down and define."
Know the system
Arzberger stresses the importance of making a distinction between natural source and natural processing. "A number of ingredient manufacturers (particularly those from outside the EU) think about the source of an ingredient when defining natural," he says. "If their product comes from a natural source such as being extracted from fruit, or some form of fermentation process they would be inclined to declare that their product is natural. This line of thinking makes certain assumptions and does not take into account that some of the subsequent processing that the ingredient undergoes may not meet the guidance on using the term natural."
He cites examples of subsequent processing steps that may not be perceived as natural: using solvents, freezing or pasteurising the product during processing. Food produced via mechanical processing methods such as grinding and milling, and the use of water during an extraction or purification step is more likely to be classed as a natural ingredient, he says.
Arzberger claims that it is rare to come across a new performance ingredient that is truly natural because the process of chemically synthesising using performance ingredients (such as thickeners, emulsifiers and humectants) is such a complex task. "To try to manufacture a product from a natural source and process it naturally to achieve similar results is exceptionally difficult," he says.
"It is also an expensive thing to develop. I suspect that a number of companies have looked at what they could do and run a simple calculation on what the price of the finished ingredient would have to be in order to justify this investment and have come up with a figure that would be prohibitive when compared with the standard ingredient."
Enter the real world
The consensus seems to be that minimal processing is the way forward: "The natural and clean-label trend is only going to grow," says Edwards. "To remain competitive, it is therefore important for ingredient manufacturers to produce materials from natural sources that are perceived by consumers as having been minimally processed."
The cost of development and investment is also the reason why a number of manufacturers have looked at ways that they can make changes to existing processing conditions for their standard ingredients that would then enable them to class them as natural, according to Arzberger. "It is likely that a manufacturer's plant is set up to be as efficient as possible and that, in order to improve efficiency, new developments in processing have been incorporated as they have come out," he says. "It may be that removing these processing steps and effectively reducing efficiency for certain production runs could enable them to manufacture a new range of natural versions. The price for manufacturing this new range would obviously be higher, but not as high as trying to develop a completely new product from scratch."
Edwards of National Starch says the emphasis on affordability has increased in the past year because consumers have lower disposable incomes, which means they need to keep manufacturing costs as low as possible. "Clean-label ingredients therefore need to enable affordability as well as function," he says.
But Short recommends putting quality before cost: "Get back to basics: a blank piece of paper and make the best product you can irrespective of cost. This is your starting point, believe in it, consumers who demand natural products tend to be less focused on cost. Create your own products that you think are the best rather than being reactive to briefs."
Short advises processors to look more closely at nature and harness what exists rather than destroying certain functionalities during processing. He also says, "It's important to develop staff's understanding of the ingredient and their ability to apply it in an industrial environment."
National Starch says the trend for new performance ingredients that fit with natural definitions is still emerging but, as investment in research and development increases, more products will enter the market. "Previously, consumers were happy to compromise on natural claims for the sake of functionality," says Edwards. "However, this is changing and now manufacturers need to find new ways to create natural products."
Cost is not the only challenge manufacturers face. Consumer demands are becoming ever more complex reduced fat and sugar, improved texture, authentic and restaurant-style are just a few of the attributes they seek, according to Edwards. But functional ingredients in foods and beverages are those regarded by customers as being non-natural or undesirable, with complicated names. "Removing these ingredients can have a negative impact on sensory appeal," he warns. "Manufacturers therefore need to be selective in their ingredient selection during the reformulation process, bearing in mind functional obstacles, as well as clean-label requirements."
The fight for the future begins
If the names of certain ingredients are too complex for the consumer, then the solution must lie in the language. All good communication needs to bear the audience in mind. In the food product arena, this means ingredients label declarations need to be consumer friendly so that consumers can relate to and understand to the language describing what the pack contains. This has been one of the biggest developments in the clean-label market in the past year, according to David Jago of Mintel. He says: "The biggest thing is to focus on what the ingredients do and educate consumers about it. You have to spell out what the function and nature is of that ingredient."
Language has shifted, he says. "We have seen a lot of products bearing terms such as 'free-from' and 'no nasties' . This begs the question: What is in it then? You're more likely to register that it contains natural colours rather than no additives.
"It's about feeling good about the brand, it's about emotional engagement. People don't want to think about the 'nasty' stuff. They want real food values, not the shorthand. It creates a better impression in keeping with emotions and builds transparency and trust with the consumer."
Jago cites the labelling on Nestlé's Milkybar Giant buttons as an example of good practice. On the back of the pack, the ingredients list explains the function and origin of the ingredients as follows: 'Sugar, whole cow's milk (that's been dried), cocoa butter (made from cocoa beans), whey powder (from milk), vegetable fat (from tropical plants), emulsifier lethicin (made from soya beans and holds the ingredients together), natural flavouring.'
Short of Ulrick & Short makes the point that the need to make ingredients labels easier for consumers to relate to means that what is in the product may, in reality, be something quite different to the words chosen to fit with the 'friendly' declaration. "For example, we may declare 'cornflour' on the back pack of a sauce," he says. "However, the ingredient inside is actually a (naturally) functionality-enhanced cornflour, thus allowing the manufacturer to make a declaration that people can relate to (the packet of cornflour in the kitchen cupboard)."
In terms of the front of the pack, Mintel's Jago believes the "widely abused" trend for making the on-pack claim, 'natural' is starting to flatten out because there is less space for differentiation.
"If you look at the claim 'all natural' there are relatively fewer products claiming that now," he says. "You know a trend is starting to flatten out when even the economy brands are doing it. I'd say it's becoming less prominent because it's almost taken as read and it's not even a front of pack claim any more."
He predicts further legislation around the term in the future, once the dust has settled around the whole health claims issue. "There's too much around health claims at the moment so we have to get out of woods with that first," he says. "My understanding is that there are rules in terms of colours and flavours and we are likely to see more clarity around stevia but there's an awful lot of language that's still a bit woolly. Companies need to be responsible. It's less of an issue in the UK but it's a grey area in parts of southern Europe and a big issue in the US market."
He predicts legislation on a par with that we have experienced on health claims that will be all about making the language more transparent so that consumers can understand it more easily. "We can expect to see the same thing [as health claims] happening, but not for a couple of years," he says. "It's already being talked about more in the industry."
So more change and more red tape for manufacturers to deal with. What is the way forward? On this point, I'm afraid I can only echo the words of Neo in The Matrix: "You're afraid of change. I don't know the future. I didn't come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it's going to begin."
Mintel's view on clean-label trends
David Jago, director of innovation and insight at Mintel shares his global view:
The 'natural' positioning remains strong in all food and drink categories but it is typically most important in areas where the formulations are the simplest.
There is still room for growth in processed food categories that have more complex formulations
Additive-free claims have seen significant growth in recent years but they:
are fast becoming common, if not the norm in some categories;
offer less scope for differentiation, as mainstream products at all price points 'go natural' .
Consumers don't necessarily appreciate the (cost) implications: 'Why pay more to get less?'
The focus must be on promoting the positives, not the absence of the negatives.