Interest in naturalness, minimal processing and clean labeling is no longer new in the food industry.  In fact, as long ago as 2008, “Go Natural” led Innova Market Insights’ annual trends listing. Since then, the same concept has emerged each year in different forms and it culminated in a theme behind Innova’s 2017 Top Trends list. Specifically, “Clean Supreme” debuted as the number one trend for this year.

Clean and clear label is now targeted—by consumers and manufacturers alike—as the new global standard. This new, more holistic perspective also comes with greater demand for transparency that incorporates the entire supply chain. Clean label’s mainstream status is illustrated in the fact that more than a quarter of global food and drinks launches recorded by Innova Market Insights in the 12 months to the end of March 2017 used one or more claims relating to naturalness, freedom from additives and preservatives or organic certification. And in the US, more than 30% of new product launches—from March 2016 to March 2017—used one or more of those claims.

There also have been associated increases in related clean label topics, such as non-GMO, vegan-friendly, and raw and paleo diets. Similarly, consumers are more interested in minimal processing, including use “cold-pressed” and “high-pressure” treatments as ways to eliminate other ingredients.

Organic Still Climbing

Consumers show steady interest in organic products and manufacturers are responding. During the 12 months to the end of March 2017, nearly 9% of global food and drinks launches recorded by Innova Market Insights were positioned on an organic platform. This same figure rises to more than 11% in the US. Interestingly, organic trails behind claims of no additives/preservatives, but it is well ahead of the use of claims related to a “natural” positioning (perhaps reflecting ongoing difficulties with definitions of naturalness for some types of products).

Innova Market Insights finds the global organic foods market now valued at more than US$80 billion a year, led by the US with a market of more than US$40 billion. It should be noted that estimates vary markedly according to source and definition, particularly as to whether natural foods also are included.

Organic positionings are a growth area across most market categories, but the most significant sectors for organic launches in the US (in the 12 months to the end of March 2017) were Sauces/Seasonings and Soft Drinks, each with about 10% of new product introductions. Next in organic claims were Cereals with 9%, Bakery Foods with 8.5% and Ready Meals with just more than 8% of new products.

In terms of penetration or importance to their sector, however, it is Baby/Toddler Foods that lead. During the March-to-March tracking period, this category saw nearly half of its new product launches use an organic positioning. That came in ahead of Sugar/Sweeteners, where nearly 28% of introductions were organic; Snacks with just under 27%; Hot Drinks with 25%; Fruit and Vegetables with just over 20%; and Soft Drinks, with 19.5%.

Certain sub-categories also have relatively high penetration levels, with organic claims used for nearly 27% of Juices/Juice Drink launches, a figure that’s well ahead of the 19.5% for Soft Drinks overall. Many products carry additional clean-label claims to add value and aid differentiation in a relatively competitive market. In the case of juices—particularly premium, chilled not-from-concentrate options—increasingly popular and prevalent cold-pressed products also may be organic. These items also carry other claims such as non-GMO and/or vegan friendly, with yet more value added with interesting ingredient and flavor blends.

There were several on-trend examples during the first part of 2017. Forager Project, San Francisco, introduced organic cold pressed vegetable juice blends in varieties such as Greens & Pineapple, Greens & Avocado, Greens & Apple and Greens & Greens. Juice Served Here, Los Angeles, offers a wide range including Cold Pressed Aloe and Berry Lemonades. Daily Greens, Austin, Texas, produces a host of new “Green ADE” blended juice varieties. Lastly, Hain BluePrint Inc., Lake Success, N.Y., offers its own cold pressed blends lines. Varieties include Carrot, Golden Beet, Orange, Ginger & Lemon, Cucumber, Jalapeno, Cilantro, Lime, Apple & Cayenne, and Chard, Basil, Apple, Romaine, Celery, Cucumber, Collards & Lemon.

The strength of organic certification in the baby and toddlers category is not really surprising, given the desire of parents to provide the best for their children—with naturalness, purity and quality always high on the agenda. Organic claims are strongly concentrated in the Baby Meals sub-category, particularly in fruit and vegetable products in pouches. This sub-category accounted for nearly three-quarters of organic launches in baby/toddler foods, with penetration of more than 64%, compared with the category average of just under 50%.

Looking at recent launch activity, specialist organic baby foods companies and brands—such as Hain Celestial’s Earth’s Best and Campbell’s Plum—are active alongside organic varieties from mainstream players such as Hero’s Beech Nut, and even some private labels such as Meijer and Kroger’s Simple Truth.

Naturally Sweet

Ongoing demand for clean labeling—combined with growing concern for sugar reduction—also has boosted the use of organic claims in the Sugar & Sweeteners category. Interestingly, during the March 2016 to March 2017 time period, Innova Market Insights found 28% of new global Sugar and Sweetener products carried an organic claim, whereas 30% of new items debuting during the same time carried a natural claim.

Use of natural sweeteners has been an area of particular interest, with natural alternatives encompassing a wide variety of ingredients. These include traditional sweeteners such as maple syrup, cane juice, molasses, agave and monk fruit. Still more new offerings—such as stevia and erythritol—are joining the crowd.

Stevia has had a relatively high profile, although launches containing it still accounted for only 3.1% of US food and drinks launches in 2016, and an even lower 1.3% globally. Despite this relatively slow start (which included problems with a bitter aftertaste), use of stevia as a natural sweetening ingredient continues to develop.

Researchers are creating a new generation of blended sweeteners that combine naturalness with high-quality sweetness.  One interesting development was the fall 2016 launch of Splenda Naturals by Heartland Food Products. The Splenda brand, previously owned by Johnson & Johnson, is most closely associated with sucralose artificial sweetener. The brand’s move into the faster-growing natural sweeteners sector used a zero-calorie blend of the bulk sweetener erythritol and stevia leaf extract to try and regenerate interest in the tabletop sweeteners market with a focus on real sweetness as well as naturalness.

There also has been relatively strong interest in non-GMO labeling in the dairy industry, where a natural image has traditionally been important. This has led to growing interest and activity in organic and pasture milks.

Splenda Naturals has moved into a difficult space, however, with existing stevia sweeteners such as Truvia (Cargill) and PureVia (Merisant), as well as McNeil’s Nectresse (now withdrawn), all having faced legal issues over the correct use of the term “natural.”

Nonetheless, stevia featured either alone or in combination with other sweeteners, in 23% of US Sugar & Sweetener launches in 2016. Meanwhile, erythritol, often used in combination with stevia, was featured in nearly 12% of new product launches. Monk fruit, perhaps less well-known, also has recently come to the fore, particularly in combination with other sweeteners, with launches such as Steviva’s Monksweet with monk fruit and stevia; and Ellyandle’s Sugarless Sugar with agave, monk fruit and stevia.

Non-GMO Grows

Another positioning with rising levels of interest, particularly in the US, is GMO-free. This reflects growth in both clean label and “free from” options. The use of genetic modification has become an issue in recent years in the US in particular, where there has traditionally been only limited consumer resistance to GM foods.

The move of non-GMO-certified foods into the US mainstream has largely taken place since 2013, following a number of developments from major retail and foodservice players. In the 12 months to the end of March 2017, the use of GMO-free claims featured in more than 13% of total US food and drinks introductions, up from less than 10% two years previously, and more than double the more modest 5% penetration figure globally.

As a result of growing consumer concerns over the issue, pressure for the right to choose non-GMO products resulted in the rise of GMO-free claims, the development of a non-GMO movement and efforts such as the Non-GMO Project Verified label, launched in the US in 2008 as a non-profit collaboration to ensure the sustained availability of non-GMO food and drink choices. It is reported that more than 3,000 brands and 43,000 products have now been verified and that sales of products using the Non-GMO Project Verified label have reached over US$19 billion, up massively from about 5,000 products with sales of US$1.2 billion in 2011.

Snacks and cereals lead in terms of GMO-free launches, reflecting the significance of GM ingredients in products using high levels of cereals. While snacks had the highest number of GMO-free introductions overall in the US, cereals led in terms of penetration. More than 40% of launches of breakfast cereals and cereal bars featured this type of claim in the 12 months to the end of March 2017.

There also has been relatively strong interest in non-GMO labeling in the dairy industry, where a natural image has traditionally been important. This has led to growing interest and activity in organic and pasture milks. There is a strong link between organic dairy lines and non-GMO-certification, with many products using both types of positioning, including some leading organic dairy producers such as Stonyfield Farm and Organic Valley. Both of these companies have been at the forefront in promoting pasture or grass-fed milk and fresh dairy products in the mainstream market. In addition to their standard ranges, both now have grass-fed options, with Stonyfield’s 100% Grassfed Organic Yogurt and Organic Valley’s Grassmilk whole milk and yogurt and its Pasture butter, all of which are also GMO-free.

It is clear that clean labeling—in its many aspects—has become a major focus for new product activity. It also has driven fairly major food reformulation and repositioning programs. Consumers are demanding shorter and more recognizable ingredients lists and manufacturers are responding by highlighting the naturalness and origins of their ingredients and finished products. This consumer demand for authenticity and transparency also has moved the industry beyond clean label to “clear label,” a term first coined by Innova Market Insights in 2014.

The move to clear label is focusing on greater transparency and is a significant part of the overarching theme of clean label, where natural, additive-free, organic and GMO-free options are seeing the strongest growth in terms of new product development. Likewise, there’s a related push for minimal processing, raw and paleo diets, grass-fed meat and dairy and even vegan-friendly options. This interest seems set to continue, despite some ongoing debate about issues such as evidence over health benefits, sustainability, economic viability and environmental implications of some of these trends.  

Originally appeared in the July, 2017 issue of Prepared Foods as Clean Supreme.