Consumers’ growing interest in cleaner living is broadening and this is raising expectations around what constitutes a “clean label.” In fact, this evolving demand necessitates use of more meaningful storytelling. 

Stepping back for a moment, clean and clear labeling concerns have been very well established in the food and drinks industry. Moreover, this has been an important and ongoing theme through each of Innova Market Insights’ Top Trends forecasts in recent years. 

More than 10 years ago “Go Natural” led the company’s annual trends report. Since then, clean label has featured each year in different forms and it has increasingly become interwoven throughout the entire listing. Today, it has come to be regarded as a given. 

Interestingly, the COVID-19 pandemic no doubt has boosted consumers’ appreciation for further prepared foods with longer shelf life. Even so, the pandemic also served to accelerate focus on the healthfulness of diets and in ingredients perceived to be natural and good for immunity.

Clean Label by the Numbers
Clean labeling’s mainstream status is reflected in the fact that 26.5% of all global food and beverage launches recorded by Innova Market Insights in 2020 used one or more clean label claims (natural, organic, no additives/preservatives and GMO-free). In the US, 37% of new launches used these claims.

The US saw higher than average levels of all the clean label positionings, but there was a particularly emphasis on “GMO-free” claims. These were used for 19.4% of 2020 launches, compared with just 5.5% of new products globally. Furthermore, usage has advanced in the US to the point where it has overtaken “no additives/preservatives” as the leading clean label positioning, although the latter continues to be the clear leader globally.  

Although levels of concern over genetic modification were relatively slow to take off in the US in comparison with some other countries, it is clear it is now a key issue. The move of non-GMO-certified foods into the mainstream started back in 2013 when a number of major retail and foodservice companies started to take the concept on board.  Penetration was less than 5% at that time, but has since nearly quadrupled and stands at more than three times the global figure.

Leading categories for GMO-free claims are snacks, soft drinks and bakery foods respectively with 11%, 10% and 10% new product shares of the 2020 total. Overall penetration is highest in the baby and toddler category, however, where more than 69% of launches carry this type of claim, reflecting the strong parental concern over the healthiness of their children’s diets. Perhaps surprisingly, this now has overtaken use of organic claims in the category, which stands at a more modest (but still substantial) 49%.

In 2020, a greater percentage of new US foods and drinks also used more organic claims (11.9%) than those elsewhere around the world (9.2%). This claim continues to take second place after no additives/preservatives globally, while falling to third in the US despite this higher level of use. After baby and toddler, the leading category for penetration of organic claims in the US involves sugar and sweeteners, although with relatively low numbers (in real terms).  Natural also is a popular claim in this category.  

According to Innova Market Insights, organic positionings were used for 42% of US sugar and sweetener launches in 2020 and featured across a whole range of product types. These included traditional sugar products, as well as natural sweeteners (such as maple syrup, agave and monk fruit) alongside newer options such as stevia and erythritol in a range of formats (powder, granules, liquid, etc,) and blends of one or more.

Moving Target
While interest in clean labeling continues, Innova Market Insights also sees a shift in emphasis.  The term “clear labeling,” (which Innova coined for its 2015 Top Trends listing) also has entered industry parlance. This indicates just how far the clean label trend has moved on past claims of no additives or preservative claims—toward wider demand for more overall transparency.

Here’s how the clean label shift has evolved. It started with health-driven factors and consumers gravitating toward claims of “GMO-free” and other wording to reflect minimal processing. Innova Market Insights registered more on-pack claims related to “natural” and “organic” as well as statements about “no additives” or “nothing artificial.” Soon the trend was to emphasize shorter ingredient decks with “real” and recognizable ingredients. More transparent labeling (and federal guidelines) also put a spotlight on further reducing sugar, sodium and fat. 

More recently, the broadly understood definition of clean label now also encompasses ethical and environmental factors. Innova Market Insights see claims related to human and animal welfare, increased focus on supply chain transparency, plant-powered nutrition and sustainable sourcing. 

Clean = Green (Plants)
Plant-based innovation in foods, beverages and ingredients continues to flourish as a result of consumer interest in health, sustainability and ethics, which ties into the broader consumer lifestyle trend towards cleaner living.  As a result the industry is taking up the challenge to deliver more clean label meat and dairy alternatives with improved nutritional profiles.

From a broad perspective, interest in plant-based eating has developed for some time. Innova Market Insights’ Top Trends for 2017 identified its disruptor status. Last fall, Innova identified “Plant Forward” as reaching global phenomenon status as one of the Top Trends for 2021. This highlights the rising appeal of plant-based products in different regions and categories. Simply put, consumers are demanding new formats, new plant proteins and extra levels of sophistication.

According to Innova Market Insights data, the emerging use of plant-based claims for global food and beverage launches had a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 57% during a tracking period from 2015 to 2019. During the same period, there was a 22% rise in new products with vegan positionings and a more modest 8% rise for the more mainstream, established vegetarian category. 

Use of more specific plant protein claims also is booming. During the same four-year tracking period, Innova Market Insights found new products with particular plant protein claims grew at a CAGR of  46%, as protein from plants is increasingly and more prominently presented as a key product feature and terms such as “plant power” are more commonly used.

Key challenges for plant-based offerings are to target ingredient simplicity, use of minimal processing and optimization of taste and textural experiences. Ingredient simplicity and minimal processing are particularly important to consumers, achieved via the absence of artificial components and the use of just a few simple plant-based ingredients.

Market observers can expect a wider variety of ingredient alternatives to disrupt the segment. It also has been suggested that there are more opportunities for plant and animal protein blends. This would include whey and vegetable protein blends in sports nutrition products; dairy and plant milk blends in new beverages; and more meat and vegetable blends in burgers.  An Innova Consumer Survey indicated that a leading 35% of consumers would prefer a mix of plant and animal products, while 22% would prefer 100% plant-based options.

Social Ingredients
It’s not as obvious but there also are social ingredients with every food or beverage. Innova Market Insights research indicates that three in four global consumers expect companies to “invest in sustainability,” although opinions vary about the relative importance of different factors—and even on how sustainability should be defined. 

“The Sustain Domain” was one Innova Market Insights’ Top Trends for 2020. It recognized that consumer expectations pushed manufacturers to prioritize eco-efficiency—particularly to reduce food and plastics waste. However, sustainability is no longer just about recyclable packaging. Today’s focus is on making the entire product lifecycle sustainable—from agricultural practices, to resource-efficient factories, and to food and packaging waste reduction. 

The importance of transparency and the successful communication of clean label, ethical and environmental attributes has risen in response to this. Simply put, consumers increasingly want to understand the story behind products and brands. Learning more about where their foods come from was of interest to six in 10 global consumers in the Innova Consumer Survey 2020, while 85% agreed that product information was of major importance and wanted to know what products contained. 

“Transparency Triumphs” leads the list of Innova Market Insights’ Top Ten Trends for 2021 but also is closely related to previous trends. For example, it was all the way back in 2008 when Innova identified “Going Greener” and predicted growing consumer interest in sustainability and transparency.  More recently, clean label also relates to “Storytelling: Winning with Words,” the number one trend identified for 2020. That too, evolved from 2019’s leading trend, “Discovery: the Adventurous Consumer.”

Storytelling: Winning with Words highlighted increased consumer interest in the stories behind foods and beverages. This notable influence on purchasing decisions resulted in companies increasingly paying attention to storytelling in branding strategies.  

According to Innova Market Insights research, three in five global consumers admit their purchase decisions are influenced by stories around a brand. Consumers say this is important because they want to ultimately trust the brand, learn more about the product’s ingredients (where they come from), and better understand the product’s benefits.

It is clear that the clean label trend has broadened out from its original concept. Today, it’s a much wider concern with increasingly mindful consumers trying to make food choices that are not only healthy, but sustainable and ethical.

Lu Ann Williams is the Director of Innovation at Innova Market Insights, provider of market research services including the Innova Database. With more than 25 years’ experience in the food industry, Lu Ann is a trend expert and frequent public speaker at events worldwide. She leads a team of analysts and works with global clients. Contact her at