Clean Label Trend Brings Natural Ingredients Forward

Clean Label Trend

I try my best to avoid those parts of the grocery store (more on this shortly) where the fatty/sugary/salty packaged foods blamed for our obesity epidemic reside. But snack bars have been positioned to fall in the “healthier options” category (meaning better for you than a plain old candy bar, but not as dreadful-tasting as those full-on sugared cardboard slabs true health food mavens claim to love). This positioning means if you buy vitamins or supplements, you may find yourself standing in an aisle packed with “nutrition bars.”

On those occasions when I’ve wandered into the snack bar aisle, I’ve noticed changes to the packaging. Suddenly, wrappers have become transparent—you can actually see the product you are buying. The ingredients are no longer crabbed onto a tiny portion of the back of the wrapper (often folded under a flap). In some cases, the ingredients are clearly displayed on the front of the package. This is called “clean labeling” a package design trend emerging from consumers’ new interest in healthier packaged food options.

Here are two examples of this new packaging approach:

RXBar launched without fancy logos and pretty images, instead displaying their basic ingredients front and center.

KIND opts for transparent packaging and simple labels that say exactly what you are putting in your mouth.

Why We Need Clean Labels

It’s not just snack bars that use their natural, healthy ingredients as a point of packaging differentiation. Big consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies including Campbell’s Soup, Kellogg and Nestle are bringing healthy ingredients front and center on packaging, creating entire product lines around consumers’ desire for healthier food products. Industry trade news site Food Business News named the “clean label” trend as its 2015 trend of the year, and the trend is still rising.

Per Food Business News, three-fourths of U.S. consumers claim they read nutritional and ingredient labels on the products they buy. Consumers chiefly want those labels to include recognizable ingredients—nuts, dairy, real fruit, and as few weird chemical additives, dyes, extra sodium or sweeteners as possible without totally sacrificing taste and shelf life. Other ingredient concerns include GMOs (genetically modified organisms); pesticides; hormones; and antibiotics. Concern about specific ingredients does vary by age group, so it’s worth researching target audiences to learn more. We could spend another several days discussing the issue of portion control as it relates to how CPGs are packaged. It’s safe to say that we’ve become aware of the toxicity of much of the packaged food we eat daily, and how it may be contributing to America’s obesity epidemic, the rise of diabetes, high blood pressure, and other health issues.*

Natural, Organic and Healthy

Consumer interest in health plus convenience has thrown the CPG industry into a tizzy, as they struggle to develop products that health-minded consumers will actually buy. Consumers are wary of healthy claims on packaging, and the media has repeatedly called out brands for using unclear or plainly misleading organic, natural and low-fat/low-sugar claims. Other unregulated terms like “artisan,” “clean,” “earth-friendly,” “local,” “pure” and “simple,” have been popping up on packaging as the organic/natural trend has swelled to nearly 15 percent of total food sales. Packaged goods manufacturers must tread carefully to avoid the unhealthy publicity of making false or misleading claims about their products.

Another driver of CPG’s packaging and product innovation shift is Millennial shoppers’ (34 percent of 18-34 year-olds) predominant pattern of “shopping the periphery” of grocery stores, where they find fresh produce, meats and dairy products. Typically, packaged goods are in the center aisles of most groceries. CPG brands hope new products focused on interest in organic and natural foods, and greater attention to ingredients and sourcing will attract this audience. A related trend is expanded “health food” aisles aimed at vegans and ingredient-conscious shoppers.

Online fresh food services like HelloFresh and BlueApron are further fueling consumer expectations for better ingredients and fewer additives. As younger consumers abandon fast food and take-out in favor of fresh meals prepared at home, packaged goods manufacturers must rethink everything from brand strategy and offerings, to package design and shelf location, to address more skeptical, better informed shoppers.

It’s “Clean,” But Not Clear

Yet, a recent survey indicates that the term “clean label” doesn’t mean the same thing to all consumers. There are no standards for what the term should indicate (Natural ingredients? Sustainable sourcing? Pesticide-free?), making the trend mostly about repositioning to appeal to health-conscious shoppers. Also, most consumers say they are unwilling to pay a premium price just to buy “clean” products; consumers increasingly feel “clean” should be an embedded trait, not a bonus feature they must pay extra to get.

Ad agencies involved in food package design have an opportunity to help clients position their products to catch the rising interest in unadulterated, healthier food choices. Watch for start-ups who are innovating in the natural and organic foods category. Read up on consumer trends in healthier lifestyles ands and eating habits. And bring your designers’ skills to bear on finding ways to make products stand out in the best ways—by delivering clear labeling and visual style to an expanding sector of the CPG world.

It’s Not Just Food

By the way, clean labels are becoming a trend in other categories. Australia’s Aesop, a personal care manufacturer and seller, is just one brand introducing products labeled with simplicity and a focus on ingredients and effectiveness. Aesop joins more established U.S. “clean beauty” brands like Honest, Goop and Credo.


Women have been demanding companies label feminine care packaging with ingredients so we know what we’re putting next to (or in) our bodies. And P&G is launching a new diaper line called Pure, made of natural fibers and free of dyes, fragrances and chlorine—and competitively priced.

Cleaning products were arguably first on the clean-label bandwagon, with industry leaders Method, Seventh Generation and J.R. Watkins widely available.

Clean labels address increasing consumer concerns about the safety and value of the products we buy, and especially consume or apply to our bodies. Environmental impact is also part of the trend. Consider the brands for which you develop package designs, and determine if they might benefit competitively from clean labeling. Just make sure the company and its products can stand up to the scrutiny of the best informed consumers in human history—and that your idea of “clean” aligns with that of your target audiences.

*The CDC has expressed concern about our obsession with fad diets, trendy quick-fixes to weight gain, and an overall emphasis on what we eat and how we eat it. Instead, we should focus on calorie intake versus calories burned. Maybe some CPG brand will cotton on to real science and honestly develop a brand that sizes portions correctly, and doesn’t claim to do more than conveniently provide good nutrition as part of a balanced diet. The real trick, of course, would be the advertising campaign to persuade us that those qualities are more desirable than the way we eat now…


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