Clean label isn't as big as industry thinks, says DuPont

By Kacey Culliney

- Last updated on GMT

Not all consumers want clean label, it has been 'over-emphasized', says DuPont
Not all consumers want clean label, it has been 'over-emphasized', says DuPont

Related tags Clean label Nutrition Fat

Demonization of ingredients and a lack of consumer understanding has fueled clean label, but it remains niche among a small group of consumers, DuPont Nutrition & Health says. 

The emulsifier and enzyme specialist is among the many companies trying to decipher what clean label means to consumers and thus what it means for industry. DuPont conducted a global consumer survey across 10 cities to investigate what consumers associate with ‘clean label’.

Speaking exclusively to the team from the bakery and fats & oils department at DuPont Nutrition & Health said that while clean label is a trend, it has been “over-emphasized”.

“There is this demonization of ingredients which is driving the cleaner label trend,”​ said Janelle Crawford, strategic marketing lead for bakery, fats and oils at DuPont Nutrition & Health.

“Consumers don’t know a lot about ingredients – there’s a real lack of understanding. So to them, for natural or clean label, they think about how much processing it has gone through,”​ she said.

This means that an apple sauce – that contains mashed apples with cinnamon and is packaged – is considered less natural because it’s gone through lots of processing steps, she explained.

When it comes to consumer understanding on individual ingredients, Troy Boutte, group manager for bakery and fats & oils at DuPont Nutrition & Health, said that trans fats are a good example of consumer confusion.

Trans fats became associated with ‘hydrogenated’ on the label, but when fully hydrogenated, as opposed to partially, there are no trans fats, he said.

Similarly, some compounds like mono-glycerides (used as emulsifiers in food), that naturally occur in the human gut and are needed, scare off consumers on a label, he added.

The clean label boom? 

Industry must be careful in assuming that the clean label demand is strong and that it’s coming from consumers, he continued.

“One thing that we’re finding is that no-one seems to know where that demand, if there is a demand, is coming from. It seems to be coming from marketing. I mean, there’s no doubt that there is a subset of the population that is very interested in cleaner label products, no doubt. But I think we are jumping to conclusions to some extent – saying that people want clean label and are driving everyone else,”​ he said.

There is a group of consumers who do want clean label, but you also have a group of consumers who do not care at all, he said. Then there is a middle more pragmatic group, who base purchasing decisions on whether the price is right, if it tastes good and if it looks reasonably healthy, he said,

Crawford said that findings from the global survey indicated that very few consumers looked closely at the ingredients list on products – it was more about the front of pack and nutrition information. Packaging, colors, simplicity and text also heavily influence purchase decisions, she said.

For example, she said consumers associate baked goods from in-store bakeries to be 'healthier' because they are baked in store and packaged very simply, but understand the shorter shelf life. They still purchase packaged sandwich bread, she said, because they are not willing to compromise on shelf life all the time - there is a need for both.

“So when you combine [the lack of close ingredients reading] with the lack of understanding about what those ingredients are, I think there can be an over-emphasis on a clean label trend that may not be driven by most consumers; the majority of people that we’re trying to feed,”​ she said. It is all about perspective, she added.

Stepping up to educate

Asked if ingredients companies should rally together to better educate consumers on ingredients and the concept of clean label, Boutte said that it could be done but isn’t justified because there hasn’t been a negative impact on business as DuPont caters to both clean label and regular demands.

Crawford said that it’s an interesting idea, but one that DuPont is not ready to tackle or certainly not do alone.

“I think the hard part is that there is no definition and we’re all just trying to understand a very broad topic in different ways…We’re not all speaking the same language,”​ she said. 

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