Seeing Food Clearly
“Clean label” and “transparency” are two on-trend terms that are already beginning to reshape how foodservice operators conduct business and interact with their customers — even though consumers themselves don’t always agree on their exact definition.
Some individuals use the clean label term interchangeably with “natural” to mean simply that the food does not contain any preservatives or artificial additives. According to Technomic’s “Food Industry Transformation: The Next Decade” report, 82 percent of foodservice operators surveyed agreed that the clean label trend will have a great or moderate influence on purchase decisions in the future. The study also identified other concerns as well. Eighty-four percent of those operators polled mentioned no chemicals as something that will influence purchasing decisions, while 79 percent cited no hormones/antibiotics, and 79 percent said humane animal welfare.
Transparency, for its part, generally relates to the availability of information consumers can get about the quality of the food they order. People want to know where the food came from, and how the food production affects the environment. In particular, many consumers want to know where and how animals are raised and how they are treated.
Whatever the precise definitions, though, today’s restaurant-goers want to know more about the foods they’re eating, and many suppliers are working to accommodate them.
“Clean label is a term that really talks about how suppliers and manufacturers build transparency into the way they label the products,”
says Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, Inc. “To some extent customers want to understand how the food is processed. What they are looking for is simplification of the ingredients.”
Restaurant operators, for their part, must decide which details to include on their menus. For example, Tristano says, a menu can inform guests that the restaurant buys premium chickens from a particular farm or supplier, and are antibiotic-free and free range. “It’s not just what goes into the food,” he says. “Animal welfare is a story as well.”
Animal welfare points to a larger trend, which reflects the growing desire among consumers for premium protein options — meat that contains no hormones, steroids or antibiotics. According to a report from The Hartman Group, “Diners’ Changing Behaviors: Sustainability, Wellness and Where to Eat,” 55 percent of consumers say the menu label “fresh” is the most important descriptor of food quality. Meanwhile, 31 percent of consumers say hormone-free was most important, and 30 percent say antibiotic free ranked first.
Also according to The Hartman Group, consumers — especially the 42 percent who are receptive to sustainable practices — are willing to pay more for these premium proteins.
“These sustainable-receptive diners are health-focused and motivated to make smarter eating choices, and many recognize the health benefits of making sustainable food choices,” says David Wright, senior manager, marketing for The Hartman Group. “This group is most receptive to sustainability-related menu changes and most say they would choose sustainable meal options, and be willing to pay more.”
As a result, Wright says, these consumers are looking for transparency, which Hartman Group defines as seeing how the product is made, where it’s from, what it contains and who made it. Another Hartman Group report, “Transparency 2015,” found that 51 percent of consumers say they would like to be provided with more ingredient and nutritional information when they visit independent casual restaurants, while 47 percent want this from casual-dining chains. Also, 47 percent say they want this from fine-dining restaurants, and 46 percent from limited-service fast-casual chains. The report also notes that animal welfare is another growing area of concern. Consumers want to know how animals are raised, whether they are treated humanely and raised in as natural an environment as possible, and whether they are given hormones or antibiotics that may impact consumers’ health.
Clean label has emerged as such an important trend that it is now a standard in the food industry, according to Innova Market Insights. More than 20 percent of U.S. products tracked in 2014 featured a clean label positioning, up from 17 percent in 2013. “The definition of clean label is growing all the time,” says Lu Ann Williams, Innova’s director of innovation. “In retail products, we saw the rise and fall of natural, and now we’ve seen a peak in no additives/no preservatives in terms of label claims. We are now seeing a lot more storytelling. This is true in foodservice as well.”
To assist in the storytelling, menus now include words and phrases such as pure, locally sourced, animal welfare, traditional, and of course, premium.
The absence of additives and preservatives is at the crux of the clean label movement, says A. Elizabeth Sloan, chief executive and owner of Sloan Trends, Inc. “No-preservatives seems to be the strong buzz word, but in my mind using clean to reinforce already real, minimally processed, natural foods is perhaps the most marketable aspect,” she says. “Additives in or out of food are not very tasty.”
Sloan, citing figures from the Food Marketing Institute, notes that consumers are more interested than ever in buying meat and poultry without antibiotics and hormones. In 2007, 20 percent of consumers said they bought natural and organic meats and poultry to avoid antibiotics and hormones; by 2015 that figure had risen to 39 percent.
The foodservice industry is responding to consumer demands, and claims related to the use of antibiotics in animals are increasingly appearing on menus. For example, claims such as “no human antibiotics,” “responsible use,” and “no antibiotics for growth promotion” refer to the level of antibiotic use in production, whereas “no antibiotics ever” means no antibiotics of any kind are used — ever.
Because many consumers do not know precisely what clean label means, Sloan says, it can be a challenge to communicate the features on a menu. The solution is to stress such terms as no antibiotics ever, all-vegetarian diet, no animal by-products, raised cage free, no hormones or steroids added, premium, close to the farm and wholesome.
Meanwhile, most experts believe the trend toward increased transparency and clean labels will likely continue. According to the National Restaurant Association’s 2015 What’s Hot Culinary Forecast, an annual survey of some 1,300 chefs, “Natural ingredients/minimally processed foods” ranked fifth among hot menu trends. Also, in the annual Restaurant Industry Forecast, the NRA found that 60 percent of consumers say they are more likely to pick a restaurant that offers food that was grown or raised in an eco-friendly or organic way. That was up from 55 percent last year.
“Consumers are not accepting everything at face value anymore,” says Joy Dubost, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “It really is all about the details. You can differentiate yourself as a restaurant by how you approach this.”