As consumers strive for healthy, natural beverages, clean labels and products with simple, recognizable ingredients, natural flavors and colors are dominating the beverage aisle. Yet, the complexity of the clean-label category and the term itself can mean something unique to each consumer, experts note.

“Clean label is a broad claim that can be defined in a number of ways, depending on the consumer and what’s important to them,” says Vicky Fligel, senior product manager of Beverages at Chicago-based Glanbia Nutritionals.

Fligel points out that “natural” also is lacking a clear definition. Within clean label, no additives/preservatives is the No. 1 claim, she says. There also has been significant growth in non-GMO and organic listings on product labels as well as cleaner formulations resulting in shorter ingredient lists, she adds.

According to Rockville, Md.-based Packaged Facts, clean label is defined by consumers globally as no pesticides/chemicals/toxins (31 percent); free from allergens (24 percent); no GMOs (23 percent); minimally processed (16 percent); simple/short ingredient lists (11 percent) and transparent packaging (7 percent).

“The clean label trend is impacting all segments within the food and beverage industry,” says Alison Raban, ingredient application scientist at BI, Rancho Dominguez, Calif. “The fastest growing beverage categories — fresh-pressed juices, flavored sparkling water, cold-brew coffee — all have the clean-label appeal with their simple ingredient lists.”

Clean label and non-GMO go hand-in-hand with natural and organic, as a lot of new product launches marketed as clean label also are non-GMO and/or organic certified, Raban says.

“Unfortunately, most consumers probably do not understand the differences between them, especially when it comes to clean label and natural claims due to the lack of official definitions,” she says. “In addition, clean label and natural claims are not regulated in the same capacity as organic and non-GMO certifications, which have specific requirements to utilize the seal.”

Clean label is a personal consumer choice with varied benefits depending on the selected ingredients, says Jessica Knutzon, consumer trends and insights manager at Atlanta, Ga.-based CP Kelco. To mask offnotes, stabilizing ingredients like hydrocolloids can help enhance taste and texture. The company offers GENU pectin to help companies achieve clean-label goals.

“Clean-label claims are growing steadily, and it has to do with how consumers are viewing health and wellness — both from a personal and environmental standpoint,” Knutzon says. “From living a healthier lifestyle to making decisions that are best for the planet, there is a connection to clean label.”

Clean label remains the key for beverages, notes The Netherlands-based Innova Market Insights in its May “Beverage Trends” report. In a 2017 global study of new carbonated soft drinks (CSDs) launched and tracked by the research firm, no additives/preservations was No. 1 at 23.9 percent, followed by gluten free (12.4 percent), natural (12.1 percent), low calorie (11.4 percent) and organic (10.2 percent).

Although not a new trend, the demand for clean label continues to be driven by heightened consumer awareness around health and wellness, says Keera Perumbala, marketing associate for sweet and beverage flavors North America at Sensient, Hoffman Estates, Ill.

“While there exists a niche consumer group that looks for the nuances involved, ‘clean label’ itself doesn’t have a specific definition like ‘organic certified’ or ‘Non-GMO Project Verified,’” she says. “Clean label encompasses these [attributes], offering consumers’ transparency through more natural, simpler ingredients and less-processed foods.”


Look at the label

No product category is immune from clean label, notes Pam Stauffer, global marketing programs manager at Minneapolis-based Cargill. For many consumers, what’s not in a product is as important as what is.

“Consumers had a much clearer idea about what clean label isn’t,” Stauffer explains, citing the company’s proprietary consumer survey of U.S. grocery shoppers conducted last August. The survey found that attributes not associated with clean label included chemical-sounding ingredients (55 percent), highly processed products (52 percent), and anything that contains artificial ingredients (45 percent), GMOs (44 percent) or artificial sweeteners (43 percent).

“[W]hile nearly 60 percent of our respondents said they were aware of ‘clean label’ products, far fewer (only one in 10) said they were confident of its meaning,” Stauffer says. “… In our research, we found that consumers most often defined ‘clean label’ as organic, but other closely associated factors included products found in the fresh food section and those made with familiar sounding ingredients.”

Although consumers might not be able to exactly articulate what a clean-label product is, nearly eight in 10 said they were “at least somewhat likely” to seek out these types of products, Stauffer says.

Results from the International Food Information Council Foundation’s (IFIC) 2018 Food and Health survey also point to this fact. Seven in 10 consumers would give up a familiar, favorite product for one that did not contain artificial ingredients, according to the survey. Forty percent of consumers view products that contain non-GMO ingredients as healthier than identical products made with GMO ingredients, IFIC said.

Even familiar ingredients like sugar are facing increased scrutiny. According to the IFIC survey, six in 10 respondents negatively view added sugars, and nearly one-third report a somewhat more negative perception of added sugars as compared to the previous year.

President and chief executive officer of Portland, Ore.-based Icon Foods Thom King is seeing more requests for sugar reduction and clean-label reformulation. “Based on R&D projects in our queue specifically for clean-label sugar reduction, there is around a 30 percent growth in beverage reformulation over 2017. 2016 saw about an 18 percent increase in clean-label reformulation.”

Demographic-wise, millennials are most likely to seek out non-GMO and cleaner labels, King says. “Though they have greatly diminished incomes, yet they still will shell out the extra money for non-GMO. Mothers are also a solid demographic for non-GMO when they shop for the family.”

Education is key, says Renata Ibarra, research, development and applications senior director of Taste at Kerry, Beloit, Wis. “More education on ingredients, more farm-to-fork trends and personalization all allow consumers to select beverages that represent them,” she explains. “Marketing positioning on certain claims is key to the success and adoption of either clean-label trends or certifications that will move consumers into different buying habits.”

In addition to young shoppers, like millennials, Gen Z, Gen X and even baby boomers are scrutinizing labels and seeking out healthier beverages with functional ingredients, experts note.

“It is a mistake to count out any demographic, especially baby boomers and parents in any age category,” BI’s Raban says.

Mike Armstrong, Kerry’s senior marketing manager of Taste, adds: “Gen-Xers began looking to those [clean-label] products when they came to the market, and millennials are driving it even more. Now, Gen Z are even more passionate about these nutrition claims than their millennial parents.

“Consumers are looking for functional ingredients with a high level of nutrition ‘responsibility’ which directly correlates with perception of clean label and non-GMO,” he continues. “Flavored waters and CSDs are looking towards more ‘natural’ uses of flavors, alternative sweeteners and sugars.”


Mainstream appeal

Due to the adoption of more clean-label, non-GMO and organic products, Tony Moore, chief flavorist and chief innovation officer at Sharonville, Ohio-based Flavor Producers, says more companies are requesting specific labeling requirements.

“These label requirements are often a higher profile than the flavor profile,” Moore explains. “… I see the categories within the beverage space utilizing clean label and non-GMO labels growing from new brands and SKUs to established brands and SKUs. For example, where these labels once seemed largely within ‘healthy’ or ‘functional’ beverages, they now are being employed in ‘mainstream’ CSDs. The ‘big brand’ throwback sodas using ‘real sugar’ could support this thought.”

The proliferation of high-pressure processing (HPP) and cold-pressed juices also is driving interest in clean label and non-GMO options, according to Paul Verderber, vice president of sales at Carolina Innovative Food Ingredients (CIFI), Nashville, N.C.

“Carolina Pressed, our not-from-concentrate sweet potato juice, is derived from sweet potatoes grown on North Carolina farms as part of our efforts to keep the juice locally sourced,” Verderber says. “An exceptional label never hurts a product’s success. For instance, though all consumers aren’t looking for strictly Non-GMO Project Verified products, a significant portion of those consumers are — so, if your product meets the strict requirements of labeling organizations, it’s important to highlight it.”

CIFI’s portfolio of sweet potato-based juice concentrates earned Non-GMO Project Verified status last November, he adds.

Other made-from-nature garden ingredients, like blueberries, are a boon within teas, smoothies, pourable yogurts, juice drinks and more, notes Tom Payne, industry specialist for the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, San Mateo, Calif.

“Blueberries benefit from a kind of double vision; they get all the love from their long-time association with homey wholesomeness, but they are also the darling of today’s nutrition deconstructionists,” Payne says. “So blueberries are seen as both old-fashioned and as au courant as can be.”

In addition, blueberries pair beautifully with so many ingredients both to satisfy flavor demands and, similarly, provide healthy goodness. “Blueberries have that important all-natural cache and health itself is a premium ingredient,” he says.

Dairy alternatives and plant-based beverages also have clean label claims associated with them. For example, the light appeal of plant-based waters grew 11 percent globally between 2013-2017, states data from Innova Market Insights. “Thirty-four percent of new plant-based water launches have a hydration or electrolyte claim, while 36 percent had a no additives/preservatives claim,” it reports.

Chicago-based Mintel notes that clean-label claims are showing consistent growth to coincide with the percentage of food and beverage launches in the U.S. The number of products with organic claims rose from 10 percent in 2013 to 15 percent in 2017, while those with GMO- free claims increased from 7 percent in 2013 to 19 percent in 2017, it states.


Clean-label considerations

When formulating clean-label products, beverage-makers should consider a number of factors: labeling, nutrition and function, product taste/flavor, the additional cost of sourcing organic and non-GMO ingredients, and finding the right supply chain partner.

“When moving to clean label, there will be an increase in cost of goods sold,” Icon Foods’ King says. “Chemicals are always so much cheaper than naturally derived ingredients. But as the clean-label category scales, this allows ingredient suppliers and manufacturers to leverage the economy of scale and drive costs down.”

Another important factor is taste. “While clean label is often a standard in many product categories, it may take a backseat to other priorities like taste or price, due to formulation and cost restraints,” CP Kelco’s Knutzon says. “Consumers might want a clean label, but if the beverage is not satisfying, it will not succeed in the marketplace.”

Cargill’s Principal Food Scientist Wade Schmelzer points out that replacing a specific ingredient with a clean-label alternative is rarely as easy as a drop-in, one-to-one solution. “Often times, ingredients have multi-functional roles in beverages, such as delivering sweetness, providing viscosity, functioning as an emulsifier or enhancing flavor,” he explains. “A clear understanding of the impacts of each ingredient on the beverage is an important step in developing a clean-label beverage.”

Flavor Producers’ Moore predicts growth for clean-label, non-GMO beverages. “It’s clear to me that these labels have grown from fad to trend and are now emerging as categories,” he says.

The macro health-and-wellness trend and the foodie movement has officially taken the food and beverage industry by storm, says Meghan Sutton, senior marketing specialist for Tastepoint by IFF, Philadelphia, Pa. “The beverage industry needs to keep up,” Sutton says. “Millennials and Gen Zs’ ‘restless palates,’ along with the large and growing multicultural population, are causing a trend in more adventurous beverages. The natural, healthy segment is no exception.

“From mash-ups and unexpected combinations to exotic, sweet and spicy, tart and bitter, consumers want to get the most out of their beverage experience,” she continues. “We’re also seeing beverage categories gain flavor inspiration from each other, and blurring the lines between categories all together — think coffee soda, tea energy drinks, coconut water cocktails, etc. Look for clean labels and natural, organic products to become more commonplace and expected by consumers in the future.”

Technology also is helping consumers locate clean label-friendly products that are gluten-free or GMO-free, says Sensient’s Product Manager Kevin Barasa. “Clean label is soon to be the norm,” he says.. “There are numerous apps that can scan a label and inform the consumer on the potential GMO content, or their nutritional content.

“More barriers that historically stopped consumers from adopting healthier habits are slowly being removed,” he continues. “This makes it easier for any consumer group to opt for ‘better-for-you’ products without changing much of their habits.” BI