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What are clean label foods?

09/11/2023 By Ben Eastick in Food technology

The term ‘clean label’ has floated around the food and beverage industry for more than a decade. It is not a legal term. It has been shaped by the consumer’s growing interest in buying and consuming products that contain no synthetic, artificial or unnatural ingredients. Clean label foods and beverages use minimal ingredients, and the list of ingredient names on the label are generally recognisable. As consumer preferences and buying habits evolve, food and beverage manufacturers will need to reformulate their products to meet them.

What does clean label mean?

There is no official definition; ‘clean label’ is largely defined by changing consumer perceptions around what a ‘clean’, healthy or wholesome product looks like from its label. Clean label foods and beverages tend not to contain any artificial ingredients such as synthetic chemicals, additives or preservatives and instead comprise natural ingredients that are familiar to consumers.

Two men talking in a crop field, wearing hats and high-vis jackets Crops with large green levels planted in a row in a field

White crystalline sugar, or sucrose, is a natural product refined from sugar beet, a plant farmed in higher latitudes in both the northern and southern hemispheres.

So-called ‘clean’ ingredients are not artificial and do not contain artificial components. A consumer may consider a product a clean label food if it only contains ingredients they would use at home or if the ingredient’s name is recognisable. For example, if a label includes ‘vitamin C’ on its ingredients list, the consumer will likely consider it a clean label food. But if ‘ascorbic acid’ is used instead, which is another term for vitamin C, the consumer may not consider the food to be ‘clean’ as it comes down to the consumer’s perception or understanding of ingredient names and what they are.

Likewise, an ultra-processed sweetener like ‘high-fructose corn syrup’ may confuse consumers or encourage them to view the item as not clean, while a word like ‘sugar’ may be viewed as natural.

Three men testing equipment in a crop field with cars and a combine harvester in the background Sugar cane roots in a crop field

Many natural sugar products are produced from sugarcane, which is a plant farmed in lower latitudes and the tropics. Sugars made from sugarcane include demerara and muscovado sugar. Molasses is a natural by-product of refining sugarcane, used by itself after treatment to make it suitable for human consumption, or to make treacle’s and soft brown sugars.

Clean label food trends and why clean labels are important

Though the term ‘clean label’ is not new, it has gained greater prominence in the last few years. Partly due to well-publicised scientific research projects, media attention and government laws banning certain food additives, consumers are paying more attention to where food and beverage products come from and what they are putting into their bodies. The recognisability of ingredients plays an important role in the consumer being able to assess whether a product aligns with their dietary principles and wider values. The clean label trend appears to have expanded to consumers whose buying decisions are more lifestyle-focused. Familiar terms like ‘gluten-free’ or ‘dairy-free’ have been sucked into clean label food trends, and the clean label now satisfies a broader range of consumers who wants to follow as natural or unprocessed a diet as possible.

Ragus workers inside a manufacturing plant looking inside a silo

Molasses is heated to make it suitable for human consumption. Sugar syrups such as golden syrup, treacle and invert sugars are manufactured with various different natural pure sugars from white sugar to molasses.

Market data suggests the clean label ingredients market is growing globally, driven by consumers. The global market for clean label foods is projected to expand by 6.75% annually over the next five years. As consumer interest in clean label foods continues to rise, it’s important food and beverage manufacturers remain aware of the types of ingredients that consumers consider too processed, too artificial, not natural enough or even a risk to good health. Though a clean label is not a legal requirement, there is an ever pressing need to use more ‘clean’ and simple ingredients in products so that food and beverage labels can meet consumer expectations.

Are clean label foods ‘ethical’ or ‘responsible’ foods?

A clean label food’s ingredients are not necessarily ethically or responsibly sourced. However, food and beverage manufacturers and ingredients suppliers may want to highlight their approach to clean labelling in their ESG strategy for consumers and customers to refer to.

Soft brown light sugar and dark soft brown sugar are manufactured from white sugar blended with molasses. Muscovado sugars are made from cane sugar blended with molasses.

In the absence of any formal or official definition of a clean label food, clean label ingredients and food and beverage products may benefit from certifications to make the claim of natural ingredients more meaningful and clearer to the consumer. For example, organic and fairtrade certifications can help to achieve this. For example, Ragus products meet many ethical, sustainable and fairtrade standards that consumers now demand. For Ragus customers, most crystalline sugars and sugar syrups are clean label as they are farmed, plant-based (sugarcane and sugar beet) natural ingredients and undergo minimal processing.

In addition to relevant certifications, food and beverage manufacturers can also aim to reduce the list of ingredients in a product, replace non-natural ingredients with natural ones, improve sustainability and simplify product packaging.

Ragus worker weighing or processing a large white bag of sugar in a factory or plant

After sieving and screening, crystalline sugars are packed and sent directly to Ragus customers to use in their applications, like bakery, confectionery and desserts.

As the clean label trend evolves, it is likely to become more concerned with how ingredients are processed and to what extent they are processed. Research shows that 61% of consumers consider ultra-processed foods or, by extension, ingredients, to be bad for health.

Food and beverage manufacturers will need to align with consumer sentiment and adapt their product formulations and ingredients list accordingly.

Ragus manufactures pure sugars in bulk for industrial applications. To learn more about our pure sugar products, contact our Customer Services Team. For more sugar news and Ragus updates, keep browsing SUGARTALK and follow Ragus on LinkedIn.

Ben Eastick

A board member and co-leader of the business, Ben is responsible for our marketing strategy and its execution by the agency team he leads and is the guardian of our corporate brand vision. He also manages key customers and distributors.

In 2005, he took on the role of globally sourcing our ‘speciality sugars’. With his background in laboratory product testing and following three decades of supplier visits, his expertise means we get high quality, consistent and reliable raw materials from ethical sources.

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