Has clean label evolved from a buzz phrase in pet food and human food into a tried-and-true quality that’s here to stay – at least for a while? New consumer research from the human food sector might provide some insights.

Conducted in 2019 among 2,100 U.S. consumers, the new “Future of Food” study from Kerry, an ingredients supplier to both the human and pet food industries, shows that people are more invested in their health and see nutrition as key. Specific to clean label, 60% of the consumers surveyed said they are familiar with the concept, 59% perceive food labeled as “clean” to be healthier and 44% say clean label is important to them – but Kerry’s research indicates consumers now expect more.

Clean label meaning only the absence of unacceptable ingredients is no longer enough; many consumers now want “purposeful” ingredients. “Consumers are developing an opinion that clean label does not necessarily mean better or added nutrition,” the study report says. “Hence, there is a desire for food and beverages that stand for more than clean label.”

It could be that consumers have seen through marketers who use “clean label” as a claim simply because it’s trendy, without being able to back it up with their ingredients, sourcing or other practices. That concern can apply to pet food brands as well as human food ones.

The ingredients and claims that resonate are evolving

With 77% of the consumers surveyed saying they are actively trying to improve their health in some way, it’s no surprise that they read ingredient lists: 74% say they frequently do so, with a higher proportion (80%) for younger consumers like millennials and gen z-ers. In the same vein, a full 92% read the nutrition labels on food, with baby boomers coming in even higher.

What are they looking for? It depends somewhat on the generation, Kerry’s research shows. “Millennials focus on added nutritional benefits such as proteins, vitamins and minerals, while baby boomers focus on the elimination of sugar, sodium and fat,” the report says.

These consumers also pay close attention to claims on food products, and the ones that resonate are evolving. Kerry conducted a similar study in 2017, and the top claims falling under the clean label umbrella then were (in order) all natural/100% natural, non-GMO, no additives or preservatives, organic and made with real ingredients. In 2019, made with real ingredients leapfrogged to number 2, and non-GMO dropped off the top five list, replaced by no added sugar.

While “functional benefits such as cognitive health, gut health, stress management, energy and sleep among others are top of mind to consumers,” the report says, “consumers are also shifting to real ingredients that connote fresh, wholesome and unprocessed in foods and beverages.” Naturally, food producers are responding: new product launches with “made with real ingredients” claims increased 54% from 2016 to 2018, according to Kerry. At the same time, the average price for new food products falling under the clean label concept have declined 6% since 2017.

New pillars apply to human food and pet food

The Kerry report lays out a “new framework for the future of food” comprising five pillars:

  • Acceptable ingredients, as in real and recognizable;
  • Nutrition, meaning ingredients that are inherently healthy;
  • Functional ingredients, targeting substances “specifically for me” in the eyes of consumers;
  • Sustainability, connoting “good for all” (69% of survey respondents say they prefer to buy locally grown products, and 73% think “businesses with corporate social responsibility initiatives are changing things for the better”);
  • Taste – it’s a “tablestake” and, for some consumers, still more important than health.

It’s not difficult to see how all these pillars also apply to pet food and the consumers buying it for their furry family members. For example, we all know how important palatability is; if the dog or cat won’t eat the pet food, it doesn’t matter how good, healthy or nutritious it is.

Consumers ultimately seeking full transparency

“Clean label has become the ‘cost to play’ in the food and beverage industry,” the Kerry report says. The same holds true for pet food, as does the need to now move beyond clean label to something much more. This new consumer research lays out the case: “75% of consumers are willing to switch from their usual brand to one that provides more in-depth product information than what appears on the physical label, growing from 39% in 2016.”

In other words, in just three years, consumers have made clear their desire for true transparency behind the products they buy. Pet food companies should definitely take note.

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dphillips@wattglobal.com