The evolution of clean label, free from and ‘real’

Clean label. Free from. “Real.”

They’re three of the most buzz-worthy terms in the food world today. What exactly they mean — and how they differ from each other — is still up for debate.

What’s clear, however, is that the modern consumer’s desire for healthful, authentic foods made by companies they can trust is a powerful force, regardless of the terms used to describe it.

The baked goods industry is certainly no exception, as more and more consumers seek out products with recognizable ingredient panels, brands with a social purpose or environmental focus and products that look, feel and taste more authentic.

Clean label can mean something different to everyone along the supply chain, from end consumers to bakers and food manufacturers, says Ashley Robertson, Senior Market Manager, Bakery, for Lenexa, Kansas-based Corbion.

“The challenge for bakers is that there isn’t a single definition or clean label marketing strategy that will work for every product, because consumers have varying needs they want their foods to fulfill.”

Organic, non-GMO, more simplified ingredient lists, gluten-free, recognizable ingredients, no preservatives, artificial colors or flavors, foods that provide health benefits — there are countless ways to define clean label.

To further complicate matters, Robertson says, the definition is always changing, as consumers realign their nutritional goals and learn more about how certain foods may impact their health.

In the past, for instance, consumers may have thought of a clean label product as one with a short ingredient list. Today, though, that definition has changed to encompass products that include whole foods, recognizable ingredients without chemical-sounding names and ingredients that seem more “natural.”

Organic products in particular, Robertson adds, are often associated with clean-label foods because they typically lack artificial or overly processed ingredients.

Free from: the virtues of absence

One helpful way to think of free from is to focus less on what’s in a product and more on what’s not in a product. Corbion research has shown that 53 percent of consumers say the exclusion of undesirable ingredients is more important than the inclusion of beneficial ones. That can be attributed, Robertson says, to increased attention from consumers about how certain ingredients affect their health and an increase in the resources available to research the foods they are eating.

Gluten-free and keto diets are closely tied to free from’s focus on the absence, rather than the presence, of certain ingredients.

And looking specifically at the bakery industry’s adoption of free from, bakers are doing away with high fructose corn syrup, chemical oxidants, artificial flavors and colors and chemical preservatives.

Keeping it real

Last but certainly not least, the “real” movement in food is being driven by consumers choosing foods that are good for them because of what they do have in them — foods like fruits, vegetables whole grains, flours or seeds.

Twenty-eight potential claims were evaluated in a Corbion Proprietary Consumer study in 2018 to understand consumers’ top choices for snacking in the Sweet Baked Goods categories.

Among the key takeaways:

  • Nearly 7 in 10 consumers surveyed (67%) who regularly consume sweet baked goods indicated “better for you” options are important or extremely important.
  • Forty-five percent expressed greatest interest in more better-for-you sweet baked good options in the in-store bakery aisle, where 36% indicated the same interest in the pre-packaged bakery aisle.
  • The top performing better for you claims of the total sample in SBG’s included “made with real ingredients” and/or “made with recognizable ingredients,” lifting reach of consumer interest up to 74% when adding in a mix of these new claims and up to 174% when mixed in with the existing claims currently found on a package of sweet baked goods.

In the baked goods world, products that tout “real” ingredients may use cane sugar instead of sweetener, or flavoring that uses fruits instead of artificial flavors, Robertson says.

Or, for preservation, manufacturers focused on “real” may use cultured sugar, cultured wheat flour or cultured wheat starch instead of traditional mold inhibitors like calcium propionate or potassium sorbate.

Some things never change

Consumers’ desires for more clean-label, free from and “real” baked goods and other foods must be respected, but not at the expense of taste, texture and color.

“Quality remains an important aspect of the consumer eating experience, regardless of whether the product is considered clean label,” Robertson says. “Our research has shown that while consumers may initially try a product that aligns with their definitions of clean label, free from or ‘real,’ if the quality, freshness and eating experience don’t live up to their previous experiences with that product category, they will go back to their original brand or product.”

To thrive in today’s market, Robertson adds, bakery manufacturers must figure out what factors are most important for their customers from a clean-label standpoint and take it into account during the formulation process.

Some consumers, for instance, still seek out and purchase items like value breads because they fulfill a specific purpose by offering a quick, affordable way to provide food for their families. Not every product needs to be reformulated to meet a clean-label definition, Robertson says.

Finding a balance — and solutions

Corbion’s application team and technical service group work closely with the company’s customers to develop and implement the most fitting bakery formulations based on their specific product needs.

“We’re continually investing in our portfolio of ingredient solutions in order to fuel advancements in product consistency, processing efficiency and business sustainability,” Robertson says. “As the definitions and demands of clean label, free from and ‘real’ continue to change, we believe increased transparency and sustainability will become more important.”

Corbion’s products, Robertson adds, deliver quality, freshness and taste to consumers, while providing cost-effective ways for bakers to solve for their formulation challenges and enhance tolerance, quality and shelf stability of their clean label, ‘real’ or free from baked good applications.

The Pristine® portfolio provides superior conditioning with simplified labels and craveable results, Robertson says.

“These new, next-generation solutions set a higher standard for dough and batter functionality, offering bakery manufacturers an easy solution for simplifying labels and reducing or eliminating variations by providing better machinability and oven spring, and increased loaf volume.”

The changing landscape of the baking industry can be difficult to keep up with, especially for bakers and food manufacturers with limited time.

To help its customers stay up to date, Corbion has put together insights and tips for balancing the desire for cleaner labels with the functional benefits of certain ingredients. Customers can also download infographics about the growing free-from movement to share with their colleagues, and read up on ‘real’ ingredients and the future of food premiumization.