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Organic Trend: The Clean Food Manifesto

When he went before a Congressional committee in December 2011, Chipotle's Steve Ells made a passionate appeal for help in ending the overuse of antibiotics in America's food supply. His plea is on-point with the growing consumer demand for clean food. The quest for clean food isn't unique to Chipotle. The fact that today's consumers seek more specific information on the foods and beverages they buy is a natural evolution of their interest in, and adoption of, organic and natural food products. While organic has become a constant in consumers' lives, consumers now look beyond trying to make distinctions between organic and natural and look for cues which include natural, whole, real and the authentic story behind the food.

In the case of Chipotle, theirs is a story of production linked to quality, ethical practices and concern for animal welfare. These are the same values of consumers who embrace organics. Consumer interest in organic and natural food products, however, extends beyond making mere distinctions between organic and natural and includes notions of "clean foods" those foods that distance themselves from factory farming techniques and are often viewed as coming from known origins. This is why restaurants like Chipotle are currently seen as champions of the emerging clean foods trend. From the consumer perspective, as illustrated in the following chart, clean encompasses a wide variety of attributes that communicate quality to consumers, including those terms which cue to narratives about farming, production, processing and ingredients.


Source: Beyond Organic and Natural report, The Hartman Group, 2010.


While both organic and natural are seen as complementary attributes by consumers, their meaning continues to become more and more diluted over time. Specifically, "organic" is understood as pertaining to what happens to food at its origin (e.g., the farm, the plant, the animal). Conceptually, consumers think of organic as making a product "more natural." As organic has moved deeper into the mainstream, it has lost some meaning for consumers, making additional attributes increasingly necessary.

The consumer understanding of "natural" is an ideal of what happens to the food after it is grown (e.g., reducing the processing steps). Skepticism, however, around natural as a marketing term is prevalent among consumers, who see little, if any, meaning in it. This may encourage some to investigate the product more, but it is not enough by itself. When products labeled natural and/or organic are clearly not healthy (e.g., high in fat, sugar or sodium and low in nutrients), consumer skepticism grows.

Consumers are continually redefining quality. Within this redefinition, to consumers clean has both symbolic associations (fresh, safe, local, healthy) and objective associations (less processed, no chemicals, nothing artificial). Importantly, "clean" extends beyond organic and natural to represent a constellation of attributes that are not necessarily meant to be used in marketing messages.

Organic and Natural Category Distinctions Ladder Up to Clean Certain current events and health issues influence consumers' perceptions of clean foods: Recalls of foods and beverages, questions about food origins and how safe these sources are, issues surrounding genetically modified organisms (GMOs), sensitivity to gluten, and other factors all play into the emerging demand among a growing number of consumers for foods they deem "clean."

Within cues that ladder up to "clean," fresh categories, including proteins, remain the most important and most purchased organic categories. Conceptually, clean food encompasses a wide variety of attributes that consumers are seeking including:

  • Clean production (organic, fair trade)
  • Clean processing (organic, natural)
  • Clean ingredient list (natural)
  • Clean food is:
    • Natural
    • Organic
    • Local
    • Sustainable
    • Fresh
    • Safe
    • Ethical
    • Healthy

As we mentioned earlier in this article, consumers seek a combination of symbolic (e.g., clean, whole, real, etc.) and objective (e.g., no pesticides, no artificial colors, etc.) attributes in the different categories of foods and beverages they purchase. Produce is an example of a key gateway category into the World of Organic. Natural is not relevant in this category because consumers perceive fresh produce as inherently natural. Milk is an example of a key product in the dairy category associated with organics. It is often one of the first organic products consumers purchase and is considered a gateway product.

When it comes to dining out, consumers in general are less vigilant about eating organic and natural products, with freshness commonly overriding the desire for organic and/or natural for most consumers.
This is especially true when the occasions are focused on indulgence and experiences (such as celebrations). While many consumers are often unaware of efforts by restaurants like Chipotle, we find they have a more favorable quality impression of fast food restaurants if they are offered an organic item on the menu and, even more specifically, about a third of consumers (34%) desire organic options in fine dining restaurants and on school menus. One thing is clear: Clean is a manifesto in and of itself within consumer food culture it encompasses a broad class of food cues and distinctions and will only continue to grow in importance over time.


Culture Consumer Package Goods Organic/Natural


As leaders in the study of American food culture, The Hartman Group has been tracking how Americans shop for food since the 1990s. From one-stop shopping to multichannel shopping to online markets and click-and-collect, we continue to track consumers’ evolving perceptions, needs, habits and relationships with food retailers. New to the 2017 report is a special section on the expansion of the discount grocery channel, the emerging fresh-format channel and smaller-footprint retail formats.


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