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“Clean” Is About Something Much More Than What’s on a Product’s Label

Apple jar label“Clean label” is a term that’s not part of consumers’ everyday vocabulary. “Clean” encompasses much more than what’s listed (or not listed) on a product’s ingredient label. While the food and beverage industry has latched onto the term, consumers approach the concept from a distinct perspective.

Consumers have become quite savvy in their ability to ferret out meaningful information on product labels. They have also become wary of words and phrases that tend toward the gimmicky side of marketing tactics. Words that don’t ring true raise warning flags with knowledgeable consumers and can elicit the opposite intended effect by warding off potential purchases. For many consumers, “clean” falls into this cautionary side of the tale.

The consumer demand for clean food has been gaining momentum for some time. We’ve now reached the point where clean label is not just today’s reality; it is the path that packaged food and beverage companies must take if brands are to remain relevant with consumers. It is but one major outcropping of the broader food cultural trend toward all things less processed and real.

What CPG companies think of as “clean label,” consumers better understand as “natural” foods. Here at The Hartman Group, we think of all this from the broader cultural context of the “premium marketplace” — shorthand for consumer demand in higher-quality foods and beverages. Organic, for example, falls into the sphere of premium because it speaks to consumers’ perceptions of clean foods. 

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 products. This is also why we are seeing an uptick in emerging premium food and beverage brands, because they are being developed from the outset with formulations toward fresh, less processed and real.

Why are we so laser-focused on the premium marketplace?

Because expectations of quality have evolved, and this new premium is all about the growing demand for transparency in production and the seeking of distinctive new food experiences. From this perspective alone, you can begin to see why there is so much more to consumers’ interest in organic and natural food products and the very notion of “clean food.”

The following chart depicts the four key components of premium today.

Premium today

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."

Like the New Kid on the Block, There Is Much More to Learn About the Contemporary Meaning of “Clean”

While the term “clean” has been gathering strength among both consumers and the food industry, its future within mainstream premium and natural food vocabulary is still in question, as it can be met with skepticism. This is what “clean” means today:

  • Uncontaminated. The heart of clean heavily overlaps perceptions of natural, organic and less processed: simple, not interfered with, free from ‘impure’ additions at any stage.
  • Transparent. Clean also connotes a product that is both knowable and forthcoming about its ingredients and practices.

However, consumers reveal substantial undercurrents of misunderstanding and derision. Clean can also be:

  • Unknown. Not all consumers use clean beyond the literal definition of “not dirty” – rendering it confusing outside of a hygiene context.
  • Pretentious and neurotic. Clean, more than other “natural” vocabulary, is associated with highly restrictive eating patterns and the people who engage in them.
  • Gimmicky. Clean is subject to the growing critique of other quality cues, that it’s simply another marketing term used to justify higher prices.

One thing is clear: As with natural and less processed products, consumers expect “clean” foods to be self-evident and not called out on pack.

Want to keep up with market growth rates and know the cultural position of your brands? Check out Hartman’s Brand Defender


Food & Beverage Occasions Consumer Package Goods Culture Health & Wellness Organic/Natural Retail/Shopper Insights Trends Foodservice/Restaurant


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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