Food labeling continues to be more hotly debated in America, addressing such key issues as organic certification, “absence labeling” and changes in Nutrition Facts labels. In 2017, the spotlight will shine on what qualifies a food to be marketed as “healthy,” according to the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation.

The Food and Drug Administration is currently working to redefine what qualifies as a “healthy” nutritional claim on package labels.

IFIC’s 2016 Food and Health Survey found that for more than one-third of consumers, a “healthy” food is defined in part by what it does not contain rather than what it does contain.

Kathy Sargent, market director, bakery, for Corbion, based in Lenexa, Kas., explains there is no set definition for clean label — “in consumers’ minds, it generally means an easy-to-understand ingredient statement that doesn’t elicit questions on what’s being included in the foods they purchase.”

While consumer perceptions vary, clean label involves the fewest number of ingredients and contains nothing harmful or overly processed, Ms. Sargent said. As an industry, clean label is viewed as a consumer-driven demand — millennials being a big driver of the demand as they look to purchase products that have authenticity, transparency and provide a clear understanding of food sourcing.

“With millennials being the largest consumer group, it’s important for food manufacturers to try to adhere to the clean label demand,” Ms. Sargent said. “At Corbion, we work side-by-side with customers to help them meet consumers’ clean label demand and provide them with solutions to help them simplify ingredient labels without losing quality, taste and the functional benefits that ingredients provide within their products.”

Dawn Food Products Inc. recently launched Bakers Truth, a new line of clean label ingredients that are free from artificial colors, flavors, preservatives and sweeteners, and also contain no high-fructose corn syrup or partially hydrogenated oil.

“Consumers continue to drive the ‘better-for-you’ food movement,” said Becky Loveland, vice-president of marketing and R.&D. North America at Dawn Foods. “These consumers want great-tasting products and want to feel good about what they are eating. Supporting that insight is recent research showing that 68% of global consumers want to recognize every ingredient on food labels. We developed Bakers Truth to provide the best of both worlds, enabling our customers to respond to this growing trend with additional sweet baked goods options for their consumers.”

Rich Products Corp., which recently launched its new Simply line of clean label desserts, defines clean label products as those void of ingredients that, through the voice of its customers and consumers, the company has deemed to be the “most sensitive.” As part of a larger health and authenticity strategy, Rich’s has established its own clean label guideline that is aligned with the growing market demand for products that are made with ingredients consumers know and trust.

The new Simply portfolio meets Rich’s definition of clean label. The items contain no high-fructose corn syrup, artificial colors or flavors, or bleached flour. The products also use cage-free eggs, reflecting a major shift in U.S. food manufacturing.

“The introduction of the Simply line of desserts and dessert components is a logical step toward meeting the new consumer demand for simpler, more recognizable ingredients,” said Courtney Erickson, associate marketing manager-shopper marketing for Rich’s. “Research shows that more than 75% of shoppers have a more positive perception of brands that remove artificial flavors, and that three-quarters also tend to read product labels before they make their purchases. That’s potentially a lot of influence in the buying decision.”

The future of the American diet

For many Americans in 2017, dieting will translate into working out more, de-stressing or eating better, according to new research from Mintel, which finds that less than half (42%) of Americans consider their diet to be healthy.

Indeed, less than two in five (38%) consumers agree that healthy foods are worth the added expense and just 44% pay attention to serving sizes. Americans also generally appear to be largely distrusting of food brands, as only 14% believe regulatory approval indicates a food is healthy and just 16% trust the health claims on food and beverage packages.

What’s more, 23% of consumers agree that the U.S. Dietary Guidelines are good for them.

“Despite the fact that we’re seeing such a widespread and growing interest in healthy foods, relatively few Americans believe their diet is healthy,” said Billy Roberts, senior food and drink analyst at Mintel. “With consumers largely wary of even regulator-approved health food options, marketing healthy foods to skeptical consumers requires far more than merely an on-pack promise. The key to attracting these consumers is convincing them that products actually deliver on the healthy attributes they promise and that they are truly good for consumers and their families.”

Today’s health-conscious consumers are staying away from products containing high-fructose corn syrup (50%), sugar (47%), trans fat (45%) and saturated fat (43%). What’s more, over one quarter (28%) believe a food is unhealthy if it has artificial ingredients, with consumers actively avoiding products with elements described as "artificial,” such as artificial sweeteners (43%), artificial preservatives (38%) and artificial flavors (35%).

While genetically modified (G.M.) appears farther down on the list of ingredients consumers avoid when shopping for healthy foods (29%), consumer dislike of G.M. foods nearly matches their dislike for foods with artificial ingredients. More than one in five (22%) Americans said that they would not feed G.M. foods to people in their household. What’s more, nearly half (46%) agreed that G.M. foods are not suitable to eat, rising to 58% of consumers with a household income under $50,000.

Well ahead of other ingredients, consumers are interested in protein (63%), fiber (61%) and whole grains (57%) when purchasing foods they consider to be healthy. Protein is particularly of interest to more than half (54%) of iGen consumers, while consumers age 71 and older are most interested in whole grains (50%). What’s more, 32% of Americans overall agree that foods with a “natural” claim are good for their health and one third (33%) plan to buy more vegetarian/plant-based food products in the next year.

When making food purchase decisions, more than one quarter (27%) of consumers said that health concerns influence their choice of food and nearly as many (23%) indicated that they are more likely to buy food with a health claim on the package than food without. Looking at American families, Mintel research revealed that fathers are more likely to purchase food with a health claim (30%), as compared to 23% of mothers.

“While many consumers are avoiding certain ingredients when purchasing better-for-you foods, Americans are seeking out foods with added health attributes, namely protein, fiber and whole grains, indicating an opportunity for foods with added-health attributes to target consumers with health claims on-pack,” Mr. Roberts said.

The impact on retail bakery

So what are realistic or “must” steps that retail bakers need to take to respond to growing consumer demand for clean label products?

Ms. Sargent suggested that retail bakers need to look at what it will take to reformulate their products to adhere to the clean label demand. With a diverse range of products comes a series of challenges for bakers as they develop cleaner label versions yet still meet expectations around processing and shelf-life requirements. While consumers are looking for cleaner labels, they aren’t willing to trade that for diminished quality or taste in the products they purchase.

“Delivering baked goods with clean labels can be a complex process, and oftentimes, it involves removing or replacing highly functional ingredients traditionally used for specific purposes,” Ms. Sargent said. “As bakers rebalance ingredients, it can affect product shelf life, flavor, texture and other key characteristics that consumers expect to remain similar. It’s important for bakers to partner with an ingredient supplier that can help them develop clean label formulas that are right for their products, deliver quality, great-tasting baked goods and meet consumer expectations.”

So will consumers pay more for clean label bakery products?

“From a marketing standpoint, clean label can be leveraged by bakers as an opportunity to communicate the ingredients in their products, but also educate consumers on the benefits the ingredients bring to the baked goods,” Ms. Sargent said. “Transparency is key when it comes to marketing baked goods to consumers who are looking for cleaner labels.”

Consumers want to know what’s included in the products they purchase; they read not only the labels but also any messaging incorporated on the package. According to research Corbion conducted, 60% of consumers consider “type of ingredient” when making a purchase decision.

However, the meaning of “type of ingredient” varies by consumer segment. According to Corbion's research, 43% of consumers are focused on nutrition, while one-third (33%) are more ingredient focused. There is also a segment of consumers that are less engaged with the label content (24%) and are more likely to purchase based on price.