What do ‘natural’ and ‘clean label’ mean anyway?

By Caroline SCOTT-THOMAS contact

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: European union

What do consumers mean by 'natural'? And how does it correspond to food companies' idea of 'clean label'?
What do consumers mean by 'natural'? And how does it correspond to food companies' idea of 'clean label'?
Market researchers tell us that consumers are seeking ‘natural’ products more than ever – and ingredient suppliers have responded by providing ways to ‘clean up’ product labels – but what do these terms really mean?

In the European Union, ‘natural’ is only clearly defined in EU regulation related to flavourings​, while in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration has no formal definition, preferring to say that it won’t object as long as use of the term is “not misleading”.

Datamonitor’s innovation insights director Tom Vierhile says that consumers and food marketers alike are moving away from using the word natural on-pack, as they begin to recognise it as a ‘squishy’ term – although consumers may still be looking for the same attributes in their foods. However, instead of ‘natural’, they are looking for words like free-from, gluten-free, minimally processed, simple, and organic.

He says that this gamut of expressions more precisely covers what food manufacturers mean when they talk about ‘clean label’ foods and drinks.

“The conundrum when it comes to clean label is that there is really no definition of what clean label means,”​ Vierhile said. “…Not many packaged goods companies tend to use the term ‘clean label’ on their finished products.”

As for a working definition, he says that the primary implication of ‘clean label’ is transparency – in terms of the wholesomeness of ingredients, a lack of artificial ingredients, and often also a lack of common allergens.

Meanwhile, the number of products calling out their natural credentials on pack has been falling, from 8.8% of new products launched globally in 2007 to 6.3% this year, according to Datamonitor figures. (The proportion is much higher in the United States, but has still fallen, from 33% to 22% during the same time period). But other claims have been rising.

Gluten-free claims in particular have skyrocketed, featuring on 6.8% of new global product launches this year, from 2.9% in 2007. Again, the incidence is much higher in the US, where 16.7% of new products now make a gluten-free claim, up from 6.4% five years ago.

As the rise in such claims shows, booming consumer interest in minimally processed, allergen-free foods creates opportunities for manufacturers of processed foods, but it is also a major challenge.

Vierhile said: “Consumers attitudes are becoming decidedly more negative when it comes to processed foods.”


Tom Vierhile is the keynote speaker at the upcoming FREE-to-attend online event Natural & Clean Label Trends 2013​, where he will discuss the meaning of natural and clean label in greater depth – as well as how manufacturers are responding to the trend.

The event is run by FoodNavigator.com and FoodNavigator-USA.com. For full details and to register, click here.

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