Consumers associate plant-based with clean label: There is a ‘disconnect’ between perception and reality

By Katy Askew contact

- Last updated on GMT

Plant-based and clean label trends collide / Pic: GettyImages-Barmalini
Plant-based and clean label trends collide / Pic: GettyImages-Barmalini

Related tags: plant-based, Clean label

Demand for plant-based products is booming and many consumers identify the sector as being ‘natural’, ‘healthy’ and ‘artisan’, new research reveals. “There is an apparent disconnect between the consumer understanding of natural products and the reality of the synthetic ingredients that are used to make many plant-based products.”

Demand for plant-based products is rising fast. In the UK, for instance, sales data from Kantar covering the lockdown period shows meat alternatives are up 25% and free-from milks are up 28% year-on-year. A survey from The Vegan Society found 21% of people report cutting meat consumption during the coronavirus lockdown.

Concerns over animal welfare and a perceived ‘health halo’ are two of the drivers behind the plant-based movement. But plant-based is colliding with another food sector mega-trend: clean label.

Meat and dairy analogues are facing increased scrutiny over their nutritional credentials and the ultra-processed nature of many analogue products– necessary to deliver the taste or texture that consumers expect – is being placed under the microscope.

“Plant-based are generally perceived as nutritious or healthy, but that is not always the case as these [products] are often ultra-processed and need additional ingredients to mimic the taste and texture of meat or dairy products,”​ explained Ankur Gupta, SBU Head – Life Sciences & Chemistry, Sagacious IP.

“However, consumers these days are more conscious about the product labelling and the type and number of ingredients used,”​ Gupta told FoodNavigator.

Perception versus reality

Even as consumer concern over clean labels is on the rise, the ultra-processed nature of many plant-based alternatives flies in the face of consumer expectations around the category.

Fresh research commissioned by Gosh! Foods - a manufacturer of vegan bites, burgers and sausages – revealed that consumers are actually quite ‘confused’ about many the ingredients that are included in plant-based products.

“Many people who eat a plant-based diet do so due to nutritional and ethical reasoning, which is why it was so surprising to find that many consumers were confused about the ingredients in the food they eat daily, showing a wide spread lack of understanding when it comes to nutritional value,”​ Gosh! Food marketing manager William Topp observed.

The survey, which was conducted by OnePoll, found more than one-third of people believe that plant-based products are ‘artisan’ as opposed to ‘highly processed’, while 38% believe plant-based products are only made from ‘recognisable’ ingredients you could find in your kitchen cupboards. Four in 10 shoppers think plant-based foods only contain natural ingredients.

Why are natural ingredients important?

The perceived ‘naturalness’ of the plant-based sector is an important purchase motivator, the researchers found.

Of those polled, 68% had tried plant-based food and 25% were inspired to try these products due to the perception of them as a ‘more natural’ choice. “Natural ingredients are specifically taking the plant-based community by storm, with many consumers increasingly looking for products made with natural, wholesome and recognisable ingredients,”​ Topp suggested.

However, the research also uncovered a ‘concerning’ lack of knowledge about common ingredients used to deliver the taste or texture profile in plant-based foods. For instance, 86% of people have never heard of emulsifier and thickening agent methylcellulose, and more than half of people polled (57%) had never heard of another emulsifier and thickener, xanthan gum. The same goes for ingredients like maltodextrin (74%) and calcium alginate (79%). This is ‘concerning’ given ‘they are all synthetic ingredients that commonly appear in plant-based products’, Topp believes.

“There is an apparent disconnect between the consumer understanding of natural products and the reality of the synthetic ingredients that are used to make many plant-based products. Methylcellulose is one of the most common thickening agents used to bind ingredients together and it is frequently used in plant-based products to mimic the texture of meat. With many consumers admitting to having never heard of methylcellulose yet choosing plant-based products due to the appearance of them being ‘more natural’, this shows a clear need beyond clean labels – for more transparency and education to help consumers better recognise and understand ingredients.”

Risks and rewards of the clean label halo

The use of ‘100% natural ingredients’ is central to Gosh!’s brand identity. This means ‘no additives or alternatives’.

“We believe that natural ingredients only, are key to creating tasty, healthy and nutritious food. Consumers deserve to know and recognise exactly what is going into their food, and we have a responsibility to ensure that those choosing to eat Gosh! products are receiving the full authentic, natural experience,”​ Topp explained.

However, the gulf between consumer assumptions about the clean label nature of the plant-based sector as a whole and what is often the reality of a long ingredient lists could potentially undermine consumer trust. For this reason, Gosh! believes there needs to be an open conversation between the food industry and shoppers.

“Consumer consensus already assumes that plant-based products and natural ingredients go hand in hand. Therefore, this insight reveals a vital need for the plant-based community and beyond to be more transparent, and for products to be clearly labelled to educate consumers on exactly what ingredients are included. With the emphasis on nutritional and ethical reasoning for so many plant-based eaters, the lack of transparency and confusion around products currently does not chime with the ethos of the plant-based community. By not clearly labelling food, plant-based companies run the risk of potentially alienating consumers in the future,”​ Topp warned.

Nevertheless, while long ingredient lists might be a risk, they also present food formulators with an innovation opportunity. The intersection between clean label and plant-based could also prove fertile ground for NPD.

Sagacious’ Gupta notes: “As the clean label halo is majorly driven by the consumers rather than defined by the regulatory authorities, there is an inclination to produce clean label plant-based substitutes and attract more consumers.”

This trend can be seen in new patent filings data with the ‘explicit disclosure of clean label plant-based substitutes’, such as non-GMO or avoiding additional ingredients such as hydrocolloids, chemical emulsifiers and added sugars, Gupta continued.

“Brands might consider creating more clean label products considering the growing consumer trends.”

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