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Consumers Come Clean About Clean Label and More

BY: Mary Ellen Kuhn

Consumers PanelWhat do consumers want? The large audience that assembled for Monday morning’s consumer panel session, “A Clean Label Revolution,” got a close-up view of how consumers feel about their food in a session that featured research findings on clean label as well as commentary from a group of seven Chicago-area consumers, who took part in a panel discussion.

Not surprisingly, nothing is simple when it comes to how consumers make their food choices. “The survey results painted a very complex picture,” said Paul Metz, executive vice president of C+R Research, who shared highlights from a C+R study conducted for IFT. The research included a survey of about 1,000 U.S. consumers as well as in-person interviews with 36 consumers.

Paul Metz“It’s clear that consumers are bombarded by all sorts of messages in the media,” said Metz. “All of these mixed messages put consumers on the defensive.” They’re challenged to try to make sense of it all, Metz observed, a sentiment that was echoed by several of the consumer panelists who spoke during the session.

One thing was clear from the research: Consumers say they are paying attention to food product labels.

“Our survey showed that nearly seven in 10 claimed regular label reading,” said Metz.

Based on the research, C+R breaks consumers out into four key groups, which divide up as follows:

  • The Vigilant (20%): They’re highly engaged with their food and pay close attention to product labels.
  • Balancers (15%): These consumers are attentive to labels but not nearly as anxious about it as the Vigilants. Their food philosophy is “eat everything in moderation.”
  • Keep It Simple (47%): Clearly the largest group of consumers, they want to eat healthier, but they don’t want to invest a lot of time in it, so they adopt simple strategies like shopping in a particular grocery chain that they feel is well positioned to meet their needs.
  • Not Bothered (17%): These shoppers are less concerned about health than the others. Their focus is on value and convenience.

The Vigilant and Balancer groups skewed toward Baby Boomers, and the Keep It Simple group skewed toward Millennials, Metz said. Many of the Not Bothered consumers are in Gen Y and at a point in life when they are raising families and focused on balancing their budgets.

Because consumers’ food philosophies often break out generationally, product developers should think carefully about their products’ target audience, Metz counseled. “Generation matters,” he said. “Know your products’ core target and understand their taboos and motives.”

Sugar appears in the list of top five concerns for all generations. All natural tends to be more important to Millennial and Gen X consumers, while sodium is more important to Boomers. Trans fat is not in the top five for Millennials, but it appears on the lists for Gen X and Boomers. For Gen X, the No. 1 factor is not nutritional, it’s “on sale.”

Baby Boomers, not surprisingly, are driven by health concerns, and what they’re looking for on labels often relates to those concerns. Nearly eight in 10 Boomers surveyed said they are purchasing less of specific foods because of clean label concerns.

Millennials are more skeptical—a view epitomized by Tom, one of the panelists who said he tends to view the word “natural” on product labels with suspicion. “If I see the word natural, I tend to distrust that,” he said, “because I feel like natural doesn’t really mean anything. You have highly processed foods that say natural on the front.”

The clean label sensitivity of consumers varies by product category. “Food categories matter,” said Metz. “There are different levels of scrutiny for different foods. The categories that are more indulgent, people tend to give a free pass to. But when it’s the center-of-the plate items, this is where clean label really matters.”

Consumer panelist Mickey observed that if he picks up a candy bar in the checkout line for immediate consumption, he doesn’t worry about its ingredient statement. “I’m not as quick to read the label for things I’m going to eat in the next a five minutes,” he noted. But if he’s buying food for his family, which includes a four-year-old, he pays considerably more attention to what’s on the label.

The C+R research produced some interesting findings about genetically modified (GM) foods. Although GM foods get a lot of press, only about a third of the survey respondents said GM affected their purchase decision—and that percentage was consistent across generational groups.

Overall, more than 70% of those surveyed included sugar, sodium, fat, amount of processing, whole grains, fortification, preservatives, artificial sweeteners, and trans fat on the list of things that affected their purchasing decisions. Topics that receive a lot of media attention, but appeared to be of less concern to consumers in terms of purchasing behavior included probiotics, cage free, organic, and Fair Trade, Metz reported.

5 Responses to “Consumers Come Clean About Clean Label and More”

  1. Maticela says:

    Can we get a copy of the presentation

  2. AJ says:

    I would also like a copy of the presentation, I was hoping that as it was a general session it would be provided.

  3. Mary Ellen Kuhn says:


    I will forward you (via email) a copy of the link that provides access to those sessions at IFT17 that were recorded. Thanks for your interest.–Mary Ellen Kuhn

  4. LB says:

    Mary Ellen, could you send the link to the recording my way as well? Thank you!

  5. Kelly Hensel says:

    Hi Lisa,
    I will forward you a copy of the link through email.
    Kelly Hensel

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