“Consumers are developing an opinion that Clean Label does not necessarily mean better or added nutrition.” That’s the finding in the Future of Food: Unlocking Consumer Expectations For Food & Beverages Beyond Clean Label, a new report from Kerry. “Hence, there is a desire for food and beverages that stand for more than Clean Label.”

Kerry surveyed 2,100 U.S. consumers who are ingredient and nutrition conscious. The findings showed the evolution of Clean Label and defined what consumers expect and desire from food and beverages in the future. 

Based on the research, Kerry believes the following five pillars explain consumer expectations and are also a foundation for the future of food:

  • Nutrition
  • Acceptable ingredients
  • Functional ingredients
  • Taste
  • Sustainability

Let’s look deeper at each of these pillars.

Nutrition: Inherently healthy

Almost 92% of consumers read the nutrition label, and 68% of those focus on the product’s total sugar content. However, expectations vary by age. Baby Boomers focus on reduced sugar, sodium, and fat. Millennials want added nutritional benefits such as protein, vitamins, and minerals.

Associations consumers make with healthy food include:

  • Homemade
  • Fresh
  • Wholesome
  • Vegetables/fruits/nuts
  • Low sugar
  • Low sodium
  • Low cholesterol
  • Zero transfat
  • Good fats vs. Low fat/fat free

Acceptable ingredients: Real and recognizable

Unacceptable ingredients include high fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors and colors, hormones, and mono- and di-glycerides. However, what’s considered unacceptable does vary by age group.

Consumer associations around acceptable ingredients include:

  • Made with real ingredients
  • Natural
  • Nothing artificial (flavors, colors, preservatives)
  • No additives
  • GMO-free
  • Quality

Functional ingredients: Specifically for me

Kerry found that 65% of consumers want added functional benefits from everyday food and beverages beyond their inherent benefits. Consumer associations regarding functional ingredients include:

  • Low calorie
  • Allergen-free
  • Added proteins
  • Added vitamins
  • Added fiber
  • Diet sensitivity (for example, vegan, vegetarian, paleo, keto)
  • Gluten-free
  • Plant-based
  • Added benefits (for example, energy, weight, stress)

Taste: Food must taste good

While consumers want taste, they want it “built into the DNA of healthy food.” They are no longer willing to forego taste for health and nutrition. In Kerry’s 2017 survey, 57% of consumers agreed nutrition is more important than taste, but in 2019 only 48% of consumers agreed. 

Given consumer desire for lower sugar and sodium or added functional ingredients, Kerry suggests that food manufacturers need to master building back or balancing taste expectations.

Sustainability: Good for all

The importance of sustainability continues to grow. More than 4 in 10 consumers (and 52% of Millennials) prefer to buy from brands that are ethical, and half will switch to a company that supports a cause they believe in. In addition, 53% of consumers expect companies to improve their local communities.

Key sustainability themes are:

  • Minimally processed
  • Locally sourced: 69% of respondents prefer to buy local/locally grown products.  
  • Environment friendly
  • Sustainably produced
  • Ethically sourced
  • Fair trade

“Clean Label has become the ‘cost to play’ in the food and beverage industry, for both retail products as well as foodservice solutions,” concludes Kerry. To win over consumers looking beyond Clean Label, Kerry suggests building back key nutritionals and differentiating with taste and sustainability.