LENEXA, KS — “I’m going to start eating cleaner.”

It’s a common mantra at the turn of a year or when summer approaches, and the word “clean” is one that consumers are focusing on in multiple ways. Clean label, the food movement that preaches products without artificial chemicals, continues to rise in popularity with shoppers, and it’s proving that short ingredient lists (especially with names the common person can pronounce) pay off.

But trendy as the movement is, it still has many questions surrounding it, including the most basic: What exactly is clean label, and who decides whether something is “clean enough” to make the cut?


Although there is no universal rulebook on what is required for a product to be considered clean label, a general rule of thumb is that the ingredient list needs to be short and relatively simple. This usually means nixing preservatives and artificial colors and flavors, all while keeping the same taste and texture consumers love. Although it’s a tall order for bakery producers, it’s a force to be reckoned with in the grocery aisles: Forty-eight percent of global consumers say they make proactive health and wellness choices on a regular basis, according to NielsenIQ, and 77% of consumers expect product labels to be more specific and transparent.

Jennifer Halliburton, Corbion Global Bakery Insights senior manager, has spent much of her career figuring out how to conquer clean label. She said that in a world where the rules are ambiguous, its best to let bakers and snack producers create their own path in the clean label space.

“I approach it as partnering with customers to understand how they want to look at the label for their own differentiation,” she said. “A big trend in formulating is ‘choice goal,’ and clean label is huge at choice goal, though we don’t put a hard definition out on the topic.”

A choice goal is a consumer behavior concept that is critical to pinning down ways to get your product noticed. IGI Global defines choice goal as a benchmark that people want to attain during product selection, which can in turn determine their satisfaction with the decision-making process.

For example, if a consumer has a goal to be more conscious of ingredient lists in their snack choices, a clean label product would gain the attention (and the dollar) of that shopper. They will feel good about the purchase because it met their goal, and hopefully come back for more.


A common way for brands to get themselves into many consumers’ choice goal categories is by being open about what’s in their product. Despite the ambiguity around clean label’s true definition, one thing is crystal clear: A straightforward label strengthens the chances of a consumer deciding to press “add to cart.”

“For some, clean label is just about transparency,” Halliburton said. “They want to know where products come from and what they do. They don’t want to feel like they’re being tricked or that there’s something heavier in there.”

One brand that taps into the “transparency tactic” is Waterville, ME-based Maine Crisp Co. The clean label and gluten-free crisp brand uses buckwheat flour in its products, allowing for a balanced taste that doesn’t require extra flavoring agents.

“Our product’s clean label helps us successfully straddle the gluten-free market, where our flavors stand out, and the artisanal crisp market, where our gluten-free certification is a differentiator,” said Karen Getz, founder and president of Maine Crisp Co. “We’ve recently found that store buyers, customers and nutritionists look at our label and are happy to see that we use buckwheat flour instead of rice, starches and gums as binders, so we will continue to emphasize that in our marketing strategy.”


Once a bakery has nailed down the right formulation, the other piece is marketing the product. Since there is a lack of clear guidelines on how to define clean label, front-of-pack claims can be a bit tricky. Even the word “healthy” has regulatory hurdles to navigate.

“There are a lot of regulations coming out that are getting very restrictive with what you can put on the front of a package,” said Rick Letizia, co-founder, president and COO of Wholesome Goodness, parent company of clean label snack brand Riceworks. “The FDA is really trying to stop what they believe is misleading labeling. A lot of the language is changing, so the FDA is cleaning that up and we are following along with that, only putting the major type of clean claims that you can make on the packaging.”

The brand is navigating this by focusing on what they include rather than what they exclude. This allows them to make those more “clean cut” claims such as gluten-free, celiac-friendly, free of cholesterol, and non-GMO ingredients, but they also put a spotlight on the inclusion of better ingredients. One of those inclusions is 15 grams of whole grains, a simple callout of better-for-you attributes.

“We’re truly better-for-you, and that is what we aspire to be,” said Jeff Posner, CEO of Wholesome Goodness. “It can’t be solely defined by eliminating the bad stuff. There’s got to be a corollary that we are including the good stuff, which is really at the core of our concept that is nutritional density. You have to think about how you will communicate that to a consumer.”

Strategies like this help products stand out, which is critical as the market expands in new ways.

“With omnichannel and online, this idea of having front-of-pack callouts and how you can find products is becoming more important,” Halliburton said. “How do you talk about the function or the elements
of a product differently so that it does show up when traditional shopping is changing?”

This story has been adapted from the February | Q1 2022 issue of Commercial Baking. Read the full story in the digital edition here.