Rise of consciousness in food choices

31 December 2021 | Opinion | By Rashida Vapiwala, Founder, LabelBlind, Mumbai

The pandemic has driven global attention to the fragility of human lives and our abilities to anticipate and manage the outbreak of a life-threatening pandemic. Interdependence and interconnectivity of the Planet, Animals and Humans has been brought to the fore in a manner that is bringing about drastic changes to human perception and behaviour.

Food systems and diets are an integral part of human existence and there is a growing consciousness in how food systems can help in restoring a widely disrupted harmony. And Clean Label is a restorative approach to living.


What is a ‘Clean Label’?

Multiple studies have defined various characteristics of food products that can be considered as Clean Label – e.g. using the least number of ingredients, using ingredients that consumers recognise and regard as wholesome, foods with easy-to-recognise ingredients and no man-made flavours or synthetic chemicals that increase the health burden on the planet. Clean Label products are commonly understood as 'natural', 'organic,' 'free from additives/preservatives'. 

Certain reports have also established the emphasis on sustainability under Clean Label. Factors like raw material sourcing, company practices, and manufacturing/processing methods are considered under Clean Label. The subject has been gaining due attention in discussion forums of governments and businesses and is rapidly permeating consumer lives in a world that is deeply connected.

Dietary labels are used by consumers to identify products that are minimally processed, made without additives, preservatives, artificial colours, or ingredients, and also interpreted as being vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free, real, or natural - terms that are well defined under the food safety standards. Although the Clean Label trend continues to grow in popularity, there is a lack of consensus regarding the definition and use of this terminology with a corresponding lack of regulation for such labels.


Making Conscious Food Choices

‘Health’ is increasingly becoming a major consumer motive for many behaviours, especially food purchase. This motive is driven largely by certain drivers – 

(i) ‘intrinsic product characteristics’ like nutrition properties, degree of processing, presence of raw and fresh ingredients, use of additives, healthfulness of the product, sensory attributes 

(ii) ‘extrinsic product characteristics’ like sustainability, product labeling, price, packaging, perceived risk or benefits, and 

(iii) socio-cultural factors like lack of awareness, education, ethical concerns, trust in brands and labeling. 


Most of these drivers are influential in consumer choices, and were bucketed into ‘natural’, ‘organic’ and ‘free from-‘ food products that consumers prefer to choose from, when it comes to clean labels. Consumer demand for transparent food labels that declare all the information about the product, is one of the main drivers for the clean label movement. 


Clean Label Report on Indian Packaged Foods

First-of-its-kind Report by LabelBlind in collaboration with Department of Food Technology, Bhaskaracharya College of Applied Sciences (BCAS)- University of Delhi on Consumer Perceptions and Industry Standards on Clean Label Products in India.

Done with a sample of 419 respondents in the age group of 18-50 years (Men and Women) and 3659 packaged food products representing 13 high consumption categories, LabelBlind and BCAS believe that the Clean Label Report on Indian Packaged Food is an initiation to provide industry guidance in an undefined landscape, disseminate product information to validate and debunk myths, and draw attention to labeling practices that support this growing consumer interest.


Key findings of the report : 


  1. Nutrition information ranks above brand trust and 3rd only to long-standing attributes of taste and price in consumer consideration of food choices. 

While taste and price continue to be the top-most factors driving product purchases, nutrition information is gaining consumer attention when it comes to consumer choices (74.5 per cent). Factors like list of ingredients, organic produce, eco-friendliness (of product and/or packaging) are ranking above convenience and popularity. 

Nearly half the people are reading nutrition information (55.6 per cent) on a food label, along with the health claims (49.6 per cent) and the ingredient list (46.8 per cent). One-third of the consumers (33.2 per cent) are reading the list of additives on most occasions or always. 


  1. Growing Consideration for Clean Label Attributes of Real, Natural, Nothing Artificial, Eco Friendly Packaging is Ahead of Claims Like Fat Free, Low Sugar, Zero Calorie. 

73 per cent of consumers believe that it is important for products to be made with real ingredients. More than 60 per cent consumers are emphasising on products that are ‘100 per cent natural’ (68.5 per cent), ‘contain no artificial colours or flavours’ (64.2 per cent), ‘contain no artificial additives’ (62.3 per cent) and are ‘made with eco-friendly packaging like recyclable or biodegradable packaging material’ (61.3 per cent). More than half the consumers shared that attributes like ‘no preservatives’ (57.5 per cent), ‘100 per cent plant based’ (55.6 per cent) and ‘organic’ (53 per cent) are also important while purchasing food products.

The use of colours and flavours in food products is large. However, it was interesting to see three specific claims being made by brands on their labels – (i) no added colour / flavour , (ii) natural colour / flavour or (iii) no artificial colour / flavour, apart from the other declarations like use of synthetic colour or use or artificial flavouring substances.


  1. Consumers are increasingly concerned about (i) what goes into food products and (ii) how are food products made. Use of chemicals, pesticides, and harm to animals are the top most concerns amongst consumers.

Absence of pesticides or chemicals is very critical for consumers. 71.6 per cent consumers expressed that it is very important for the product to be free of any chemicals or pesticides. 58.2 per cent consumers believe that it is very important for foods to be made without any food additives (preservatives, colours, flavours, etc.). Nearly half the consumers seek products that are made with familiar or recognisable ingredients (53.7 per cent) and that the ingredient list must be short and simple (46 per cent). It was interesting to observe that the second largest consumer consideration while choosing food products was that it must be made without harming animals (63 per cent).


  1. Majority of consumers lack comprehension and awareness of food ingredients. Familiarity is limited to only a handful of ingredients like honey, natural colours and flavours, soy protein and glucose.

Honey and Jaggery were rated as acceptable ingredients by 68.5 per cent consumers, followed by natural colours and flavours (55.4 per cent), soy protein (51.3 per cent), glucose (48.7 per cent) and vegetable oils (47 per cent). Artificial colours and flavours (46.8 per cent), hydrogenated fats/trans fats (32.5 per cent), artificial sweeteners (32 per cent), preservatives (25.8 per cent) and flavour enhancers (19.1 per cent) were the top 5 ingredients rated as unacceptable by consumers. 

More than 70 per cent consumers had no views or had not heard of ingredients like maltodextrin, carrageenan, guar gum / xanthan gum, CMC (carboxy methyl cellulose), monosodium glutamate (MSG), fructo-oligosaccharides, mono- and di-glyceride fatty acids, molasses, dextrose / polydextrose and high fructose corn syrup. These are very commonly used ingredients / food additives used in processed food products, but consumers have no understanding of the same. This could largely be due to the chemical-like, complex names.


  1. Consumers associate clean labels with organic, made with real ingredients, 100 per cent natural, minimally processed, no additives and sustainably produced food products.

In this study, it was found that the majority of consumers associate ‘organic’ (67.3 per cent) and ‘made with real ingredients’ (67.1 per cent) as key characteristics of clean label products. More than half the consumers associate ‘natural’, ‘minimally processed’, ‘no additives / preservatives’ and ‘sustainably produced’ with clean label products. 


  1. Consumers perceive clean label products to be healthier. Increasing availability and awareness of clean label foods will strengthen the willingness to pay a price premium for such products.

43 per cent consumers claimed to understand the term clean label and what it means. As consumers increasingly interact with food labels, the awareness around clean labels products is on the rise. 57.5 per cent consumers mentioned that the lack of awareness regarding clean label products and their benefits was one of the factors that prevented consumers from adopting the same in their daily diets. Perceptions towards clean label products are positive – more than half the consumers (53.7 per cent) believe that clean label food products are healthier than regular packaged foods.


  1. Product categories with existing associations of health and nutrition are perceived by consumers to be clean labels. Such categories include milk based drinks, juices and breakfast cereals. Consumers also seek clean label attributes in high consumption categories like biscuits and cookies, desserts to strengthen the nutrition value of these categories.

Shorter list of ingredients, presence of real, wholesome ingredients, processing, 100 per cent natural, organic, plant based, free from food additives and preservatives, no artificial colours or flavours and the use of natural colours, or flavour - consumer interest is expected to rise with food businesses leveraging the opportunity to grow the market of Clean Label products. Clean Label attributes in the consumer milieu is built around food that is ‘free of’ (preservatives, additives, artificial colour and flavours), is organic in nature, natural and real.


The report summarises the 10 attributes of a Clean Label food product -

  1. Total number of Ingredients
  2. Presence of real, wholesome ingredients (real fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds)
  3. Processing
  4. 100 per cent natural
  5. Organic
  6. Plant based
  7. Free from food additives
  8. Free from preservatives
  9. No artificial colours. Use of natural colours, or no colours
  10. No artificial flavours. Use of natural flavours, or no flavours


The trend is in its nascence, with low comprehension of qualitative aspects such as ingredients, manufacturing processes and sustainable food.  Categories with existing associations of health (like Fruit Juices and Ready-to-eat breakfast Cereals) hold a natural advantage, and are expected to be lead players of this trend. Jams, Jellies and Marmalades, Water Based Flavoured Drinks, Snacks and Savouries, Dairy Based Beverages have attributes of plant-based, real wholesome ingredients, free from preservatives, free from food additives, no use of artificial colours, no artificial flavours, short list of ingredients). These product categories stand an opportunity to consolidate the Clean Label association.


Consumer interest is the primary driver of the Clean Label trend

Consumers are increasingly getting interested and aware of the correlation of food choices, nutrition intake and daily consumption habits to their state of health and wellbeing. This is further reinforced by altered lifestyles due to the pandemic that saw consumption of packaged food rise exponentially in the midst of this growing consumer consciousness. 


Rashida Vapiwala, Founder, LabelBlind, Mumbai


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