People will pay more for 'clean label' ready-to-eat meals: study

Consumers are increasingly seeking out clean label foods bearing short lists of recognizable, natural ingredients

Laura Brehaut 5 minute read June 18, 2021

Spurred by the “if you can’t say it, don’t eat it” school of thought, “clean label” foods are becoming the expectation rather than the exception. “Don’t buy products with more than five ingredients or any ingredients you can’t easily pronounce,” Michael Pollan once advised while promoting his 2008 book, In Defense of Food. Now part of the public lexicon, consumers are increasingly seeking out clean label foods bearing short lists of recognizable, natural ingredients.

People often perceive clean label convenience foods as being more healthful than those with ingredient lists running the length of the package, including such tongue twisters as azodicarbonamide, butylated hydroxyanisole or calcium disodium ethylenediaminetetraacetate. As a result, clean labels may escape the stigma surrounding other processed foods.

“Clean label definitely gives this idea that yes, this product is as natural as it can possibly be,” says Karina Gallardo, a Washington State University (WSU) professor of economics and author of a new study examining consumer preferences in the journal Agribusiness.

In the study, Gallardo, fellow WSU economist Jill McCluskey and Kara Grant, an economist at Missouri Western University, found that people will pay more for ready-to-eat meals containing few ingredients. What’s more, many are inclined to buy clean label foods made with new technologies that help limit the use of artificial or chemical components.

New technologies often breed skepticism in consumers, especially when it comes to food, says Gallardo. A body of literature shows that people consider new food technologies “risky or unhealthy, or even unethical,” she explains. But at the same time, they expect to see an ever-growing number of clean label convenience foods in grocery stores — foods that require innovative technologies to produce.

“Consumers demand different types of attributes, for example: Foods that are healthy; foods that are not produced using pesticides or chemicals; foods that are in agreement with environmental stewardship,” says Gallardo. “So it’s this sort of misalignment between expectations and what can possibly be done with current technologies. And then the suspicion or reaction towards food production and new processing technologies.”

For the purposes of the study, the researchers defined clean label foods as those with few ingredients (they didn’t factor in other dimensions, such as the familiarity of ingredients). They surveyed one group of participants to determine how much they value clean label foods, and a second group on whether or not including the name of a new technology affected their choices.

The researchers asked participants about microwave-assisted thermal sterilization (MATS) — which uses heat to kill pathogenic bacteria, like a microwave oven — as an alternative to the status quo. More than half (56 per cent) of the study participants preferred clean label ready-to-eat meals marked with the name of the new technology.

Unlike conventional food preservation technology, which compromises taste, texture and vitamin content for longer shelf-life, MATS results in processed meals that look and taste as if they were recently prepared, explains Gallardo.

Vegetables, for example, retain their crunch and vibrant colour, “so there is no need to apply a long list of additives, chemicals or salt in order to preserve that,” she adds. “Not to mention that it uses less energy. The carbon footprint emission of these technologies is lower than their counterpart. So it is not only good for the person who is going to have it in terms of satisfying their expectations of taste and flavour and healthiness because it doesn’t have the long list of additives, but it is also good for the environment.”

In the eyes of consumers, all technologies are not equal, says Gallardo. Much depends on the name of the technology and how it’s being communicated. If a label mentions genetic modification, for example, “there is an instant rejection.” The fact that the word microwave appears in the name of the technology they presented to participants — a device many people use on a daily basis in their own homes — helped to quell doubt; familiarity with the technology helped counter aversion.

It’s important to note that consumers act differently, she adds. Though both groups of study participants preferred clean labels, there was a large minority (39 per cent) who weren’t willing to pay a premium for products with fewer ingredients.

“There are thousands of factors that can influence consumer behaviour when deciding what foods to purchase and consume,” says Gallardo. People may share a preference for convenience, which ready-to-eat meals satisfy. But within this larger group, as their study showed, there will be people who are strong believers in clean label foods; those who favour a shorter list of ingredients, but not as vehemently; and those who are indifferent to clean labels altogether.

With the increasing popularity of clean label foods, though, there’s a need for innovation, she adds. New technologies are essential to adapting to an ever-changing marketplace. The results of their study suggest that new technology matters to consumers when it comes to choosing whether or not to buy clean labels; the next step will be determining the best way to communicate these innovations.

“We learned that, yes, a clean label — the concept of offering a healthier product — will be something that will make consumers accept these new food technologies. That’s step one,” says Gallardo. “Step two now is understanding what will be the best way of disseminating this information and informing consumers openly about these technologies used: There is nothing to hide here; it is all transparent. And informing (people) of the benefits to be reached with these new technologies.”


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