The Big Menu Cleanup

The exact meaning of terms like “clean label” and “clean eating” may be a little hard to pin down, but make no mistake: A lot of consumers—particularly among the influential Millennial and Gen Z generation—are interested in them.

Unlike organic or non-GMO, there are no government regulations for clean label, so manufacturers, operators, and consumers may have their own interpretations for what it means. In fact, according to a recent study conducted by Technomic for Nestlé Professional, it was revealed that only one-quarter of consumers believe they understand the term “clean label” when referring to foods and beverages.

At this stage of the game, the consumer definition of clean eating means everything from “natural” (cited by 39% of respondents) to “allergen-free” (29%) to “limited ingredients” (28%). More to the point, however, more than two-thirds (69%) of consumers do believe that clean-label foods are healthier than traditional foods—without detracting from taste—and are more likely to purchase foods and beverages labeled as clean.

Did You Know? 36% of operators regularly purchase clean-label products, likely due to positive consumer sentiment.

To my way of thinking, clean-label products are made with understandable ingredients—no additives with unpronounceable names—and are transparent about what’s in them. This trend started within the last decade as a concern for ingredient sustainability, and the momentum has grown since then, as the food system headed toward more transparency.

How can operators communicate their commitment to clean label and transparency? It really depends on the customer base. The demand is much higher in the college/university and healthcare segments, along with hotels that cater to business travelers and many fast-casual concepts like Chipotle, Sweetgreen, and Panera, which tend to attract younger diners.

The words “clean label” doesn’t really cut it in menu copy, either. For this, it’s best to borrow language and messaging from the more well-established sustainability trend:

  • Use of organic, natural, and housemade ingredients, as well as sustainable seafood
  • Shout-outs to farmers and small-batch artisans
  • Adjusting the menu to the seasons
  • A commitment to better social responsibility, including animal welfare (such as pastured pork and cage-free eggs)
  • Better-for-the-planet initiatives such as low-carbon (eg, local) sourcing, reduced food waste, and recycling

Consider This: Don’t judge an ingredient by the number of syllables in its name. Dihydrogen monoxide is nothing scarier than water.

Many brands, as well as colleges and universities, reinforce such efforts through the use of signage, social media, and other marketing, as well as the use of mission statements on websites, where all of these goals can be spelled out.

Operators can also be more proactive about sourcing clean-label products from their vendors; and manufacturers and other suppliers double down on their own transparency programs.

One of the most important ingredients, however, is education. Operators should educate themselves about the opportunities and demand for cleaner-label products. They should also educate their staffs and their customers about what they are doing in the area of menu transparency, and why it matters. I believe clean eating is becoming part of our culture.

Get Started:

Nestlé Professional and Minor’s® have been working to clean up their labels for a number of years. One of the latest is Minor’s Classical Reductions, a foundational stock reduction that makes it possible to create scratch-quality stocks, gravies, and sauces without the labor, time, and equipment involved in producing glace in-house. With just seven ingredients—and no artificial flavors or colors, or thickeners—Classical Reductions provides both versatility and quality in a clean-label format.

Minor’s has also introduced premium GreenLeaf Pestos, including GreenLeaf Basil Pesto made from locally grown hydroponic basil that is picked just five miles from the Minor’s production kitchen.

Source: Technomic Clean Eating, 2018