The Truth About Clean Label — and Why It Matters

Published on: 10/18/2021 in Featured, All

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Artificial flavors and chemical ingredients do not enhance the overall dining experience. In fact, some chemicals in food can provide a negative taste — and perception of quality — for consumers. That’s because, while taste and flavor have always been of critical importance to consumers, wellness is now another factor, with nearly 80% of consumers saying it’s important.1 They see nutrition as a key component to overall well-being, and increasingly that means scrutinizing the ingredients in their favorite restaurant dishes. 

In fact, three in five consumers say they are interested in learning more about where their food comes from and how it is made, while 64% of consumers say they choose foods made with clean ingredients.2,3 Given this burgeoning demand, the global clean label ingredients market is expected to be valued at $51.14 billion by 2024, registering a 6.8% CAGR.4

Diners respond to food that tastes more real, and expect a higher caliber of dish than what they can prepare at home when they go out to a restaurant. For chefs to create a true dining experience, they must use quality, authentic ingredients and prepare them with integrity — that means using water and simple salts to flavor chicken and turkey instead of chemical additives and artificial flavors.

For restaurants to accommodate these consumer preferences, they need to prioritize real, clean-label ingredients accompanied by complete transparency. 

Coming Clean: What Is Clean Label?

Clean label sometimes gets lumped in with “natural” or “fresh” as one of those nebulous terms that’s hard to define. While there’s no official definition, large restaurant chains like Panera and Chipotle are leading the way in setting the standard for cleaner ingredients by transparently using “no” lists. Chipotle centers its brand on the statement “Being real means we only use 53 ingredients you can pronounce,” listing no added hormones, artificial flavors, colors, preservatives, freezers, can openers or shortcuts.

Panera also promises “clean food,” which means no artificial preservatives, sweeteners, flavors or coloring, publishing their “No No List” on their website. 

The Institute for Food Technologists offers one commonly accepted definition: that clean label foods use as few ingredients as possible, and those ingredients are items that consumers typically recognize and regard as wholesome.5

“Think of clean label as your basic, pantry-level ingredients that are authentic to the cuisine or dish,” says Doug Wickman, Perdue’s vice president of marketing and business development. “It’s the way you would create a dish from scratch yourself, using real, fresh ingredients.” 

As these large restaurant chains showcase their quality ingredient advocacy, clean label is something all restaurants have to prioritize as it has become a minimum requirement, says Mike Buononato, chef and senior vice president for Creative Food Solutions. That’s because food trends grow on a continuum — they might start in a microstate with experimentation by prestigious, influential restaurants, then the most promising advances travel down the restaurant ecosystem until they become a value of global brands, which is where clean label stands today. “Everything about the larger restaurants’ brands is geared toward drawing in as many people as they can so when it matters to them, you know it matters to everyone,” he said.  

In addition to delivering on food trends, chefs also look to leverage clean label ingredients because they lend authenticity to a dish. These are ingredients in their most original form, which in turn allow the real, unaltered flavors to come through. 


Consumers are Willing to Pay for Quality

One initial concern is that sourcing and serving better ingredients can be more costly. Buononato acknowledged that patrons were more price sensitive when he first began in the industry; unlike in Europe, where artisan food was treated as a specialty that commanded higher prices, Americans often valued quantity over quality. Fortunately, that value proposition has changed, he said. In recent years consumers have taken a greater interest in the culinary scene and now look for more elevated, authentic menus. “We have evolved as a nation in relation to our expectations of food. Today, we’re willing to pay more for less of something in return for higher quality.” 

Recent research reflects this view, with 68% of consumers saying they were more likely to purchase chicken with clean attributes at restaurants6, and the average No Antibiotics Ever chicken entrée priced at almost $5 more per plate than a conventional chicken entrée7.

That’s because patrons value real ingredients, Wickman noted. “There’s a reason why cleaner-food outlets like Whole Foods, Sprouts and others have continued to grow, and in response, traditional retailers have expanded their product offerings to compete. Demand for cleaner, higher quality food options, as in ‘real food,’ continues to grow, and diners know the extra costs are worth it.” 

But the claim has to resonate, which is where PERDUE® HARVESTLAND® has been a leader in high quality chicken and turkey. “The company has been vocal regarding the attributes that create its clean-label chicken and turkey, such as no antibiotics ever and all veggie-fed,” Buononato said. “Those are some impressive claims from what was known as a quality chicken and turkey to begin with.”

Even more important, PERDUE® HARVESTLAND® has the research to back those claims, with all product claims third-party verified by the USDA. 

“Perdue went to the USDA before this even existed and said they wanted to create a verified path attesting to the company’s consistent quality standards,” he said. “Knowing there are criteria that restaurant operators can verify makes me feel confident that their quality lives up to these claims.”

When operators communicate clearly on their “no” list and portray the quality of the ingredients, it helps create more clarity around the extra costs, providing validation for chefs who realize it makes sense to pay more when they see how the chickens are raised. 


Diners Respond to Full Transparency 

To make the most of high-quality ingredients, it’s important to train staff. In addition to educating chefs on the value of higher-quality ingredients, servers who answer diners’ questions and the marketing staff who create menus need training as well. That way, your entire staff becomes quality ingredient advocates. 

“Restaurant operators have an excellent opportunity to spotlight transparency by noting attributes such as clean label on the menu as they describe the dish to people in written form,” Buononato said.


Making Clean Label a Priority

Restaurant operators who place an importance on clean label ingredients are growing. Using cleaner ingredients can create brand advocacy for your business and enable your restaurant to support higher menu items that can bring in more profit. You can be proud to offer a higher caliber of taste, flavor and authenticity on your menu.

After all, it just makes good business sense, Buononato added. “Restaurant operators should stick with trusted providers who meet their customers’ preferences, and that includes sourcing the clean-label ingredients today’s consumer expects.”

Want to know more about how the Perdue Difference can positively impact your restaurant? Learn more about the Perdue Difference today. 



  7. MenuTrends, Datassential, January 2019