What Does “Clean Eating” Really Mean to Consumers?

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A growing number of American consumers are looking for simple, clean product ingredients during their trips to the grocery store. In fact, according to our research at Moonshot Collaborative, when shopping for plant-based meat, dairy, and egg products, 36% of consumers considered a food label with “All Natural Ingredients” to be important to them.

This trend is reflected in research from the International Food Information Council’s 2022 Food and Health Survey, in which more than half of consumers felt that a product with the words “clean ingredients” written on its label would be healthier than one that had identical nutritional properties but no such claim. And more than half of respondents felt the same way about products with an “all natural” claim.

So, who are the consumers behind this trend? What do they really mean when they say “clean ingredients” and “clean eating”? And, most importantly, how can your plant-based food brand capitalize on this emerging trend? Read on to find out all this and more.

What exactly are ‘clean ingredients’ and what does ‘clean eating’ mean to consumers?

Clean eating is often described as seeking food products made with recognizable ingredients. For some individuals, clean eating means focusing on products that showcase whole fruits and vegetables as their main ingredients, rather than products that aim to closely imitate conventional animal products. In fact, according to Datessential’s research, 60% of consumers say they prefer plant-based foods that showcase the fruit or vegetable instead of mimicking another food, while 40% of consumers prefer plant-based foods that taste like their traditional counterparts, like plant-based beef or milk (SmartBrief). According to Mintel representative Emma Scholfield, clean ingredients are those that aren’t perceived to be unnatural or artificial, heavily processed and refined, or containing artificial flavors (FoodNavigator).

For others, healthy or clean eating can mean a reduction in a wide variety of ingredients and attributes such as sugar, fat, salt, and carbohydrates. A recent survey by McKinsey revealed that 44% of US consumers surveyed have been reducing their sugar intake, 43% have been reducing their intake of processed foods and salt, and 40% have been reducing their fat intake.

How important are clean ingredients to your customers and what factors are driving this trend?

According to IFIC’s 17th annual Food and Health Survey, clean eating is among the top four patterns followed by the 1,005 American consumers (ages 18 to 80) who were surveyed. These findings have also been noted in recent research published by The Hartman Group, in which concern about plant-based meat alternatives being overly processed was found to be widespread among consumers (SmartBrief). 

At Moonshot Collaborative, we’ve conducted research to determine what clean attributes consumers are looking for when they shop for plant-based meat, dairy, and egg products, year-over-year. In September 2021, 33% of our panelists stated that “All Natural Ingredients” were important to them when reading labels for these foods. A “Short List of Ingredients” came in at 22%, and “Familiar Ingredients” at 20%. When we asked this question to our panel again in September 2022, we found that the proportion of consumers who placed importance on each of these categories increased by 3%, 2%, and 2%, respectively. This graph shows three of the twelve categories that were listed in the survey question and includes responses from over 700 participants.

Mintel research suggests that this trend largely stems from a consumer interest in “natural” and “whole-foods,” which consumers believe are better for their health. Mintel reported that 61% of consumers agree that “natural” or organic foods are healthier, while heavily processed or artificial ingredients are bad for their health. This finding has been corroborated by our own research at Moonshot Collaborative surrounding consumer perceptions of whole-food ingredients like soy, peas, and mushrooms. 66% of our panelists considered peas to be healthy and nutritious, 63% said the same for mushrooms, and 50% said the same for soy (Moonshot Collaborative). Other key drivers behind the clean label trend include regulation (i.e. governments amending what additives are legally allowed in food), and social media influencers sharing opinions – whether scientifically accurate or not – on various ingredients (FoodNavigator). 

How your brand can capitalize on the clean eating consumer trend

One way for your brand to capitalize on this trend is to revisit your ingredient list and see how it stacks up against its competitors in terms of the number of ingredients and how ‘processed’ they are. According to Forbes, several VC-backed companies have already been doing this. 

A second way to capitalize on this movement, if your company already has relatively few ingredients and/or if they are minimally processed, is to emphasize your list of ingredients on your packaging and social media. According to McKinsey, almost 50% of consumers surveyed admitted to having difficulty under­standing what they need to do when it comes to making healthier food choices. This presents a major opportunity for companies to appeal to their consumers by including easy-to-understand information about how the product impacts health. Plant-based nugget company Nowadays is already doing this by boasting their short list of seven ingredients and the benefits of each (Forbes). 

Finally, it’s vital to understand your ideal consumer and what matters most to them. Why are they engaging in clean eating? What packaging claims resonate with them most given factors such as their age, income, geography, ethnicity, household size, and diet? How do your customers’ perceptions of clean ingredients differ by product category? Offering your ideal customer solutions that are tailored to their specific needs is how brands are able to find true success.

Are you ready to learn what matters most to your ideal customer? We’re offering a brand new service through which companies can build their own reports to get quick, hyper-relevant insights on the attitudes, behaviors, motivation, and barriers of their target audience. Check it out:

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  • 2022 Food &  Health Survey – IFIC
  • 2022 “Plant-Forward Opportunity” ReportDatessential
  • 11 Plant-Based and Alternative Protein Trends To Watch For In 2022 – Forbes
  • Consumer Perceptions of the Most Common Plant-Based Ingredients – Moonshot Collaborative
  • How is clean label evolving? Mintel talks regulation, processing, and linking ‘clean with green’ – FoodNavigator
  • Hungry and confused, the winding road to conscious eating – McKinsey
  • Impossible Foods reformulates to have less fat than beef – Fooddive
  • More consumers look for clean eating as they battle stress, survey shows – Fooddive
  • Plant-based foods that emphasize plants appeal to consumers seeking less processed foods – SmartBrief

Moonshot Collaborative

Moonshot Collaborative is a consumer research firm that provides unparalleled access to thousands of plant-based and sustainability-minded shoppers to help you understand their purchase decisions and how you can appeal to them more effectively.