Clean food. Why its meaningless and the six steps to actually make it work in your business

Is "cleaning" up really the way to go?

Consumers today are confused about the ingredients in the foods they purchase. This coupled with social media-driven fears about chemicals in food have created a demand for less processed more natural products. In response, businesses are looking to “clean” foods and labels as the answer.

There is no one definition of what “clean” food is. In general, the concept centres on the use of recognisable ingredients, the reduction or removal of food additives, other artificial ingredients and in some cases, allergens. Ultimately it’s about transparency. Consumers want to know, recognise and understand what is in the food they are eating.

The trend for clean foods is not new. However, according to New Nutrition Business, it’s not a trend consumers appear to prioritise over price and convenience1. So if consumers want clean but, are not prioritising it as a purchase driver how do you meet this need and still grow your brand and customers?

From my perspective the key issue with “clean” is that it is just about perception. In reality food is neither clean nor dirty. And the “cleanness” of a food has little correlation with other considerations such as nutrition, quality or flavour. Some ingredients may be more accepted by consumers than others but, even this can vary depending on the food they are used in. Because of this the concept of “clean” is essentially meaningless.

So how do you bring meaning to the demand for “clean” foods and create products with a true point of difference that consumers will prioritise in their purchase decisions?

Yes, if you can make it meaningful

What I mean is that, “clean” becomes a relevant strategy when it is used to achieve a more meaningful goal such as, making a product more nutritious, addressing evidence-based concerns around the use of certain ingredients or helping consumers understand your product.

Clean = More whole real ingredients

“Cleaning” up your products by introducing more whole foods not only transforms your ingredients lists into something that consumers recognise. It also results in the nutrition benefits that come along with real whole foods such as, increased vitamins, minerals, fibre. And if those whole foods are fruits, vegetables or whole grains even better.

This approach not only meets the consumer demand for more natural foods but also addresses a top concern for many consumers, eating more fruit, vegetables and fibre

Clean = Better alternatives

Removing or replacing ingredients that have health, environmental or social concerns about their use is another option to make “cleaning” up your products or labels more meaningful.

One example is food additives. Some food additives, while approved for use and considered safe at the current levels of consumption, do have some controversy around their use especially where there are safer alternatives.

Other ingredients to consider are palm oil and partially hydrogenated fats.

Clean = Transparency

Consumers want to know, recognise and understand what is in the food they are eating. So, tell them. We know they are confused about the ingredients in food products and want more information to inform their purchase decisions. The key to this approach is providing information in a way that is useful, understandable and most importantly accurate.

Interested in learning more about transparency? Look out for our blog on transparency.

But, remember

Clean is not Nutritious

Clean can also be used as a smoke screen to give the perception of natural nutritious and wholesome food. Going down this track, will likely lead you down the road of deceptive and misleading messages.

It’s simple, clean does not mean nutritious.

Clean is not Safer

There are enough scary things in this world without adding food to the list. Specifically, the fear of any chemicals in food. Actions to address clean shouldn’t add to the confusion around food ingredients by giving air to the ill-informed scare mongers who want to remove all chemicals from food. Food is made up of chemicals. Some chemicals are good for you, some are bad, some are both. Therefore, cleaner does not always mean safer.

Six steps to “clean”

Here is a checklist of six questions you should answer to address the concept of “clean” in your business.

1. Do you know what is in your products?

Understand the ingredients list for your products and your suppliers’ products. Make sure you know what each ingredient is and where it comes from.

Look out for generic terms such as “vegetable oil”, “vegetable shortening” and “flavouring”.

2. What is the expectation of “clean” for your product or category?

If your product is not a natural food that is, if your product does not come from something that grows or walks around in nature, what is it that your customers expect? What is it that they are looking to avoid?

3. What ingredients do your customers expect in your product?

Consumers are looking for ingredients they recognise and expect in their foods. For example:

Bread is traditionally made with flour, water, salt and yeast, so ingredients such as dough conditioners or other preservatives may not meet the expectation of recognisable ingredients.

Diet soft drinks on the other hand are made with intense sweeteners and customers are more likely to accept the artificial ingredients in order to meet their desire for a sweet taste with very few calories.

Key point here is that the acceptability of an ingredient depends on the food it’s being used in. If your products contain additional ingredients can you explain or provide transparency as to why they are there? If the ingredients don’t have a legitimate functional role maybe it’s time to rethink them.

4. Are there any ingredients that have a legitimate health concern?

Some ingredients may have an evidence-based health concern around their use. A good example of this is common food allergens.

5. Is the alternative ingredient improving your product?

Changing ingredients to appear “cleaner” may not always address the true reason for being “clean”. A great example of this is uncured bacon. Bacon has had a bad rap recently due to its link with an increased risk of cancer. This is due to the use of nitrates as a preservative and the resulting nitrosamines that are likely formed. As a result, there’s been an increase in “uncured” bacon where preservative 250 (sodium nitrite) is replaced with celery juice. Sounds good right? The truth is, that’s about where it ends. Celery juice is high in nitrates so, while these products may not contain preservative 250 they are still likely to form nitrosamines and therefore increase the risk of cancer. The key takeaway here, make sure you are clear on the reason for replacing an ingredient and that your alternative achieves this outcome.

6. Is transparency enough?

The clean trend is ultimately about consumers recognising and understanding what is in their food. In some cases, reducing additives may not be a viable strategy for your product or brand. The reality is that some food additives perform a vital function in the quality and safety of certain foods (The bacon example above is good case in point). If this is the situation for your product, then focusing on helping your consumers recognise and understand what is in your product maybe the best strategy.

Using this checklist and the approaches we’ve discussed will help you bring meaning to “clean” and create products that not only meet the consumer demand for this but protect your brand and business as well.

If you'd like help with  your clean strategy get in touch

Authors note

As a dietitian “clean” is not a word I use to describe foods or diets. The main reason for this is, it’s not grounded in any science. Food is food, it’s not good, bad, clean, dirty, toxic or super. Foods can be nutritious, or discretionary choices or somewhere in between. They form a part of diets that can promote health or contribute to disease. I chose to use the term “clean” because  the people making and buying food identify with it. My my role is to make it the most meaningful it can be and using it to helping it improve the nutrition of our population. With education and awareness, we can show those buying the food that there are more important issues to advocate for and those making food that there are better ways to meet the needs of their customers.



1. Mellentin, J. (2015). 10 key trends in food, nutrition and health 2016. London: New Nutrition Business.