Free from 'free-from': Are consumers getting clean label lethargy?

Free-from could go the same way as 'natural' labelling, warns Organic Monitor.

Consumers may begin to seek out labels making no claims as a result of clean labels 'over-reaching', according to Organic Monitor. 

The research firm, which focuses on global organic industries, said clean labels like gluten-free had begun appearing on products like yoghurts that have never contained gluten. Elsewhere, halal labels had been seen in Asia on products like toothpaste. It said this risked causing consumer distrust and anathema, as seen in the past with ‘natural’ labelling.   

"The solution is to use labels, or make claims, sparingly and not take a blanket approach," Tina Gill, PR and marketing manager for Organic Monitor, told Food Navigator. "For instance, having bread making wheat-free and gluten-free claims are permissible if they do not contain such ingredients that are commonly found in bread. However, putting wheat-free and gluten-free on yoghurts is not considered permissible as yoghurt would not normally have these ingredients. The way forward for food companies is to make legitimate claims, and not just for the sake of marketing or appealing to consumers seeking 'clean products'." 

What are you suggesting? 

“A decade ago, natural claims were all the rage in North America. The proliferation in natural labels and logos led to consumer distrust and anathema. There is a concern that clean label may follow the same route and consumers may turn to food products that are ‘free from’ such claims,” the firm said. 

Gill said there was no formal definition of clean label, however Organic Monitor looks at products that make "clean claims" like absence of pesticides and agro-chemicals, GMO ingredients, gluten, lactose and additives. It said this definition could also be stretched to halal and kosher logos since to Muslim and Jewish this signals that certain forbidden ingredients are not included. However, it said that the absence of these ingredients did not necessarily provide traceability, giving the example of halal in the UK which may sometimes be marketed to non-Muslims without proper labelling

She said that while clean label may give details on the absence of ingredients, it states nothing about production methods or food origins of those that are present.

"For instance, the dairy-free label on soya drinks does not give information on the origins of the soya. The soya could be sourced from Europe or Brazil, or the soya drink could be made from isolate and not soya beans. The 'dairy-free' label only states absence of dairy, not details of the actual ingredients and their origins. Similarly, the organic label assures consumers that the products is made according to formal organic standards. However, it does not always state the product or ingredient origins. Indeed, many organic bananas are produced according to fair trade practices however this is not always stated on the product label," she said. 

Third party verification needed? 

Discussing the clean label trend ahead of the Sustainable Foods Summit in Amsterdam, Organic Monitor suggested there could be a need for uniformed, formal free-from labelling standards. 

It said as interest in free-from ingredient labels in Europe grows and the target market broadens from consumers with sensitivities alone, the development of uniformed standards has lagged behind.

“Originally confined to health food shops, dairy alternatives to milk, yoghurts, and desserts, are now fixtures in mainstream retailers,” it said. 

“In spite of their popularity, there are few formal standards for such free-from ingredient claims. Thus, unlike organic and GM-free, free-from products lack uniformity of labels and usually do not have third-party verification.” 

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Comments (1)

Anna Jacobs - 15 May 2014 | 06:18

Free from misunderstood by manufacturers

'Free from' is misunderstood by manufacturers, anyway. They think if you can't eat wheat you can eat maize. I wish that were true. People like me can't eat most free from foods anyway. We need lessons for manufacturers, as well as clearer labelling.

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