Going clean label in the US sports nutrition market

The trend toward clean labels in the US sports nutrition market has become the new norm. Now the focus is broadening to include clear labelling and supply chain transparency, too. What’s it all about? And what does it mean for high-protein products?

Anne Louise Friis
Anne Louise Friis H&P Nutrition Manager, Arla Foods Ingredients

In the food industry, the term ‘clean label’ doesn’t have a clear, official definition, and may never have one. But there is a clear direction established, with an emerging industry nomenclature referring to packaged foods whose ingredients aren’t highly processed, which don’t contain artificial additives such as high-fructose corn syrup or potentially harmful substances, and which list fewer ingredients than conventional products. Another side of the same basic story is the inclusion of value-driven certifications such as ‘non-GMO,’ ‘grass-fed’, ‘vegan’, ‘gluten-free’ or similar.­

Increasing interest
How important is this development to consumers? Survey results vary widely, but the general consensus is that what’s on the label is of increasing interest to shoppers, and that the majority of consumers are willing to pay extra for products with clean labels. Packaged Facts has reported, for example, that 87 percent of Americans look at the Nutrition Facts Panel on packaged foods and beverages at least sometimes. And specialty PR agency Ingredient Communications found that 44 percent of US consumers it surveyed in 2016 stated they were willing to pay 75 percent or more for products whose ingredients they felt they recognized and trusted.

Reacting to these changes in consumer preferences, the industry has seen over 90 percent growth in the number of global products featuring the free text term ”clean label” or ”natural” from 2010-2014 (Innova Market Insights). Currently, it appears that the US sports nutrition market leads the clean labelling trend, closely followed by the UK, then other European countries and finally, given its relatively new status as a sports nutrition market but with sharpening focus on food chain safety, the Asian region.

To set the record straight, clean labelling isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. But it is one that is now firmly on its way to mainstream prominence across the food industry. Innova Market Insights, for example, has reported significant growth in this segment and picks clean, clear (easily understood) labels along with supply chain transparency as one of its top trends for 2017.

More recently, the clean label trend has been joined by a market push toward clear labels (making ingredient lists more easily understood). Additionally, consumers are becoming interested in where and how their products are made – including the source of specific ingredients such as palm oil.

Transparency trend
Clean label formulations are fuelling the professional athlete and mainstream sports consumer markets, with both audiences becoming increasingly interested in the authenticity and transparency – though to varying degrees – of what they’re putting into their bodies. Enabled by the internet, they’re becoming more and more savvy. Bodybuilders and cross-fit participants, for example, are constantly searching online forums for new ingredients that may lift their results. Doing so may not turn consumers into food technologists, but it does mean that manufacturers need to exercise greater diligence and accuracy in their statements than may previously have been the case.

When it comes to sports nutrition products, including those with high protein content, manufacturers tend to work with their own definitions of what comprises a ‘clean label’, with the bare minimum typically something along the lines of “No artificial colors, flavors or sweeteners”. And a growing number are emphasising the quality of the product’s protein source, too. High-quality whey products are able to address these sourcing issues, particularly when purchased from suppliers that own or have verifiable control over the entire supply chain, enabling them to rapidly trace problems and act with full authority to rectify them.

Limited availability
But keeping up with sports consumer demands for clean labels isn’t simply a matter of coming up with a new or reformulated recipe and producing as much product as you can sell. Instead, it can be difficult to source sufficient raw materials to support specific claims. That’s because, at this early stage, demand can easily outstrip supply for ingredients that are free from antibiotics, or which are sourced via a certified sustainable supply model, for example.

Robin Wyers, Innova Market Insights’ chief editor, puts it in no uncertain terms: “If everyone keeps demanding natural and clean label products… at some stage that’s going to have an impact on the supply chain and there will not be enough available ingredients, and that will be one of the future challenges going forward.” 

Documented supply chain
Driven by the clean label trend, but simultaneously concerned by the threat of supply disruption and negative publicity, producers are increasingly requesting ingredients with a well-documented supply chain. From a dairy whey perspective, such requests typically include ‘grass-fed’, ‘non-GMO’ and similar indicators of a clean-label ingredient.

In the next few years, sports food manufacturers could be expected to tighten their clean ingredient sourcing procedures further, looking for more in-depth, externally audited evidence of supplier claims. And third-party quality assurance services could play a more central role in the marketplace, too.

Last but not least, of course, whoever the product is aimed at, or whatever it is intended to do, consumer expectations around crucial aspects such as taste, texture, pricing and so on must still be met – along with production floor requirements for consistency of process and quality. 

This blog contains material and information intended for B2B customers, suppliers and distributors, and is not intended as information to the final consumers.