Less is More: Food Trends Move Toward Cleaner Eating

Posted by Anna Keagy on July 1, 2016


What do Kraft mac & cheese, Campbell’s chicken noodle soup, M&M’s and Panera have in common?

They are all part of a trend for “free-from” food that really gained traction last year and has continued into 2016. Many popular foods and restaurants are getting a makeover that is being driven by consumer demand for products with more natural, simple ingredients. In conjunction with this trend is the desire for healthier eating and more “real food.”

Scan the store shelves or even restaurant marketing information and you’ll find increasing claims to be free from GMOs (genetically modified organisms), high-fructose corn syrup, preservatives, artificial flavors, artificial colors, growth hormones, trans fat, common allergens and more.

According to research from Mintel’s Free-from Food Trends US 2015 report, consumers perceive foods with any free-from claim to be healthier and less processed. Consumers also appear to equate genetic modification, artificial and unhealthy as essentially the same thing. Sixty-two percent of Millennials and 61 percent of Gen Xers believe that the fewer ingredients a product has, the healthier it is.

Mintel research indicates “real food” is particularly important to Millennials and households with children. Half of Millennial moms who purchase foods with a free-from claim say they do so to avoid unnecessary ingredients and 46 percent want their children to eat less of these kinds of ingredients.

It seems there is a fairly high level of distrust of food products and a strong desire for transparency. According to Mintel research, 71 percent said there are probably more harmful or excess ingredients than manufacturers are telling us, and 69 percent said they wanted to see more transparency in food product ingredients.

An example of a company seeking to meet consumer preferences is seen in what Kraft referred to as “the world’s largest blind taste test.” The company quietly removed artificial preservatives, flavors and dyes from its blue box mac & cheese in December 2015. The idea behind the marketing campaign surrounding this change was that Kraft maintained its iconic look, taste and texture without anyone noticing anything different.

Kraft isn’t the only company removing ingredients from iconic food products. More and more companies are making similar moves to keep up with consumer demands.

Mars, Inc. announced it is removing artificial colors from M&Ms, Skittles, Starburst and more. This change will take up to five years.

Campbell’s Soup tinkered with the ingredients to its iconic chicken noodle soup, bringing the ingredient list down to 20 ingredients rather than the original 30. It dropped ingredients such as monosodium glutamate, disodium inosinate and lactic acid. The new recipe was introduced in limited-edition cans with characters from “Star Wars.”

This trend is popping up not only in foods purchased at the grocery store, but also at restaurants. For example, Panera has a No No List of the artificial preservatives, sweeteners, flavors and colors it is removing from its food by the end of 2016. The extensive list includes a variety of controversial ingredients that many consumers want to avoid, such as autolyzed yeast extract, BHT, FD&C colors, propylene glycol and sodium benzoate. 

Beyond consumers trying to limit or avoid certain ingredients, “foods with a function” are also trending, according to the recently released Google Food Trends Report. For the most part, these are foods that are known to have particular health benefits. Some of these foods include turmeric, apple cider vinegar, Manuka honey, kefir, coconut milk, bone broth and cauliflower rice.

Of course, not all trending foods are healthy, but it is clear that, overall, American consumers are increasingly demanding options for clean eating and food without certain controversial/unnecessary ingredients.

So what does this all mean? Here are a few key takeaways for consumers and brands to keep in mind:

  • Price matters – According to Mintel research, the majority of consumers do not want to pay extra for a free-from claim or at least have a price point they won’t go past. Brands that can formulate clean recipes with fewer additives without raising the price will likely rise to the top.
  • Transparency is key – Consumers are increasingly educating themselves about the foods they eat and demanding ingredient transparency from brands. Honest labeling is important.
  • Look for this trend to continue – Consumers have an increased awareness of potential risks of controversial ingredients, and it seems likely that clean eating will remain popular. Exactly what forms that takes may change, but look for consumers to continue to seek out foods that they perceive as healthy.

What about you? Are there certain ingredients you try to avoid in the foods you eat? Is clean eating a priority for you?


Anna Keagy is an Insights Specialist and regular contributor to the Mitchell blog. Click here for more consumer insights and trendspotting from Anna.

Topics: Consumer Insights, trends