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Simple changes, strategic storytelling can help restaurants meet consumers’ clean label needs

In this interview, Nathan Pratt, nutrition analyst for Kerry, shares advice for how foodservice operators can reduce, replace and remove the ingredients consumers want to avoid and share compelling stories that reinforce their clean label message.

6 min read


Simple changes, strategic storytelling can help restaurants meet consumers’ clean label needs


This post is sponsored by Kerry.


Clean labels are an important issue among consumers, but definitions of “clean” can vary from person to person — including everything from absence of artificial additives to sustainable sourcing. This wide range of preferences can make cleaning up the menu a daunting task for foodservice operators. In this interview, Nathan Pratt, nutrition analyst for Kerry, discusses how the company works with foodservice operators, which ingredients offer the most immediate opportunity for restaurants to make changes and clean up their menus, and how restaurants can communicate with consumers to share the stories behind their food.

Clean label means different things to different consumers, but for most this means food, products, and menu items with fewer ingredients. What are some of the qualities that consumers most closely associate with clean label food?

Kerry recently surveyed consumers on their clean label preferences and found that artificial additives including flavors, colors and preservatives as well as unrecognizable ingredients with chemical-sounding names are some of the obvious features of products in need of “clean-up.” However, when it comes to hallmarks and qualities of clean products, it varies. For some consumers, it’s about products that are natural, organic and non-GMO (including the certification levels). For others, “clean” can mean much more, and that ranges from products that are made with ingredients sourced directly from food and nature, all the way to whether a product was sustainably-sourced, was created humanely and was created with safe, trusted methods.

In addition to ingredients perceived as dangerous or unhealthy, consumers are also looking for natural products with perceived health benefits. How can manufacturers incorporate these consumer requests into their products?

The consumer definition of what makes a food healthy has expanded in recent years, moving beyond factors like calories, protein or fiber content to include traits such as where ingredients are sourced from, the sustainability of the supply chain and more. This has led to a surge in “free-from” claims such as gluten-free and dairy-free taking the real estate on food packages where we used to see callouts such as “good source of…”.

However, we have found that nutrition is still an important aspect of clean label to consumers. Our research shows factors like added sugar, calories and fat are still shining through as traits consumers consider to be important when determining if a product is “clean.” This means that although demand for removing items like artificial flavors and colors is the most easily seen change in the market, the healthfulness of a product will also determine whether a consumer wants to buy it. This could mean anything from reducing calories in a product to making sure that when functional ingredients are added — such as a protein or fiber — they appear in a clean and recognizable way to consumers.

Once a product has been “cleaned up,” how should brands let customers know that the product has been improved to meet their needs? How can restaurant operators distribute this same message when few consumers see the labels of ingredients used in a restaurant?

This is especially challenging in the foodservice environment, and so we’re seeing a lot of activity in telling the stories of how the food actually comes to be. This can be through social media, websites and other media. Regardless of the medium, there is emphasis placed on transparency and the telling of the stories behind the ingredients, how they’re grown, how the food is processed and the environmental impact, to name a few. If companies make the information available and easy to find, consumers will often seek it out. Additionally, certifications are key and even something as simple as more robust menu descriptions that are more aligned with consumer needs and wants of today can go a long way in communicating value. In-store merchandising materials, such as physical or digital signage, can also be effective in communicating an operator’s clean label messaging.

How does Kerry work with foodservice chains and operators to clean up their menus?

We’re seeing a tremendous amount of engagement in recent months from the foodservice channel, especially as many chains see their competition making public announcements and commitments to cleaning up their labels. As for that engagement, it’s really two-fold. On a very practical level, we have a lot of activity in our product pipeline centered on the reduction, replacement and removal of many different ingredients while still making the product taste great. On a more strategic level, we are having more dialogue and discussions with our customers as to where this movement is going in the future, not only from a consumer perspective but also from a nutritional and regulatory perspective.   

What ingredients provide the most immediate opportunity for restaurant operators to make changes and clean up their menus?

Artificial ingredients (e.g. artificial flavors and colors) of any kind present the most immediate opportunity for restaurants and their menus. Those, along with ingredients with chemical names (e.g. nitrates/nitrates, BHA/BHT, azodicarbonamide, calcium propionate, etc.) have become easy targets for removal because they’re the easiest for consumers to identify.

The real challenge for companies is, once the “easy” targets are removed, what’s next? Companies need to be proactive in this space, as the challenges and solutions will become harder to identify and harder to deliver. It’s for this reason that we’re investing heavily in our own proprietary research and insights, and in our innovation and formulation capabilities, to better understand and address the opportunities and challenges of tomorrow with our customer partners. For more information, visit

Nathan Pratt, PhD, RD, is a nutrition analyst with Kerry’s global nutrition team. He is responsible for managing day-to-day operations and content of the Kerry Health and Nutrition Institute, as well as internal and external scientific communications at Kerry.


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