If you look just beneath the surface of the push for cleaner labels and the consumer perception of wholesomeness or health and wellness in general, the common theme is simplicity. If consumers can't pronounce an ingredient in a product, they are less likely to buy it. They are looking for simple packaging and simple formulations; fewer ingredients, cleaner labels and slimmer packaging.
But simplicity is more a state of mind than a reflection of ingredients or techniques, and bakers are well positioned to capitalize on the vagaries of what constitutes simplicity and wholesomeness.
According to Lynn Dornblaser, consumer research specialist at Mintel, Chicago, products with simplified labels will be more sought after in 2010 than those that contain the former buzzwords “organic” or “natural.” And Datamonitor says that from 2005 to 2008, there was a 65 percent increase in products using the words “simple” or “simplify” in the product or brand name.
Mintel also reports that 48 percent of products in the U.S. showed a decline in the average number of ingredients in the first three quarters of 2009. Haagen-Dazs introduced its Five line of ice cream with only five ingredients — milk, cream, sugar, eggs and one natural flavor, such as mint. Starbucks changed its banana bread from 15 ingredients to 10. Back to Nature debuted Triple Ginger cookie in January with five ingredients. Even mega-producer Kraft is getting in on the act. The Triscuit brand has always been about less is more, but the crackers are now formulated with soybean oil and packaged with a new look. The result: double-digit growth in the second quarter of 2009.
Parallel trends are feeding into the consumer movement toward simplicity in food. Retro style and comfort foods are booming in consumer preference studies, partially due to an economy-driven, sentimental longing for a return to the perhaps-imagined ‘good old days,’ back when things were simple. Back then, ingredients were real and shelf life was measured in hours.
The locavore trend also presents a push toward locally grown, locally sourced ingredients, which tend to offer a sense of wholesomeness and simplicity. If people know where their food comes from, they know what it is, who grows it and thus they implicitly trust it.
Of course, simple food isn't necessarily any better than complex food. And what's more, what's perceived to be simple food is complex food, only with fewer ingredients. But consumers have spoken, and food manufacturers are answering that demand.
It's true that Grandma made her bread dough with the chemical leavener sodium bicarbonate, but in a market where perception too often becomes reality, consumers smile back on simpler days when people just used plain old baking soda.