Clean Label Insights: How Does Gelatin in Foods Meet Consumer Demands?


The clean label trend has moved forward considerably throughout recent years but the exact definition of what constitutes a “clean” label remains unclear. The key elements of a clean label seem to be the consumer’s desire for simpler products with a transparent and short ingredient list they understand. At the same time, plant-based meat and dairy alternatives are rising in popularity, but do they really match consumers’ expectations in terms of clean label?


How can natural food products like gelatin or dairy take the lead and meet those demands? While the concept of clean label is on every lip, how can it be defined and how important is it to consumers? GROW explored these questions during a roundtable made up of six panelists from different backgrounds in the food industry.

Free of additives and preservatives, natural, organic or sustainable: clean label has multiple interpretations and definitions.

What are clean labels? And how important are they to consumers? All panelists from GROW’s roundtable agree: There are many ways to think about what a clean label is, which makes it impossible to give a general definition.

For a food scientist, the term means that every ingredient on the label has a specific function within the food, explains Nesha Zalesny, Technical Consultant at IMR International. “Each ingredient is there for a reason such as the safety or the palatability of the food. And just because an ingredient might perhaps sound unnatural, it is not necessarily a bad thing because it serves a specific scientific purpose.” But according to Nesha, consumers have different definitions and expectations of what clean label is than food scientists do. She says consumers expect a very short ingredient declaration with so-called “free from” ingredients, which don’t require an e-number. In order to fill this definitional gap, she believes food scientists need to do a better job at educating consumers and talking about why specific ingredients are in foods.

Quote from Lu Ann Williams

Lu Ann Williams, co-founder and Global Insights Director at Innova Market Insights, also believes that consumers have multiple definitions of what clean label is. She refers to a study by Innova Market Insights: when asked what clean eating means to them, 51%* of respondents say that clean eating is about food which is free of additives and preservatives, followed by only natural ingredients, then organic. Moreover, a third of them associate clean eating with products that are sustainably sourced. This diversity of respondents’ responses can be explained by the fact that clean label’s meaning has changed over the years and its meaning becomes bigger and bigger.

It is also challenging to find an agreement on a standard definition of the term clean label on a regulatory level in the European Union, explains Kinga Adamaszwili, Senior Nutrition, Health & Food Law Officer at the European Dairy Association. She describes the clean label to be more of a marketing instead of a regulatory concept. But it does not mean that clean labels are not discussed, she specifies. “Policy makers are trying to figure out what sustainable food consists of, what can be considered sustainable? Within the discussion we can see a lot focus on labels and it is obviously triggered by a lot of consumer interest in nutrition, labeling, in the origin, sustainability and environmental impact,” says Kinga. But finding a common definition in the EU is complex, partly because food is so individual and emotional and differs across regions and nations.

Transparent, short ingredient list, animal or plant-based: consumer perceptions are heterogeneous and fragmented

“One of the main reasons why there are such different perceptions is simply because consumers are not one group,” explains Julian Mellentin, Director and Food Business Expert at New Nutrition Business. Consumers have extremely diverse points of view influenced by – among others – the diversity of information that can be found on the internet.

Moreover, clean label is an evolving trend that tends to change and shape perceptions over time. For example, Lu Ann points out that clean label has been a food trend for many years, but it recently shifted from clean label to clear label shaped by the consumers’ wish for more transparency. “With time, there is going to be a significant overlap of clean label with sustainability and transparency which might change what consumers consider to be clean food,” she explains. 

For Julian, the clean label trend will go back to animal-sourced products in the years ahead. Indeed, he explains that consumers believe plant-based meat substitutes are cleaner than animal-based products. But some of these alternatives tend to have incredibly long ingredient lists with strange names. “However, there is now a turning point –consumers want shorter ingredient lists. They are just as open to animal-based products as to plant-based products. They will consume them if the taste and texture are good and if they believe in the benefits,” says Julian. Consumers are very open to accepting ingredients when they bring benefits that they care about – they can be health, clean label or sustainability, says Julian.

Quote from Julian Mellentin

Kinga gives the example of milk and dairy products; she explains that their natural aspect is one of the many properties consumers appreciate about them. Like milk and dairy, gelatin is also a natural and sustainable product that consumers are familiar with. There is a lot of potential for both gelatin and dairy products says Kinga. Indeed, more than 50% of consumers over 10 countries, have a positive or neutral perception of gelatin according to Innova Market Insights adds Lu Ann.

Natural, functional, sustainable and familiar: gelatin and dairy properties meet consumer demand

Gelatin and milk are both of animal origin, are natural sources of protein and have a long history of culinary and nutritional use. They both are products that consumers trust. “You can imagine consumers reading the ingredient list, looking at the label, they see something that is familiar to them, something that does not have long chemically sounding names, something with no e-number. So, they immediately trust it, and they say ‘OK, it’s good for me,” says Kinga. “I think that is what is at the bottom of this clean label idea of the consumers. What they want is naturalness, something familiar, something less processed, so back to traditional ingredients.” 

Quote from Lara Niemann

But consumers are often not aware that gelatin is a sustainable product, explains Lara Niemann, Global Marketing Director at Gelita and a GROW member. “The gelatin industry creates value, its production is sustainable, and residuals are further processed into by-products. Gelatin has been upcycling and recycling long before the words were part of the discussion. Sustainability is just woven into the gelatin industry where nothing goes to waste,” summarizes Lara.

So, to answer the key question of the roundtable event: how does gelatin in foods meet consumer demands? Lara’s answer is simple: “Perfectly. Gelatin is a natural product, it is a food on its own, it has no e-number, it has beautiful functionality.” She continues: “It is part of the circular economy, it is sustainable, natural. Think about eating that gummy bear, it is that one of a kind, melt in your mouth feeling that cannot be replaced by any other ingredient. Because of this, I am confident that gelatin will be part of food design for many years to come.”

*Innova Health & Nutrition Survey 2020

Lara Niemann: Marketing Director at GELITA, GROW representative

Paul Stevens: Director Special Projects at Rousselot, GROW representative

Nesha Zalesny: Technical Consultant at IMR International

Julian Mellentin: Director and Food Business Expert at New Nutrition

Lu Ann Williams: Global Insights Director at Innova Market Insights

Kinga Adamaszwili: Health and Food Law Officer at European Dairy Association (EDA)