September 2018 Issue

The Retail RD: Deciphering Clean Labels
By Barbara Ruhs, MS, RDN
Today's Dietitian
Vol. 20, No. 9, P. 18

Consumer interest in health and corporate transparency is driving the demand for "clean label" products, a nonregulated term that, according to the FDA, has no legal definition. Generally speaking, "clean label" is a catch-all term to describe products that are minimally processed, have shorter ingredient lists, and are free from artificial ingredients (eg, sweeteners, colors, flavors), added hormones, GMOs, and allergens.

According to the 2017 US grocery shopping trends report published by the Food Marketing Institute, health and nutritional content are primary drivers of food purchasing decisions for more than 78% of shoppers.1 However, data released in May in the Food and Health Survey, published by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation, demonstrate that consumers are still confused about how to make healthful choices. In fact, less than 38% of consumers were able to identify specific foods that could help them achieve desired health outcomes.2 Manufacturers are responding by reformulating products and introducing new product innovations to market "clean," "free from," and "natural" products, attributes that consumers believe are associated with health. Furthermore, when consumers were asked to compare two products having identical nutrition facts, the clean-labeled products touting "natural" and non-GMO claims on the package were perceived as more healthful.

As the clean labeling movement continues to gain momentum, consumers will need nutritional guidance to sort through the confusion, and supermarket dietitians are uniquely positioned to help. Food manufacturers introduce an average of 20,000 new products to supermarkets each year, and retail dietitians often are among the first to get exposure to these innovations.3 According to the IFIC Foundation report, cardiovascular health, weight management, energy, brain function, and digestive issues are the top-ranked health concerns for which consumers are seeking benefits from their food.2 Dietitians can help shoppers see beyond nonregulated labeling terms such as "clean," "natural," and other potentially misleading health marketing claims and provide science-based nutrition guidance to help shoppers make informed and personalized healthful purchasing decisions.

This article focuses on strategies to help retail RDs stay informed about marketing claims and the latest product innovations to educate shoppers and steer them toward more healthful products and improved health.

Understanding Nutrition Marketing Claims
Consumers have struggled to effectively use the Nutrition Facts panel since its introduction in 1994. Food marketing is big business, and food companies invest millions of dollars in package design as well as product launches to ensure profits and success. Although some products' clean labels may be the result of nutrition improvements, this isn't always the case. It's important for supermarket dietitians to be not only well informed about products' actual nutrient content but also familiar with the FDA's qualified health claims and nutrient content claims. Knowing the FDA's definition of "healthy" and understanding the labeling lingo and differences between "low," "reduced," "high," and numerous other details of nutrient-content terms helps in advising shoppers to make more healthful choices, but being knowledgeable also has other advantages. It's valuable when executing a shelf-labeling program, offering input on private label product innovations, and publishing legally sound nutrition communications and marketing materials that speak to product nutritional attributes and regulated terms.

Food Industry Collaboration
Retail dietitians can offer much-needed reassurance and education about clean-label products to consumers, but many dietitians—including retail RDs—lack technical knowledge of food processing, functional ingredients, sourcing, packaging technology, and other useful information. Dietitians who work for food companies can be a wealth of valuable and useful information for supermarket RDs. According to the IFIC Foundation report, understanding production significantly impacts food purchase decisions. More than one-half of respondents from the IFIC Foundation survey reported that recognizing the ingredients, understanding where food is from, and containing a shorter list of ingredients significantly impacted purchase decisions.

While consumers may be wary of chemical names or mysterious-sounding ingredients, from casein to tocopherol, dietitians and food scientists who work in the food industry can educate (and enlighten) retail RDs on how and why products are processed and labeled as they are. They can offer justification for ingredients used, such as preservatives, flavorings, and sweeteners, based on cost, product taste, and food safety and perishability factors. In addition, they can educate dietitians on standards of identity for food products, as established by the FDA to define a food's composition and promote honesty and expectations of consumers.4 In addition, food industry dietitians are well versed in ingredient and nutrition labeling regulations and offer helpful insights on processing, sourcing ingredients, and packaging. In working collaboratively with RDs in the food industry, retail dietitians can be educated on products sold in their stores and more effectively guide consumers toward more healthful product purchases.

Staying Informed
Although attending food shows such as Natural Products Expo West, The Fancy Food Show, and The Fresh Summit may not sound like work per se, it's an important part of the retail RD's job. Walking around the exhibit halls at these shows is an easy way to become knowledgeable about what's happening in the food industry. Plant-based milk products, veggie snacks, hemp, cold-brewed coffee, cauliflower pizza crust, and gluten-free products are just a few of the trends that have been spotted at these food shows in the past decade. If you're regularly promoting products in stores, the opportunity to taste new products and talk to vendors can be invaluable, especially if you're doing so with a team of category managers or other store personnel. Your knowledge of nutrition can help encourage customers to make more healthful choices available.

Retailers have limited space and often rely on syndicated data from Nielsen, IRI, or SPINS to make informed decisions about product sourcing and promotions based on national and trade area-specific data. Retail dietitians need to familiarize themselves with these tools, which can help them evaluate food trends and provide opportunities to promote certain products to maximize return on investment. Ask your retailer about gaining access to these valuable tools and training to find ways to use the data most effectively in your role as a retail dietitian.

Rise to the Occasion
Despite all of the forces in the food industry that can confuse consumers and interfere with their health education, the IFIC Foundation survey offers reassuring data showing that the majority of consumers seek food and nutrition advice from health professionals, including dietitians. As the food retail landscape evolves and responds to consumer demands, retail dietitians face the unique challenges of educating themselves so they can effectively lead shoppers to purchase more healthful products and obtain better health.

— Barbara Ruhs, MS, RDN, is a food industry consultant maximizing the impact of supermarket dietitians to transform consumer health. Connect with her on LinkedIn at

1. U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends 2017. Food Marketing Institute website. Published July 18, 2017.

2. International Food Information Council. 2018 Food and Health Survey. Published May 2018.

3. US Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. New products. Updated April 5, 2017.

4. US Food and Drug Administration. Food standards: inventory of temporary marketing permits (TMPs) granted under 21 U.S.C. 341 for definitions and standards of identity for food. Updated March 12, 2018.