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What Does Clean Label Mean for Dairy?

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When Kraft Mac & Cheese was revamped to exclude artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives, we had to admit that clean label had gone mainstream. As the meaning of clean label continues to expand, simply removing undesirable ingredients may no longer be sufficient to satisfy consumers—especially for dairy products.

What is Clean Label Dairy?

Dairy is traditionally known for its healthy nutrition label, which typically includes good amounts of protein, calcium, and vitamin D. Fortunately, these nutrients are also on-trend for today’s consumers. In addition, consumers are checking the nutrition label for added sugars, which is one of several recent government changes to the nutrition label.

The focus of the clean label movement, however, is not the nutrition label, but the ingredient statement. Ingredients that are simple, natural, wholesome, and traditional resonate with clean label consumers. Clean label information can also be conveyed through front-of-package claims, such as organic or all natural.


At a minimum, a clean label dairy product is free from artificial ingredients, including artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives. The product is even more appealing to consumers if the ingredients are not only natural, but easy to recognize, don’t have chemical-sounding names, and could be found in their own kitchens.

Some product challenges to all-natural reformulation include switching to natural colors, which can be less vibrant, less process tolerant, and less stable. Furthermore, for stabilizers such as modified starches, which are typically highly functional and process tolerant, as well as cost effective, it may be difficult to find one-to-one ingredient replacements. It may require higher usages of a less functional natural replacement or the use of multiple ingredients to achieve the same result, often at a higher cost.

Few Ingredients

When it comes to ingredients, the fewer, the better. And, in fact, traditional dairy products are made with very few ingredients. Yogurt contains milk and cultures, while cheese contains milk, cultures, rennet, and salt. To many consumers, a short ingredient statement signifies real food. The longer the list, the more processed the food seems.

Brands that have tapped into this perception include Haagen-Dazs Five All Natural Ice Cream. All varieties contain only five ingredients: milk, cream, sugar, eggs, and the characterizing flavor (e.g., cocoa, mint, coffee, lemon, or vanilla bean). 

In a clean label promotional brochure by Midwest Dairy, milk is described as having a cleaner label than milk alternatives like soy and almond milks since it contains fewer ingredients. It claims that milk contains three ingredients (milk, vitamin A, and vitamin D), while milk alternatives contain eight to twelve ingredients, including salt, sugar, stabilizers, and thickeners.Woman reading a drink label in a grocery store.


Dairy has a long tradition as a wholesome staple of the American diet. Anything that seems to diverge from this wholesome image can make consumers leery. Call-outs such as organic, non-GMO, antibiotic-free, hormone-free, grass-fed, and pasture-raised help reassure consumers that the dairy products they’re buying for themselves and their families are as wholesome as what their grandparents consumed.

Messaging around caring for the environment and the animals, especially in reference to family farms, can reinforce the wholesome image of traditional dairy farming. Whole milk is also strongly associated with a wholesome, traditional diet and is trending big right now in flavored milks and yogurts.


Transparency is closely aligned with clean label. This can include sourcing transparency, such as identifying which farms or regions the milk is from, as well as third-party certifications, like USDA Organic, Non-GMO Project Verified, or Certified American Grassfed.

Transparency is also important for products with ingredients that could be misunderstood by consumers. For example, added vitamins and minerals are often synthetic and can have chemical-sounding names, but are widely accepted by consumers when they understand what they are and the benefits they provide. DanoneWave’s Left Field Farms milk, which is Non-GMO Project Verified and claims 50% more vitamin D than other milks, shows how healthy fortifications can go hand-in-hand with clean label.

Cow grazing in the grass.

Looking Ahead

Clean label has gone mainstream and shows no signs of slowing down. Further expansions of clean label could include the current trend in dairy of reduced or no added sugars, as these touch on the ideas of wholesome and fewer ingredients. Since the clean label movement is fundamentally health-driven, anything associated with better health has the potential to be included.

As a leader in nutritional ingredients, Watson can help you develop the healthy products that consumers are looking for. Partner with Watson and put your best products forward!

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