The clean label movement is a persistent, consumer-driven trend that has shifted consumer preferences in favor of foods considered to be more natural. Although lacking legal definitions in food labeling, the terms “natural” and “clean label” are generally used to characterize foods that have short, minimal ingredient lists containing simple and familiar ingredients. Challenges for manufacturers arise in formulating clean label foods as natural ingredients often cost more and perform less effectively in food formulations relative to highly-processed ingredients (e.g., Red 40, modified corn starch, etc.). Ingredients that are frequently targeted for removal by companies in clean label reformulations include those that are modified or synthetically derived, but also those from natural sources (i.e., carrageenan). Thus, reformulating to a clean label standard very risky for processors as it is unclear which ingredients are deemed acceptable by consumers for use. Furthermore, it is unknown whether consumer are willing to incur the added costs and accept the inferior sensory qualities that often accompany clean label reformulations.
Currently, research examining the relative impact of ingredient lists, price, and sensory qualities on consumer preferences is lacking. To address this gap in knowledge, we utilized 1) an online-administered survey to assess consumer perceptions of various yogurt ingredients, and 2) a hypothetical choice experiment to investigate how price, textural defects, and various stabilizers impact the likelihood of consumers purchasing yogurt. Frequent consumers of yogurt representing Pacific Northwest were recruited for both studies. Survey findings suggest that consumers may not perceive stabilizers and thickening agents as being very natural. Consequently, the relative impacts of four different stabilizers on the likelihood of purchasing a yogurt were assessed in a choice experiment. Results of an alternative-specific mixed logit suggest consumers prefer yogurts with clean labels and without textural defects. However, consumers are more willing to accept a textural defect in a yogurt with a clean label. The results further revealed that consumers display a general aversion to corn starch in their plain yogurts, while pectin, milk protein concentrate, and carrageenan were more acceptable. The current findings as well as the techniques used to elicit consumer demand for clean label yogurt should be useful for manufacturers interested in weighing the cost-benefits of clean label reformulations.