couple looking at milk in grocery store

What Does Clean Label Mean for Dairy

When Kraft Mac & Cheese reformulated 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 added vitamin D to aid calcium absorption in bones. Fortunately, these nutrients are also on-trend for today’s consumers. In addition, consumers are checking the nutrition label for added sugars, which is a global trend many governments across the world are promoting to combat rising obesity.

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.

Free From

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 easy to recognize, don’t have chemical-sounding names, and could be found in their own kitchens.

Some product challenges to clean label 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, which five of their flavors - chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, coffee and green tea - contain only five ingredients: milk, cream, sugar, eggs, and the characterizing flavor.  

The dairy alternatives is one area  where the dairy industry is promoting the clean label aspect of their offerings. For example, milk is promoted as having a cleaner label than milk alternatives like soy and almond milks since it contains fewer ingredients. Many milk alternatives contain eight to twelve ingredients, including salt, sugar, stabilizers, and thickeners. 


Dairy has a long tradition as a wholesome staple of a balanced diet. Anything that seems to diverge from this wholesome image can make consumers leery. Call-outs such as organic, 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 high quality and wholesome. 

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 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.

USDA Organic, Non-GMO Project Verified, Certified American Grassfed and the National Dairy FARM (Farmers Assuring Responsible Management) Program are all certification many consumer consumers look for in order to determine if dairy products meet their individual standards.  

cow in a field

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.

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 dairy protein ingredients and vitamin and mineral fortification of dairy products, Glanbia Nutritionals can help you develop the healthy products that consumers are looking for. Partner with Glanbia Nutritionals and put your best products forward!

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