More than half of consumers (52 percent) in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa (APMEA) always look for cleaner labels when shopping, but clean eating in the East is very different from the West, according to new research released by taste and nutrition company Kerry Group.

The “Cleaner Label: Safety, Health, and Environment–The New Narratives” report, which is based on market analysis, expert interviews, and a survey of 4,000 shoppers, found that claims relating to food safety are more important than health and sustainability for APMEA consumers.

“The cleaner label movement is quickly gaining ground in APMEA, but the vast majority of research still relates to Europe and the Americas where the trend first took off. We commissioned this study to gain a better understanding of consumer priorities in APMEA. What’s clear is that clean eating is very different in this region, so it’s crucial that F&B brands localize their cleaner label strategies to succeed here,” says John Savage, president and CEO, Kerry Asia, Middle East and Africa.

The report identifies four key trends:

SAFETY CONCERNS DOMINATE

Claims about the elimination of ingredients thought to be harmful rank as the three most important demands by APMEA consumers, with ‘no artificial additives/preservatives’ in first place, followed by ‘no pesticides/pollutants’ and ‘no antibiotics/growth hormones’ respectively.

Kerry’s report also finds that this is consistent across all categories. For snacks, soups, sauces and dressings, meat and fish, dairy, beverages and bakery, confectionery and cereals, the claim of ‘no artificial additives/preservatives’ ranked as the most important for APMEA consumers.

“The cleaner label movement is quickly gaining ground in APMEA, but the vast majority of research still relates to Europe and the Americas where the trend first took off. We commissioned this study to gain a better understanding of consumer priorities in APMEA. What’s clear is that clean eating is very different in this region, so it’s crucial that F&B brands localize their cleaner label strategies to succeed here,” says John Savage, president and CEO, Kerry Asia, Middle East and Africa.

“A lot of countries in APMEA have histories of high-profile food scandals due to poor food processing and handling and malpractices, so it’s not surprising that food safety trumps health and environmental claims in this region,” says Savage.

“Our research has found that while health and sustainability are also beginning to drive shopping and consumption behavior in APMEA, they both operate in the context of food safety. F&B brands must take this into consideration when communicating with consumers here.”

FAT REDUCTION TOPS THE HEALTH AGENDA

The report also reveals key differences in healthy eating priorities between East and West. While the Western narrative around healthier eating has shifted from fat reduction to carbohydrates and sugar reduction, the report shows that fat still remains the top health concern among APMEA consumers in most markets except Australia and South Africa.

More than half (53 percent) of APMEA consumers admit that they would pay a premium for products with no/low fat claims, and consumers in the region as a whole rank low/no fat as more important than claims about low/no sugar across all categories. Desire for weight management in order to improve appearance is one of the key drivers of this trend, with two in five APMEA consumers saying that they associate healthier food with food that makes them look better. This is a particularly strong message for consumers in Southeast Asia, with more than 50 percent of shoppers in the Philippines and Thailand associating healthy food claims with benefits for their appearance.

The other major reason why fat reduction claims are so important in the region is that obesity–and obesity-related diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and certain types of cancer–are an increasing health concern. Forty-one percent of consumers in Asia Pacific are overweight or obese, up from 35 percent in 1990.

Desire for weight management in order to improve appearance is one of the key drivers of this trend, with two in five APMEA consumers saying that they associate healthier food with food that makes them look better. This is a particularly strong message for consumers in Southeast Asia, with more than 50 percent of shoppers in the Philippines and Thailand associating healthy food claims with benefits for their appearance.

ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES NEED TO BE PERSONALLY RELEVANT

In terms of environmental claims, ‘sustainably-sourced’ isn’t far behind ‘reduced fat’ in terms of its importance to APMEA consumers; even coming in the top 10 cleaner label claims by importance for APMEA consumers.

However, the report finds that this is, in part, due to perceptions about the health benefits of sustainably-sourced products rather than being solely motivated by environmental concerns, as more than half of respondents in APMEA (55 percent) say that they are likely to purchase sustainably-sourced food because they believe it is healthier for them.

SIGNIFICANT REGIONAL VARIATIONS IN ATTITUDES TO PROVENANCE

The final takeaway from the report is that provenance has become a shortcut for many consumers in APMEA to judge all three cleaner label priorities—safety, health, and the environment.

The trust that consumers place in local provenance, however, varies greatly from country to country, with Japan (43 percent), Australia (38 percent) and Turkey (26 percent) topping the list of countries where consumers trust local provenance as a mark of food safety, compared with China (three percent), Saudi Arabia (seven percent), India (seven percent) and the majority of Southeast Asian countries, where consumers have very little trust in the safety of local produce.

“Provenance is an increasingly important cleaner label message across the region, but the disparity in how much trust consumers place in local produce means that brands need to take a very nuanced approach—promoting local ingredients and production in some markets while focusing on international sourcing in others where this is considered to be a better sign of safety,” says Savage.

When consumers in the region do buy food products made from local ingredients, this is mainly driven by a desire to support local communities (31 percent), followed by assurances that it is safer than imported produce (26 percent), a perception that local produce is healthier (22 percent) and the belief that local produce is cheaper (21 percent).

When consumers in the region do buy food products made from local ingredients, this is mainly driven by a desire to support local communities (31 percent), followed by assurances that it is safer than imported produce (26 percent), a perception that local produce is healthier (22 percent) and the belief that local produce is cheaper (21 percent).

“As consumers in the region become more educated about health and the environment, the impact of cleaner label on purchase decisions in APMEA is only going to continue increasing in years to come. The surest route to success is for brands to frame their health and environment benefits in the context of food safety,” says Savage.

“However, in this region in particular—where ‘unhealthy’ ingredients like fat and sugar underpin a lot of traditional dishes—it is also critical that the quest for cleaner label doesn’t compromise taste. The F&B brands that are best placed to succeed will be those that can satisfy consumer demand for safety, health, and sustainability while preserving their traditional tastes.”

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