For the better part of a decade, clean food has been appearing on an ever-increasing number of menus, largely driven by consumers demanding transparency about what they’re eating. Now their attention is shifting to the safety of the packaging that their food comes in. Although specific chemicals such as bisphenol A (BPA) have come under scrutiny, there is noticeable silence in the industry and among consumer watchdogs regarding the need for a holistic approach to packaging made with this new desire for transparency in mind.

"Companies that proactively seek to adopt clean packaging have an opportunity to build trust with consumers and position themselves as proactive advocates for their customers"

Despite efforts from professional networks like the Institute of Packaging Professionals, which has published documents to assist in providing guidance in this space, the industry is yet to endorse a universal approach or set of standards. That means companies will have to address this new trend individually for now. However, the companies that view this as an opportunity rather than a challenge have a chance to build trust with consumers by proactively developing an approach to “clean packaging,” and communicating it to consumers.

Until recently, consumers relied on regulatory compliance to safeguard them from potentially harmful substances coming into contact with their food. In today’s information age though, consumers raise questions about specific ingredients and chemicals, then rapidly disseminate the answers—or lack thereof—and create movements with social media to drive real world change.

For example, BPA—an industrial chemical used to make certain plastics and resins—has been linked to a variety of possible health problems including cancer, obesity, and heart disease. Some studies showed BPA can seep into food and beverages. Such research eventually led multiple countries to ban the chemical; even in the U.S. where the Food and Drug Administration has declared it safe, many U.S. consumers have denounced BPA and avoid— even boycott—products containing it. Other ingredients are starting to be targeted too, such as perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), which are used in at least one-third of fast food packaging materials as a grease barrier. It’s only a matter of time before consumers start to seek packaging free from all chemicals.

A recent consumer survey by HAVI, a global supply chain management, logistics, packaging and marketing analytics provider with deep food service expertise, showed that consumers are paying more attention to what’s in their packaging:

• 30 percent of respondents have heard the term “clean packaging.”

• Nearly two-thirds of consumers view clean packaging as at least “very” important, with about 70 percent seeing it as equally or more important than clean food.

• Consumers associate clean packaging with “free from chemicals.”

These findings show that while clean packaging is not yet a full-fledged consumer movement, once the ball starts rolling it will quickly build momentum. Accordingly, companies that proactively seek to adopt clean packaging have an opportunity to build trust with consumers and position themselves as proactive advocates for their customers.

The first step for company leaders to approach clean packaging is to define what it means to them. HAVI’s survey indicates that neither “compliant to regulations” nor “made from natural materials,” resonates with consumers as well as “free from chemicals.” But because chemicals cannot be eliminated from most packaging without alternatives, brands must now identify the chemicals they use to understand their potential toxicity. Therefore, for the food industry, clean packaging would encompass at a minimum:

1. obtaining visibility regarding everything that goes into a packaged product,

2. simplifying what materials are used while minimizing the use of chemicals and

3. leveraging the ability of clean packaging to further enable clean food.

Second, businesses must determine their risk tolerance for the issue of clean packaging. It’s difficult to know how quickly clean packaging will catch on, or to what extent consumers will scrutinize specific components. For example, as many brands focus on replacing single-use plastics with more eco-friendly paper alternatives, many overlook the ink used to print their packaging. Traditional inks contain fluorochemicals like perfluoroalkyl and polyfuoroalkyl substances (PFAs) that are already catching the attention of legislators. California’s Proposition 65, for instance, recently enacted increased regulations on PFAs, declaring that these chemicals “cause reproductive toxicity.”

But for brands looking to get a step ahead, alternative options are emerging. Last month, HAVI announced it will be moving toward the use of natural-based inks, which eliminate fluorochemicals and contain 50 to 90 percent natural materials. These have the added benefit of helping to lower carbon emissions. HAVI is working closely with its suppliers to understand the chemical compositions of these inks, and monitoring the substitutions being offered. Activities such as these lead to increased transparency and stronger sustainability.

And yet, awareness will vary with different customer bases. For example, Panera’s website features a “food as it should be” section on the home page that includes a link to information about clean food. This suggests their diners may be more responsive to clean packaging messages than diners at a Kentucky Fried Chicken, whose website offers no information on clean food. Taking the time to determine how important clean food and packaging is to a company’s customers will allow the company to strategically allocate resources.

When addressing clean packaging, the final step for companies is to reflect on current practices and methods. It’s important that businesses assess the chemicals they are using and evaluate whether they can openly and honestly communicate such information to customers. Consideration of not intentionally added substances (NIAS) can further complicate this process, though. Recent advancements in methods used to detect NIAS have brought environmental contamination into account, and companies are now responsible for identifying and understanding the effects of substances in their packaging that do not play a role in their manufacturing process and would have previously gone undetected. When approaching these new obstacles, suppliers will need to come up with innovative solutions, marrying technology and emerging research to develop strategies to preserve and defend the integrity of their products in order to achieve their clean packaging goals.

Consumers are demanding more sustainable alternatives and packaging designed for ecommerce, especially in the food service industry. With the clean packaging movement picking up steam, companies can take advantage of an opportunity to build a narrative around their clean food initiatives, helping them to tell a better sustainability story and increase consumer trust.