Clean labels | Sumfood

Posted in Consumer, Culinary, Food Systems, Locavore, Low Carbon Eater on Apr 23, 2019

If the science or food community were to come up with a name for the ‘clean label’ movement, it is likely that it would have been a clunky acronym or long-winded scientific-jargon encased beast. But, the thing about the ‘clean label’ movement is that it is consumer-led; and the simplicity of the name reflects both that and the intention of the movement. A bit of an explanation is required in order to understand what meant by the term ‘clean label’.

It is likely that the movement grew out of frustration with food labels. That frustration was fuelled, in part, by our decreasing knowledge of food systems, and by the increasing complexity of what food companies were required to put on their labels. Don’t get us wrong, that transparency is important, but the addition of information without a corresponding increase in knowledge leads to scepticism and confusion; and, it’s fair to say that little is being done to increase knowledge in food systems (but, more about that in a future post).

A clean label product is really one that has been produced with as few ingredients as possible, and with ingredients that might be found in the average household. That is, ingredients that a consumer would recognise and possibly consider healthy or safe and for that reason, artificial ingredients are avoided. In a lot of ways, it seeks to demystify the food product and restore trust in food producers or manufacturers.

Does simplification increase trust?

The clean label movement is about simplification and building trust, but this is not a straightforward endeavour. For example, some would suggest that the word salt is used on food, after all, it is universally understood what ‘salt’ is (in the context of ‘pass the salt, please’ or ‘pass the sodium chloride, please’) yet there are 23 salts and not all of them are good on your baked potato. By ‘dumbing down’ language to make the label more acceptable, are we, ironically, at risk of also making food less transparent? Of course, there are regulations about what is required on labelling and that can lead to confusion in the opposite way. As an example, ‘thiamine’ can sound a bit scary in your oatmeal unless you know that it is Vitamin B1 which is an important component of a balanced diet.

While many regulators seem to accept the consumer desire for a clean label, they continue to have requirements about the way ingredients are described; and this must be in the most accurate form. We won’t see the loss of scientific names anytime soon.


A subset of the clean label movement is the ‘free-from' sector simply referring to foods that are ‘free from’ any number of additive and ingredients. The premise is if you can look at a label and immediately see that it is free from ‘that-which-you-fear-most’, then it will expediate the shopping/decision process. It’s a growth sector, it is estimated that the “free from” food product sector will grow to around $41.5 billion by 2021. As retailers, the ‘free-from’ movement is an expanding area of the supermarket and is demonstrating year-on-year growth; however, the growth does seem to differ geographically. For example, natural food and beverage products comprise 13.1% of the market in California but only 7.8% of the market in the Southeast part of the US (InsightsNow).

Dazed and confused

The constant barrage of information about diets, health, food scares, etc, tends to leave us confused and unsure of who or what to trust. In a recent survey, a whopping 78% of participants reported receiving conflicting information about what foods to eat or avoid; and only 43% could identify a food or nutrient that was associated with health benefits (International Food Information Council Foundation, 2017). Search for nearly any subject and you will find conflicting information. Take, for example, the case of whether gluten is a good or bad thing to have in your diet; according to Holly Strawbridge in Harvard Health: “Based on little or no evidence other than testimonials in the media, people have been switching to gluten-free diets to lose weight, boost energy, treat autism, or generally feel healthier”. Whilst adults are trying to cut down on gluten in droves (around 1 in 4 American adults according to one survey), removing gluten from your diet is not necessarily a healthy action.

Enter the popular ‘experts’

According to Aristotle, nature abhors a vacuum (horror vacui) and so, in the absence of definitive and authoritative and trustworthy information comes the ‘influencers’. Individuals who have created an audience and livelihood based on peddling opinion, and often, misinformation. While these are often rather amusing to observe, they do have consequences, as an example: ParmesanGate. Parmigiano Reggiano is a parmesan cheese – it is an Italian speciality cheese that is afforded protection under the European and US law and that can only be produced from the milk of cows who happily graze on the pastures of Emilia-Romagna in Italy. An American version of parmesan is produced, and that version can be sold pre-grated. Pre-grated cheese requires the addition of cellulose to prevent it from clumping and while the levels of cellulose are prescribed, these are often exceeded in production. All of this led to an exposé by Bloomberg claiming that the cellulose was derived from wood products. What happened next was an explosion of comments on social media and 52.9 million likes on 6 news media posts about the story.

The most significant and galling aspect of the social media influencer is their lack of accountability for the actions that they ‘influence’ or orchestrate. If a physician provides inaccurate advice they can be censured, if a researcher submits an article for publication it is peer-reviewed, if an influencer advocates a dangerous food substitute for infants that can result in harm or death, they receive greater notoriety.

Will clean labels make a difference?

Is the motivation for clean labels truly altruistic? It is hard not to be cynical in examining the motivation of the food industry in ‘cleaning up’ food labels. Consumer confusion makes it harder to sell products – simplifying how we communicate makes it easier to ‘remove’ consumer concerns, but it does not necessarily lead to a more informed consumer. However, cynicism aside, we believe that anything that engages consumers more, and encourages them to ask questions about food and food production methods, is a good thing.

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