Clean Labeling - Healthy Trend or Sneaky Consumer Trap?

Living a healthy lifestyle is becoming more important to many people. This is not only evident in everyday activities, but also in the foods people consume. In order to live a healthy life, particular care is taken to buy foods that are labeled as "clean". At first, it just looked like a trend, but the term has become established in the food industry – although there is no legal definition on behalf of the FDA or other authorities. While "clean labeling" gives people a good feeling, consumers still do not know about the ingredients that are being used and that the food they are consuming is anything but clean.

"Clean labeling" – an attempt to find a definition

"Clean Labeling" means promoting food with the indication that the product does not contain certain ingredients. This conveys to the consumer that these are healthy foods without additives. In many cases, this refers to ingredients which consumers regard as unhealthy or which they reject for other reasons. These include in particular, artificial colors, preservatives, flavors, flavor enhancers, genetically modified foods and nutrients such as sugars or hydrogenated fatty acids. In addition, these labels often state "made with natural ingredients", which should emphasize the natural origin. The labeled products are often not as natural as suggested on the packaging. Disliked additives are replaced by declarations-friendly alternatives that have a similar effect but are not required by law to be labeled as an additive.

Breaking a promise

If a food has been labeled with "no artificial colors", it does not mean that the food contains no coloring ingredients at all. There are foods colorings such as tomato or bell pepper powder, saffron or beetroot juice, which may legally be present in the final product, even if this is labelled with "no artificial colors". Foods that are spiced up with such additional colors pretend to be of higher quality. A similar example is the label "no artificial flavors". This label is aimed especially at customers who want to refrain from artificial additives such as glutamate. Nevertheless, some foods can contain these additives, even if the label says otherwise. In those cases, the additive is part of another ingredient. Take for example, yeast extract or soy protein. Because glutamate is a natural component of yeast extract, it does not have to be mentioned on the ingredient list.

Consumer confusion, regulatory liberties and complicated science

Many manufacturers use clean labeling to promote their products although there aren't any regulations or definitions on behalf of the authorities or the FDA. Clean labeling is more a demand that has been triggered by consumers on one hand and has been answered by the food industry on the other hand. Since there are no legal regulations or definitions for the term, it is based primarily on the perception of the consumer. A big problem is that consumers often do not know the terms that are on an ingredients list. This is further complicated by the fact that many ingredients have synonyms. Therefore, it is not up to the FDA to find a consistent regulation for clean labeling, but first of all to educate consumers about the ingredients and their different terms. It is not primarily about the explanation of terms, but about giving them an understanding of science. Consumers want simplicity but they have to understand that science is anything but simple. This also corresponds to the term "clean". One consumer can interpret this term quite differently than another. From a scientific perspective, it is difficult to find common ground. The biggest challenge is to manage the balancing act between conveying safety on the one hand and imparting knowledge on the other hand.

Without having the necessary knowledge of what certain ingredient terms stand for, it is difficult for the consumer to know if a product is really clean of respective substances. For this reason, clean labeling is more likely to confuse the consumer. Therefore, it is important to create a common understanding of what clean labeling means and what is behind individual ingredients.