In recent years, shoppers have started to see chemical-sounding ingredients as red flags for products they don't want to put in their bodies. This shift has put pressure on big food companies to develop products and change recipes to accommodate the clean label movement.
But Roger Clemens, the former president of the Institute of Food Technologists who currently is a professor at the University of Southern California, said the failure of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to define what clean label means has caused consumers to confuse the term with words such as healthy and natural.
The inability of regulators to add clarity to clean label has made it hard for food scientists responsible for overhauling recipes to do their jobs, especially with most food and beverage products requiring more than five simple-sounding ingredients.
In an interview, Clemens, who also is currently the president of the International Academy of Food Science and Technology, talked about the challenges the future of clean label is facing and possible solutions. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
FOOD DIVE: Why is clean label significant for food and beverage companies in the industry today?
ROGER CLEMENS: Consumers are demanding it and the industry responds to consumer demands. The challenge is the fact that there aren't any regulations and there's no definition, no federal regulation, no (U.S. Agriculture Department), no FDA definition of what a clean label is. It's based on perception and not everyone understands perception, everyone perceives it differently. It's a bit of a challenge for the food industry to provide foods that have fewer ingredients, but yet have the same functionality, the same shelf life, (the same) physical characteristics as those who have the different types of ingredients. It's a significant challenge for those involved with the science of food as well as the regulatory environment.
For the regulatory environment, do you think the growing popularity of clean label food products will spur the FDA to define the term?
CLEMENS: No, I don't. The FDA right now is involved with trying to upgrade and reevaluate what they call a standard of identity for foods and that was a statement made by the commissioner of the FDA a year ago and they've got their hands full with that issue ...The consumer really doesn't understand the science and the regulatory environment, much less what ingredients really do and what they mean in terms of overall health. As a result, when consumers see a name or a phrase or a word that's more than one syllable, they really don't understand what that is. So, our biggest challenge today is to educate the consumer.
"The consumer wants clean to be simple, but in the science of food, clean is not simple."
Former president, Institute of Food Technologists
Do you think there's a solution to clarifying what clean label means beyond just regulation?
CLEMENS: We've got a long way to go. We can't identify simple words like 'natural.' The USDA has a definition of 'natural,' the Center for Veterinary Medicine has a word for 'natural' when applied to pet food. But the FDA does not. I know they promulgated a tentative or temporary definition 30 years ago, but the FDA has yet to finalize that. So with regulation or without regulation, we clearly failed to adequately help the consumer understand the simple word. They may hear the word Vitamin E and say 'Oh that must be good.' But if you've missed the word tocopherol, which is by definition what you're supposed to put on a label. That's a regulatory issue. People think, 'Oh my gosh, what is this horrible word? What is this horrible stuff called tocopherol?'
Do you think that people often confuse healthy and clean label?
CLEMENS: Oh, they clearly are confused with any of those terms. They think natural is better. They think that organic is better, and I can show you data that will not support that. They are totally confused with any of these terms. And clearly when the food scientists want to talk about it or a nutrition person like myself, they think, even though we have all these great letters behind our name and all of these credentials that we've earned, they don't trust us. So what will it take for the consumer to trust scientists? What will it take for a consumer to trust the regulatory agency? And I think we have a bit of a distance to overcome.
Has this confusion complicated things for consumers?
CLEMENS: It is complicated. Food itself is complicated. Health is complicated. Nutrition is complicated. So how do you, in this complex environment, get the trust of the consumer who has a level of literacy or understanding that is not what we would hope it would be? The first rule of communications is to know your audience. Well, where is the audience in the United States? In some cities it is fourth grade and other cities it's the 11th grade. So, where are we to help understand the complexities of food? I teach food toxicology and many classes at USC. Every plant that we consume and every food ever consumed contains innate toxins, and do people complain about those? No, but if I were to put a label on that, people would panic.
As a professor, you said a big solution is just educating consumers. Do you think that more education should focus on a definition like clean label?
CLEMENS: Yes, and we need to understand what food is even at the grammar school level. In the elementary and secondary education, most people in this country that are teaching science do not have a science background. And where did they get their information? They get their information from Dr. Google. ... I'm actually working with a number of organizations trying to develop materials so that people can understand, both in elementary and secondary education, that health is complex, food is complex. So let's put the two together so people can understand. Ultimately, my mantra is let us seek to understand.
You've talked about how more companies are working hard to change their labels, but there's so many challenges the industry faces. Looking at how the environment has changed, how do you see things unfolding in 2019?
CLEMENS: They're trying to make it as simple as possible, and the challenge will be that it requires industry and the regulatory department — USDA and FDA in particular — to see what term will be acceptable on the label. You have to declare what is the chemical name. So, do we declare the chemical name and then parenthetically what is the more common name? Is that always permitted? If I were to show you the chemistry of tomatoes and strawberries, you wouldn't eat them, but if I just call it a tomato or a strawberry, you would like that. So, how far do we go to help the consumer understand the complexity? I think we have a long way to go.
This is going to be more complicated in 2019. If you look at the latest survey, publicly available through the National Restaurant Association ... a large number of chefs said the No. 1, 2 and 3 ingredients will be CBD-infused foods. Well, right now it's illegal. Even [FDA Commissioner] Scott Gottlieb last year, on Dec. 20, when he talked about hemp, said we still do not have these kinds of compounds. These cannabinoid compounds have not yet met the traditional safety assessments. Yet, if you go online you can buy foods that have all kinds of cannabinoids in them. Are the legal? No. We have no safety data and Dr. Gottlieb said we have to have safety data.
So, that puts the food industry in quite a dilemma. Consumers are demanding it, yet it's our job to show if they are safe at the levels that you want to be infused. The beer companies are involved with this, major beverage companies are involved. Yet we have no safety data. So, again, for clarity, whether it's clean or not clean, whatever that means, safety remains paramount. As we look at natural colors, as we look at other plant based proteins, (as) we look at other plant-based fats in a diet, it still comes down to: is the product safe and do the people really understand what that ingredient really means. The consumer wants clean to be simple, but in the science of food, clean is not simple.