Clean labels have trade-offs in cost and food safety, scientists say
Not all food additives and preservatives are bad, according to two food safety and nutrition professors at Iowa State University. Some with hard-to-pronounce names are there to guard against pathogens and spoiling or for aesthetic reasons, they said, although consumers may find it difficult to understand the risk-benefit ratio.
Professors Ruth MacDonald, Ph.D., and Ruth Litchfield, Ph.D., said that market demand appears to be driving the removal of food additives when there should instead be measured consideration of why they're there and the benefits of keeping them. One example is taking nitrates out of hot dogs and deli meats — even though their presence can help prevent the growth of clostridium botulinum bacteria, the professors said.
The internet and social media channels play a role in perpetuating the problem, Litchfield told the university's news service. "Social media has gotten us to this point. It is a big driver of distrust," she said. "The one thing I would tell consumers is do not believe everything they see on social media. If they read about research on social media, track down the original study to see if it even exists."
Consumers increasingly want meat and other food products they buy and consume to be free of additives and preservatives such as nitrates, sodium benzoate, calcium propionate and potassium sorbate. Yet, without these ingredients, foods can spoil faster and end up being wasted, the Iowa professors said.
MacDonald noted that there are naturally occurring forms of some preservatives. For example, if a label contains the words "naturally cured" or "uncured," the product may include celery juice, which is a natural source of nitrates. However, the amount may not be as as protective against food poisoning as the artificial version, she said.
Label-readers may also want to watch out for the words “no high fructose corn syrup” on a product because that doesn't mean it contains no sugar, the professors said. Food makers may add other sweetening agents like tapioca syrup, which is made from cassava — an imported ingredient that can make the product more expensive.
“There is no evidence that high fructose corn syrup is bad for you or less natural or safe,” MacDonald told the news service. “The food industry is developing all these alternative sweeteners — beet syrup, fruit sugars and agave syrup — but they are all sugar. The names just sound better on the label.”
According to recent data from Label Insight, 67% of consumers find it challenging to understand if a product meets their needs just by looking at a package, and nearly half claim they aren’t informed after reading a product label. With transparency becoming more important, consumers increasingly align their brand loyalty with those products that practice what they preach regarding clean labeling.
Roger Clemens, associate director for the University of Southern California School of Pharmacy's regulatory sciences program, talked with Food Dive earlier this year about some of the challenges faced by companies trying to clean up labels for American consumers, who seem all too willing to eschew chemical-sounding ingredient names.
“The U.S. population wants it both ways," he said. "They want something they can understand, they want cheap, they want nutritious, they want beneficial, they want safe. They want everything. It’s interesting they are willing to accept technology in all areas of their lives except food. To me, that’s kind of an oxymoron.”
Meat producers are particularly aware of these trends and are competing to give consumers products with the cleanest labels possible, according to Meatingplace. More labels are sporting claims like "hormone-free" and "antibiotic-free."
Meat producers must weigh the potential financial benefit of these free-from claims against the costs involved in achieving them. They may have to alter their farming style, the amount of land they need for livestock to graze and other operational procedures that make this kind of meat more expensive for processors and companies that source from them.
There's no question that the food industry is responding to consumer trends toward more clean labeling and transparency in general, but just as there are costs to growers, processors and manufacturers, there are costs for consumers as well. These costs may not only be at the cash register, but also in food safety risks.
- Meatingplace Study: Consumers don’t understand the cost of clean label meat
- Iowa State University Consumers may not recognize costs, consequences of demand for ‘clean’ food