Reading between the 'clean label' lines
Rob Wong is president of Agri-Neo, a food safety technology company known for Neo-Pure, an organic pathogen control solution for seeds, grains and nuts.
Food safety has come a long way since the onset of the millennium. We’ve witnessed a shift in consumer appetite toward healthier, fresher products and ingredients. This includes food safety and wellness initiatives like non-GMO, organic, BPA-free and clean label.
These movements have been driven by consumer demand except for clean label. According to Nielsen, 93% of consumers have purchased clean label products at grocery stores. This is a great thing. People are becoming more and more conscious of where their food is coming from and what goes into their meals.
Unfortunately, there is no real definition or standard for clean label. The term does not automatically mean natural or organic. It is an umbrella term that is meant to show a lack of artificial or highly processed ingredients.
So yes, the whole-grain muffins you buy at the grocery store might very well be considered clean label. But what happens to the ingredients on their way to becoming that muffin? A key step during processing is ensuring ingredients are food safe. What this means is implementing a pathogen control step to mitigate the risk of common and harmful bacteria like salmonella.
The drawback is that ingredients are often treated in a harmful way that alters their flavor and nutritional value. Let’s take a look at the most common pathogen control steps used on everyday ingredients:
Steam – Superheated, vaporized water solution
Fumigation –Chemical gas
Irradiation – Ionizing radiation in the form of gamma rays, x-rays or electron beams
Pasteurization –Heat at varying degrees and timeframes
Each of these steps either uses heat or chemicals to kill pathogens, thus altering the foods’ flavor, chemical structures, nutritional value and taste. A 2013 IFIC Foundation survey found that chemicals are the number one factor American consumers consider in terms of food safety (84%), followed by illness from bacteria (79%).
There’s some hypocrisy going on here, and it’s not the fault of consumers. Consumers want to eat healthy, but they don’t have the time to learn how ingredients are controlled, cleansed and shipped.
You won’t have a hard time convincing someone that the food supply needs to be safe. What we’re trying to do is shed a light on how the ingredients we eat every day — and specifically those in so-called clean-label products — still run the risk of being treated with a chemical-controlled pathogen solution or a heat-based solution like steam that vastly alters the food’s natural state by degrading the taste and nutritional value. That whole grain muffin doesn’t sound too tasty if the flour is bleached and the nuts on top are superheated or fumigated to ensure food safety.
Consumers don’t just want organic, they want food safety as nature intended – a true farm-to-table experience without the additive steps, chemicals and processes that alter a food’s natural state. It is this trend that is driving innovation across the food industry.
There are a lot of great companies out there that go above and beyond simply meeting the regulatory requirements required by law – Johnvince Foods in Canada, Aurora Products and Rocky Mountain Foods, just to name a few. They’re meeting consumer demands for fresh quality and healthy products, and doing so in ways that drive product differentiation for their companies, protect consumers and set the standard for what it means to have natural ingredients and a clean label.
Technology is disrupting every industry imaginable, including food. Perhaps consumers aren’t taking notice because it is going on behind the scenes with people like farmers, processors, manufacturers and grocers. But when you’re walking down that aisle at the grocery store, I’d like to task you with reading ingredient labels and reading up on the companies you’re purchasing from. We’ve come a long way in the past 18 years – thanks in large part to you, the consumer – but there is still a lot of work to be done.