There are many obstacles in educating the public about the meaning of clean labels, according to new reports from EDF+Business, part of the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). The former notes that the term “clean label” is misunderstood by the vast majority of today's shoppers. Roughly one-third of shoppers think clean label products are free of artificial ingredients, another third think they are organic or natural, and the remaining third are unsure.
CSPI analyzed what four restaurant chains and nine grocers have been doing to “deliver what they interpreted a ‘clean label product’ to mean,” and there was no consistent understanding of the term.
The report suggests that retailers interested in clean label commitments should prioritize public health and overall food quality and apply a list of prohibited ingredients to all products, including private label brands.
While it’s unlikely that food industry players want more federal regulation of food production practices, an official “clean label” definition by the U.S. Department of Agriculture or Food and Drug Administration could help clear up manufacturer and consumer confusion over the concept.
What is “clean labeling” supposed to mean? Some consumers and retailers believe clean label products are synonymous with “free from” products, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Free from is commonly defined as a “catch-all term used to denote food or drink that has been designed to exclude one or more ingredients to which at least some consumers can either have an allergic [reaction] or an intolerance”.
Another report, from the Environmental Defense Fund, declares that, “Clean labels ... provide no assurance about other unknown and hazardous food additives such as those used in packaging like perchlorate or that enter food during manufacturing and processing like phthalates.”
Until the term is given an official definition from a government agency, grocery retailers will continue to misuse the term, either intentionally to make product offerings appear healthier than they actually are, or by accident. This will further confuse consumers searching for healthy products, and undermine the efforts of retailers who actually provide “clean” chemical-free products with natural foods.
It’s unclear whether or not the FDA or USDA will devote time to defining this term and others under the Trump administration. For the time being, retailers can do their part to make their personal definitions clear to their consumers, either through social media campaigns or prominent signage on designated aisles.