This post was originally published on January 22, 2018 and updated on November 2, 2021.

This article, written by nutrition expert Roger Clemens, DrPH, FIFT, CFS, FASN, FACN, CNS, FIAFST and toxicologist A. Wallace Hayes, Ph.D., D.A.B.T., FATS, FIBiol, FACFE, FACN, ERT, CNS, explores the science behind the clean label trend.

The rapidly expanding clean label movement isn’t going to slow any time soon. In Brazil, there’s even a call for differentiating food quality based on the level of processing. This approach is also being considered in Canada and Europe. While this trend has yet to reach the U.S., this is quite serious because it is, for the most part, without scientific foundation.

We need to teach consumers how to define clean label
Both of us sit on GRAS panels. We are tenacious about being proactive rather than reactive. With consumers’ growing interest in our food supply, nutritionists and dietitians have a great opportunity to educate people about the fundamentals of food toxicology and food safety.

There’s little doubt that millennials are driving the call for clean label. Even though they may be concerned for improving public health, they may be taking the wrong pathway. Driven by emotion and misconception, some are being swept up by the movement. They know little about public health and the dynamics involved in food safety.  

Consider these statistics*:

  • While 25 percent of U.S. products now claim clean label, 78 percent of consumers don’t understand the meaning of this approach to food labeling and ingredient declaration. This may be due to the absence of any regulatory definition.
  • About 65 percent of consumers are confused by the difference between organic and non-GMO. In fact, most of these consumers are unable to really define either of these categories that are clearly defined in U.S. food regulations and guidance documents.

Part of what’s missing are clear definitions. Millennials tend to think of clean label as all-natural, and no additives, synthetic chemicals or preservatives. They are demanding the return to ‘real food’ with familiar, simple ingredients that are easy to recognize, understand and pronounce. Their mantra: If you can’t spell it or pronounce it, you probably shouldn’t eat it.”

Meanwhile, the food industry might define it as being clear and transparent about what’s in the products, even though current food regulations require accurate nutrition facts panels and ingredient declaration statements.

False assumptions are rampant
In the same way, the FDA has not yet defined ‘natural’, unlike the USDA and AAFCO, which have clear definitions of this controversial term relative to foods and feeds. The agency solicited comments by the public about this definition. The more than 7,000 comments from the public indicate consumers have considerable perceptions on what should be declared as natural.  

Similarly, organic is about how a food is grown and processed, including the types of fertilizers and pesticides that may be used without compromising the intent of producing safe foods in the organic category. Organic foods have nothing to do with nutritional quality. Interesting, even under the National Organic Program, farmers of organic foods may use a select number of pesticides, which is contrary to consumers’ perceptions that organic foods are free of those substances.

Of course, the production and selection of organic foods may simply be a matter of economics. Achieving organic certification is quite expensive for farmers, yet even non-organic or conventional food farmers that follow good agricultural practices provide foods that are just as nutritious and safe.    

The public might steer clear of a product containing the hard-to-pronounce octadecatrienoic acid or perhaps methyl butanoate. Yet, these and other substances that may be equally challenging to pronounce by the typical consumer occur naturally in kiwi fruit and strawberries. These innate substances, courtesy of nature, make these foods unique in flavor.

Similarly, consumers may avoid foods made with palm oil, under the assumption that it is not healthy or eco-friendly. In fact, the typical “yellow” palm oil found in an increasing number of processed foods is naturally free of trans fats and is non-GMO. Interestingly, most of the palm oil in the American food supply is sourced from Malaysia, where it is sustainably grown. In fact, by the end of 2019, all Malaysian palm oil will be certified sustainable throughout Malaysia by the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil strict standards.

Food processing is not the enemy. As nutritionists and dietitians, many of you also know that processed food is critical to the medical community. It’s critical for the nutritional support of many individuals under a physician’s care or those who need to augment their nutrient intake for a variety of reasons. It’s critical among the underserved populations and even for those serving in the military.

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According to the UN World Food Programme, nearly 800 million people are starving or undernourished. Thus, it is imperative that food specialists, public health officials, agriculture advisors and other professionals identify and implement new ways to feed the world. To meet the growing needs to feed the multitudes, advanced science and agriculture technologies are needed to increase crop yield, while minimizing the impact on land, energy and water resources.  

We need to restore trust
Product development is in a state of transition, as are food labels and restaurant menus as the industry eliminates, modifies and replaces ingredients. As front-line influencers with consumers, it’s essential for food professionals, such as dietitians, to guide individuals to better understand food ingredients and their functions.

Fear can be a powerful motivator. For decades, people feared dietary fat. Then there is the continued scare relative to dietary carbohydrates. Now consumers fear other ingredients that they perceive to be dangerous to their health and that of the planet, without any credible scientific evidence to validate these perceptions relative to food safety and food processing. Therefore, it is incumbent that the spectrum of food and health professionals remain active and vigilant in consumer conversations and among public health policy developers to assure that the food supply remains safe, nutritious, accessible and affordable to the growing global population.      

* Innova Market Insights, November 2016


Dr. Clemens is adjunct Professor of Pharmacology and Pharmaceutical Sciences within the USC School of Pharmacy, International Center for Regulatory Science. He served on the USDA 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee with primary responsibilities in food safety, and dietary lipids and health. He has been cited and interviewed by more than 500 domestic and international health journalists’ discussions on contemporary health, nutrition and food safety issues.

A. Wallace Hayes, Ph.D., D.A.B.T., FATS, FIBiol, FACFE, FACN, ERT, CNS
Dr. Hayes is a toxicologist with more than 35 years of experience in industry and academics. He holds appointments at Michigan State University, the University of South Florida College of Public Health, and the School of Public Health, University of Massachusetts, Amherst as a Research Professor. Dr. Hayes has interacted with regulatory bodies worldwide including Canada, Japan, South Korea, EU and Latin America as well as the US FDA. the US EPA and the US DOD. Dr. Hayes is currently a member of the Food Advisor Committee, US Food and Drug Administration.


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