Food Matters

Salty & Sweet with Sarah: The nitty-gritty on clean label

One of the hottest topics in food science right now is the clean label movement. Most of us know the consumer’s perspective of wanting foods with fewer unpronounceable ingredients, but what about the perspective of a food scientist? You’re in luck. We asked our food technology manager Sarah Gutkowski all about clean label.

What are the positive aspects of the “clean label” trend?

I think of the clean label movement as the “free from_____” movement, where people want products that are free from GMOs and highly processed ingredients. People are paying more attention to their health and are more mindful of sustainability. So clean label is pushing companies to make products that are healthier and without artificial ingredients. It’s also pushing to make labeling and production processes more transparent so consumers can make better educated purchases. Generally speaking, the movement has good intentions and the products that come out of it will only continue to get better.


Are there consumer misconceptions about what “clean label” really means?

Yes. “Clean label” doesn’t always mean healthier. People just make that assumption when they compare labels with ingredients they can identify versus labels with unfamiliar ingredients. Because of regulations, certain ingredients have to be listed by their scientific names, instead of names consumers recognize. Take tocopherol, for instance. On a label it sounds like it’s from outer space, but in reality, it can be correctly referred to as vitamin E. Same with retinol, or vitamin A. The scientific names sound scary, so people walk away from the product, even though it might actually be healthier. 


Are there any cons to “clean label?” Either in practice or in misunderstandings?

Besides not always being healthier, clean label is vaguely defined and there is no official  FDA definition of “clean label”. It’s not a scientific term and means something different for everyone. In practice, it can be more difficult to work with clean label ingredients in formulations because their functional properties may be less than ideal compared with those of processed ingredients.