New CSPI report investigates "clean label" foods, offers key recommendations

Slightly more than a third of Americans think “clean-label” products are free from artificial ingredients. About a third think it means organic or natural. And roughly a third of Americans don’t know what clean label means. For retailers, restaurants, and food manufacturers, that creates a challenging landscape – and one with few [1] defined guardrails.

Today, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) released a new report, Clean Labels: Public Relations or Public Health?, that assesses efforts by four restaurants – Chipotle Mexican Grill, Noodles & Company, Panera Bread, and Papa John’s – and nine grocers – Ahold Delhaize (Food Lion, Giant Food, Stop and Shop), Aldi, H-E-B, Kroger, Meijer, Supervalu, Target, Wakefern (ShopRite), and Whole Foods  – to deliver what they interpreted a “clean label” product to mean. The report is well worth the read.

EDF agrees with the CSPI report statement that, “[m]ost substances added to food—even ones with long chemical names—are safe… But some are not, and many have been poorly tested. Indeed, the system intended to ensure the safety of ingredients added to food is deeply flawed.”

We also agree with CSPI that, “To the extent that clean label products are healthier than their non-clean label counterparts, because they are made with actual foods instead of cheap chemical imitations, they deserve praise. Still, the absence of artificial ingredients does not make a food healthy, since it could still be loaded with saturated fat, salt, or added sugars and be largely devoid of dietary fiber and nutrients.” For EDF, clean labels also 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.

What should make the report of interest to all engaged in the business of food, from those making it to eating it, are the well-substantiated recommendations for addressing food ingredients in clean-label programs. The CSPI report defines and then assesses the suite of best-in-class clean label efforts by supermarkets and restaurants across three major components:  ingredients covered, food and beverage products covered, and transparency. In general, transparency efforts are strongest, coverage across products is weakest, with ingredient reformulation somewhere in the middle.

The report concludes with a trio of target recommendations and action steps, including:

  • Prioritize public health – Clean-label commitments should be accompanied by meaningful improvements to the nutritional quality of the foods and beverages sold.
  • Comprehensive policies – Lists of prohibited ingredients should apply to all products a restaurant makes or sells, including beverages, and supermarkets should expand clean label policies to all of their private-label brands.
  • Transparency – Restaurants should provide complete ingredient and nutrition information for all menu items, both on-site and on their website, and supermarkets should provide this information on their websites.

Given that natural is an artificial, and often erroneous, synonym for healthy, Clean Labels: Public Relations or Public Health? does just what CSPI intended – provides a useful assessment of clean label efforts that give direction and guidance to companies committed to improving the health and safety of the food they make and sell.

For companies seeking to improve their own food offerings, EDF+Business invites you to visit Behind the Label: A Blueprint for Safer Food Additives in the Marketplace. This online resource details best practices for the five pillars of leadership, offers a model policy and case example, as well as tracking corporate efforts in this space.

[1] “Certified organic” is a federally defined and regulated status.