As the natural food trend grows, restaurants are held accountable for each ingredient on the menu

Three-quarters of all U.S. consumers are making choices based on what they read on labels and what information is being provided to them via the media and other information outlets. They distrust products that include artificial and unfamiliar ingredients, according to Innova Market Insights. Innovative food and beverage companies must proactively serve the needs of a consumer base that is increasingly concerned about what goes into the food they purchase and consume.

These growing numbers of health-conscious consumers are looking for clean label products, that also deliver on great taste. This is much more than just a passing trend—it’s a lifestyle change that is here to stay.

What Makes a Product Clean Label?

The term “clean label” is believed to have its origins in a 2008 tome, “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto,” penned by the former Wall Street Journal reporter turned food enthusiast Michael Pollan. In his book, he advises readers to avoid products with long ingredient statements or ingredients that look like they came out of a lab.

Conceptually, this is nothing new. “Clean labeling” has become a movement, born out of decades of scientific food research now reaching the public. Consumers, dietitians, the medical community and school foodservice operators all understand that the presence of certain antibiotics and chemicals in food presents potential health risks, and in some cases, can even be carcinogenic.

Self-educated consumers looking to eat clean label foods no longer purchase products that have been exposed to antibiotics and growth hormones, or contain preservatives, artificial flavors or the rainbow of artificial colors. They also want to know about the diets of the animals used for their food, often seeking 100 percent vegetable fed with no animal by-products. Additionally, even if the product is deemed “clean label”, some consumers are then moving on to packaging concerns, like the presence of BPA.

Artificial Colors

A prime target of avoidance for clean label adherents are food dyes, known as artificial colors, some of which have been linked to cancer and behavioral problems. It is estimated that food manufacturers use 15 million pounds of petroleum-based dyes each year. Environmental Health Perspectivesnotes, “Food dye consumption per person has increased fivefold in the United States since 1955, with three dyes—Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6—accounting for 90 percent of the dyes used in foods.”

Artificial Flavors

Artificial flavors are not nearly so straightforward as artificial colors, but are not acceptable on clean label products. The FDA defines natural flavors to be any flavoring substance derived from naturally occurring sources such as herbs, fruits, meat and dairy. The rest are artificial.

While most artificial flavors are generally carcinogen free, artificial sweeteners come with some well-reported risks. The best-known cause of obesity is the consumption of sugary sodas, which typically contain high fructose corn syrup. Aspartame, which is used in NutraSweet and Equal, may have links to certain types of cancer according to the American Cancer Society, although it does remain on the FDA’s GRAS food list.

Clean labels are the only labels

Clean labels can be perceived as difficult, more expensive and even more labor intensive. Despite these challenges, it is crucial that the foodservice industry keep the health and well-being of its consumers a top priority by working to create accessible, great tasting products that are natural and clean label.

Expert Takes, Feature