The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

On the “Clean Label” Bandwagon

On the “Clean Label” Bandwagon

Dietitian Dialogues

November 28, 2010

Are foods with “clean labels” more healthful for you? Consumers who acknowledge looking for “clean labels” on food packages are generally looking at ingredient statements to evaluate whether they can pronounce and understand the words. With that said, even vitamins and minerals, such as the B vitamin thiamin mononitrate might be misconstrued as a harmful chemical by those not educated in the common names of such nutrients. Although not viewed as a widespread trend, per se, consumers who are making an effort to become more health conscious often read ingredient statements and will make purchasing decisions based on the perceived healthfulness of the food, which often includes a consideration of the number and type of ingredients the food contains.  

Food colors, flavors, antioxidants and other preservatives and processing agents generally are used for functionality, as well as to make a food product look and taste good. Yet, a clean label purist will likely eschew any and all ingredients that aren’t familiar. In her 2009 book, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Eating Clean, author Diane Welland, MS, RD suggests emphasizing whole, unrefined foods and those with the greatest nutrient density for optimal health and wellness. To follow a “clean diet” implies eliminating highly processed foods.

The Power of “Natural”
“Natural” may be a powerful keyword for consumers looking for clean labels. However, the term “natural” is not entirely defined by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) even though there have been consumer complaints and even lawsuits filed over the years against manufacturers for making inconsistent product claims, creating consumer confusion and falsely advertising products as “natural”. 

According to the FDA, “natural” should only be used to describe foods that are still in a fresh or whole state or that have only been “minimally processed”. A food cannot be labeled “natural” if it has added colors, artificial flavors or synthetic substances, such as chemical preservatives, used in the processing. The FDA allows any type of whole or ground spices, spice extracts and essential oils to be labeled “natural flavors”.

“Minimally processed” is defined as those applications necessary to make a food edible, safe for consumption, and to preserve the food. Such processes include milling, cooking, smoking, freezing or drying. To that extent, canned fruits, vegetables and legumes should be generally accepted as “minimally processed” and, thus, “natural”, as long as they are not canned with chemical preservatives. A label for canned small white beans, which reads, “small white beans, water and salt,” should also be considered a “clean label”.

More Bang for the Buck?
Some professionals in the nutrition supplements industry might suggest a dichotomy exists between the health conscious retail versus the supplements industry consumer. Dietary supplements, according to the FDA, include products with added vitamins, minerals, herbs or other botanicals, amino acids and, possibly, substances purported to be energy stimulating, muscle building, physiologically supporting or performance enhancing. 

Although there is a growing trend for manufacturers of dietary supplements to provide the FDA and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) scientific support for the safety and efficacy on their products*, some supplements manufacturers may include exaggerated claims about their products. They may choose to include more detailed nutrition information about the product, as well. This can lead a consumer to believe the supplement is more nutritious than a food. An example of this is a protein powder supplement, either derived from egg, soy or milk protein, for which the label will include a list of all the amino acids per serving. Thus, even though the consumer may not be able to pronounce or understand histidine, lysine or methionine, which are three of the essential amino acids commonly found in high quality protein foods, the perception may be that the supplement is nutritionally superior to the food becausemore as opposed to less information is provided on the label. On a standard FDA retail food label, this information is only communicated as grams of protein on the Nutrition Facts panel.  

The Bottom Line
Consider the health benefits associated with consuming fresher, less processed foods. At the same time, though, do not be negative about or mistakenly impressed by ingredients that are unfamiliar. 

* JISSN 2010 7:7, ISSN Exercise and Sports Nutrition Review: Research and Recommendations

Alexa Bosshardt, MPS, RD, LD/N is a Culinary Nutritionist with FitCulinary, LLC who has over 30 years experience developing recipes and new products and providing nutrition support to restaurant chains and food manufacturers. You can reach Bosshardt at, and try some of her “clean” recipes below:

Spiced Cran-Mango Relish

Yield: 1 ½ c. sauce (serving size: 2 tbsp.)
1 c. (4 oz.) fresh cranberries
2 tbsp. orange juice
½ tsp. ground ginger
1/2 c. diced mango (fresh or frozen)
¼ c. Polaner® All Fruit with Fiber Orange Spreadable Fruit

1.  Combine all ingredients together in 1 qt. pot. Bring to a boil, stirring. Reduce heat to low and cook, just until cranberries begin to “pop”, about 5 min. 
2.  Serve warm or chilled.

Spiced Cran-Mango Relish Nutritional Info:
Serving: 2 tbsp
30 Calories
7 g. carbs
1 g. dietary fiber
No fat, no cholesterol, no sodium, no protein
All natural sugars

Wild and Brown Rice Turkey Salad

Yield: about 2 ½ c. salad (4 servings @ 2/3 c. ea.)
1 ½ c. cooked wild and brown rice*
1 c. (4 oz.) diced, cooked turkey
¼ c. grapes (red or green or a mix of both), halved
1/4 c. dried cranberries (Craisins or other brand)
¼ c. pecan pieces
¼ c. chopped celery
1 scallion, minced

Tarragon Vinaigrette (yield about ¼ c.):
1 tbsp. olive oil
1 tsp. minced fresh Tarragon
2 tbsp. cranberry juice
1 tbsp. Tarragon Vinegar
1 tsp. Brown Rice Syrup
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, as needed

1.  Combine all salad ingredients. Whisk all dressing ingredients together. Chill until ready to serve.

* Easy Wild and Brown Rice Blend:
Yield: 1 ½ c. cooked
1 tsp. olive oil
¼ c. chopped onion
¼ c. chopped Portabella or baby bella mushrooms
½ c. dry Wild and brown rice blend
1 c. low sodium, natural chicken broth or homemade chicken or vegetable stock

1.  Heat olive oil over medium heat in 1 qt. saucepot. Sauté onion until translucent, then add mushrooms and sauté until soft. Stir in rice until well coated.
2.  Stir in chicken broth, bring to a boil then reduce heat to low. Cook, covered, 20 to 45 minutes, depending on rice blend. 

Wild and Brown Rice Turkey Salad Nutritional Info:
Serving: about 2/3 c.
260 Calories
9 g. fat
1.5 g. saturated fat
0 g. trans fat
20 mg. cholesterol
220 mg. sodium
32 g. carbs
3 g. dietary fiber
10 g. sugars
12 g. protein