The End Of #cleaneating? The Clean Label Paradox

#eatclean #cleanlabel #cleaneating … Hashtags we’ve seen everywhere in the past few years. Some of us will have even used them to promote our products, or even those of others. On Instagram, a search of the #cleaneating hashtag alone threw up 29,666,389 posts. Bloggers are making careers out of it. But what exactly does it mean?

This is a question the mainstream media are finally beginning to ask. The general population are finally coming to accept that the Clean Label Paradox is just that – a paradox. There is no official ‘definition’ for ‘clean label’ or even ‘clean’ anywhere when it comes to food – at least not one which is widely agreed on. Even those who were once thought to be the ‘champions’ of clean eating such as Ella Mills (Deliciously Ella) and the Hemsley sisters claim they never used nor defined the phrase, referring to it as a ‘media-coined term’.

It’s not hard to see why the clean label, clean eating phenomenon has come under criticism – it’s tough to continually advocate something with a lack of a solid definition. Whichever definition you believe fits it best, it’s paradoxical.
Take the number one claim behind clean label: ‘natural’.

We wrote an article back in September examining the ‘natural’ health claim in detail – and reached the inevitable conclusion that ‘natural’ certainly doesn’t always indicate ‘healthy’. ‘Clean’ foods such as fruit, and even some vegetables, are absolutely packed with sugar – somewhat contradictory to the healthy, ‘wellness’ image clean label strives to achieve.

Many definitions of clean label denote that food should also be natural in the sense that it should be free from additives, and minimally processed. Many consumers regard e-numbers as the big bad guys of the food additive world – perhaps due to years of misguided publicity that e-numbers are the source of virtually every food related ailment or issue – when in fact, e-numbers simply denote an EU-regulated, perfectly permissible food additive.

The codes themselves were invented to make ease of reading long ingredients’ lists. Some of these e-numbers are harmful and unnatural, yes, but many are perfectly ‘natural’, harmless substances – often carrying individual health benefits.

Worsening this still is the freedom food manufacturers have to decide themselves whether to declare ingredients by their full-names, or by their e-number. There are many food additives, for example soya or sunflower lecithin, which are seldom referred to by their E-numbers – presumably because they sound harmless. E-numbers perceived as more ‘harmful’ – perhaps those which sound less natural – are more commonly referred to by their E-numbers.

Although the use of e-numbers is less prominent now on food packaging, it is not unheard of to use a combination of both e-numbers and additive names on an ingredients’ list, further confusing customers and deepening the negative connotation e-numbers have.

Others define clean label as ‘using only ingredients you can pronounce’. Whilst a less scientific term which in fact sounds more tongue-in-cheek than factual, this definition of clean-label is not unheard of – far from it.

Whilst the definition is supposed to refer to ingredients which are commonplace – ‘kitchen cupboard’ ingredients, and the idea of a shorter ingredients list being better, it is hard to pin this to an exact definition. One recent study found consumers were turned off by food labels containing ‘Xanthan Gum’ in particular (a common thickening agent), for no other reason than that it ‘looked unnatural’, or ‘looked unhealthy’. A definition resting on the concept of being intuitive is somewhat counterintuitive when it comes to defining food.

‘Whole and unprocessed’ is an equally popular way to describe clean label, which again causes problems. ‘Whole’ foods is another conflicted definition, although the general consensus would be ‘food that is as close to its natural state as possible’ – so ‘processed’ is another word that carries a negative connotation. Again, this is challenging – processed should refer to any ‘process’ carried out with the food – so any type of cooking, any type of fortification would constitute processed – and of course, there are many types of processing which are necessary and advisable – so where do we draw the line?

As consumers come to realise these discrepancies in ‘clean label’ and ‘clean eating’, is it deserved that the term is being abandoned? That bloggers and past ‘clean queens’ such as the Hemsleys and Deliciously Ella are distancing themselves from the phrase? A term with no solid definition behind it that consumers are losing touch with certainly seems redundant. It seems the only thing left to ‘save’ clean label would be to unify it – but would anyone be willing?
Have you been confused by the Clean Label Paradox? Or are you simply looking for more information?

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