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By Gustavo M. Gonzalez, Ph.D.

So, you decided to have clean labels for your products, now what do you do? You are not alone in your pursuits of this endeavor. A couple of years ago, I was approached by a marketing department when they wanted to make certain claims in their product lines and one of the phrases they used was “we want to say that our labels are clean because our clients want this”, so I asked them, ‘What do you mean by clean?” And of course, having several people in that meeting, I got several different answers! Answers like “no GMO’s”, “Natural”, “Gluten-free”, “No antibiotics”, “No pesticides”, “No Artificial ingredients”, etc. So, the first task at hand was to clarify what the term “clean label” means. At that time, we did not find a definition either from USDA-FSIS or FDA for the term “clean label”, what we found was that the term was probably developed by consumers as an “understandable” claim or answer to ingredients in their food. The Clean Label trend has taken center stage and found its way into many respected scientific meetings. The 2015 Institute of Food Technologist Annual Meeting and Food Expo is just one example of many where the topic of Clean Labels and what that means, was discussed.

When the US-based food retailer, Whole Foods Market, published a list called “Unacceptable Ingredients for Food1” around 2014, they began working with their suppliers on creating products only with natural ingredients as part of their Food Ingredient Quality Standards. Around the same time, Panera Bread published their “No No List2” of ingredients, such as preservatives, sweeteners, flavors, and colors, all from artificial sources, that were no longer allowed in their products. The trend was not just U.S.-focused as many International companies were also working on making their labels more transparent to help consumers make better decisions.

So, what does “clean label” mean? Many definitions exist, and all include the fact that terms such as “no artificial ingredients” and/or “natural” are included on labels as consumers expect transparency by using ingredient names that people can recognize. One of my favorite definitions of a “clean label” came from my wife (not biased!) who said that a clean label is one where she understands ingredients in her food without having to ask me and that the ingredients do not come from artificial sources.

This transparency is a great and noble cause to pursue but what are the challenges? In my opinion, the first challenge facing the technical and scientific community is that functionality in many cases drives the choice of almost all ingredients: things like water retention (phosphates), color additives (FD&C Red No. 3 and 40), color development/enhancement (sodium nitrate in processed meats) and flavor enhancement agents (MSG or Monosodium Glutamate not naturally occurring). Some ingredients already have a natural alternative, like the use of celery powder and sea salt as a source of naturally occurring nitrate-nitrite but we are still working on alternatives for others, creating challenges to R&D scientists and chefs all over the country.

This R&D also creates the second challenge in my opinion: cost. Many of these “clean” ingredients are expensive either because of the amount of these “clean” ingredients required or the increase in demand just in the last couple of years. Before a company decides to reformulate, understand your audience and your clients to ascertain whether they are demanding this change or not. I was surprised when the company asked their marketing group to investigate whether the demand for clean ingredients was universal, that only a small percentage of clients were demanding a change to clean labels. Based on that research they decided to invest time in creating a brand-new line of products to fulfill this need instead of reformulating all products.

In my opinion, some of the questions you need to ask before you start changing formulas are:

  • Are all my clients and/or target markets demanding a clean label?
  • Are they willing to pay for this change?
  • Can I afford the change?
  • Do we change our formula or do we create a new line of products?

Depending on your answers, you will be able to make an informed decision for the future of your company.

Note: This article presents the point of view of the author and does not represent any legal advice.


  1. Whole Foods “Unacceptable Ingredients for Food
  2. Panera Bread “No No List” [Link no longer available]

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