Clean Eating Narrative Informs Innovation
Rachel Cheatham, Ph.D., Founder & CEO, Foodscape Group, LLC, set the theme for Global Food Forums’ 2022 Clean Label Conference with the keynote presentation, “Unpacking the Ever-Evolving Narrative of Clean Eating in Order to Inform Innovation.” Her talk provided a consumer and marketplace perspective on clean labels and guidance in navigating the movement’s continuous evolution.
Consumer awareness of clean labels began in the 1960s, with work citing a correlation between high-fructose corn syrup (HFSC) and obesity—yet subsequent data showed a decline in caloric sweetener usage with increasing obesity. The authors of the original paper twice tried to retract the hypothesis.
In the 1980s, a change in regulations became the catalyst for the negative focus on additives. Each additive in the ingredient list must be declared on a pre-packed food label. Up to that time, additives were declared using general groupings that reflected their functions in the food, such as preservatives, antioxidants and colors.
“These new labeling regulations brought in some lengthy lists of chemical names and a new E-numbering system (in Europe), which was intended to make it easier to identify additives,” stated Cheatham, “and to inform consumers that the additive was safe for use.”
Consumer Confusion and Perception
Consumer distrust was fueled by many passionate articles in the tabloid press on the “harmful” effects of all “chemical” additives, which were blamed for various adverse health effects. A positive outcome of this anti-additive campaign was that food manufacturers scrutinized their use of additives to eliminate or minimize their use.
Although meant to protect people with sensitivities, E-numbers have been controversial. For example, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded that titanium dioxide was not considered safe when used as a food additive, leading to a unanimous agreement by EU member states in October 2021. However, in the U.S., the additive is considered safe.
“The trickle-down effect from policymakers to traditional and social media led to consumers questioning whether scientists know what they are doing,” noted Cheatham. “Often, these ingredient-level inconsistencies of being approved or disapproved for use further fuel the global clean label debate.”
Select retailers are identifying unacceptable ingredients. Whole Foods lists 230+ banned ingredients, including FD&C colors, calcium disodium EDTA, partially hydrogenated oil, DATEM, CBD/cannabidiol, Ginkgo biloba, soy leghemoglobin, hijiki and insect flour.
“The list is quite lengthy and, yet, we can’t say for sure why certain ingredients are on the list. There isn’t a lot of substantiation or reason provided. Nonetheless, this is the list brands must abide by if they want to be cleared for sales at this retailer,” observed Cheatham.
Forward to 2019 and the development of the NOVA system in which foods and beverages are grouped into one of four categories. Ultra-Processed Foods (UPFs) are coming under increased scrutiny. UPFs, which did not exist before the mid-20th century beyond a few products, now account for 59% of the total calories consumed in the U.S. (See chart “What Are Ultra-Processed Foods?”) [Global Food Research Program, https://bit.ly/3y8eLGY].
There has been increasing peer-reviewed research focused on UPFs in the last decade, with some publications reporting higher consumption of calories from UPFs attributable to the hyper-palatability of the ingredient formulations.
Cheatham cited a meta-analysis of close to 6 million participants where the highest consumption of UPFs was associated with increased mortality risk. However, breakfast cereals, considered UPF, are associated with lower mortality risk (Taneri, PE, et al. Am J Epidemiol. 2022/https://bit.ly/3ONvUwT).
“The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2025-2030 Proposed Scientific Questions” included the following, suggesting how nutrition scientists and policymakers view UPF. “What is the relationship between consumption of dietary patterns with varying amounts of ultra-processed foods and growth, size, body composition, risk of overweight and obesity, and weight loss and maintenance?”
Consumer data from the 2022 International Food Information Council (IFIC) shows that clean eating is a primary focus, with nearly half of so-called “clean eaters” defining the term as not heavily processed, fresh products, organic and with simple ingredient lists. (IFIC, 2022/ https://bit.ly/3bPcKIg)
Ingredients targeting functional (calming, focus, energy, etc.), natural flavors, non-GMO and environmental messaging are increasing. For the latter, it may be difficult to be clean label and animal-free, as precision fermentation—a technology used to produce non-animal whey protein, among other ingredients—is seen as bioengineering.
Products meeting a clean label standard can be 10 times as expensive as their traditional counterparts. Consider the case of a tomato ketchup sold at a major discount retailer at $3.29 without HFCS vs. $0.99 (per 20oz) for the regular. “Within any mass market food or beverage category, there will be a continuum of options that range in price. Often ‘cleaner label’ products, even if based only on perceptions, are the pricier ones. It’s up to each consumer to decide what’s worth spending extra for,” stated Cheatham.
As clean eating narrative informs innovation, product development will depend upon the retailers’ and end consumers’ desires for affordability. Every ingredient needs to be examined to ensure sustainable sourcing, purposeful processing and functional properties.
“All these considerations will come into decisions as to which ingredients are being used in our foods and beverages, with the hope being we don’t confuse consumers. We do not need any additional actual or perceived hurdles to consuming a safe, nutritious and affordable diet,” concluded Cheatham.
“Unpacking the Ever-Evolving Narrative of Clean Eating in Order to Inform Innovation,” Rachel Cheatham, Ph.D., Founder & CEO, Foodscape Group, LLC