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The Clean Label Push: What Does It All Mean?

Fri, 10/29/2010 - 8:17am
Renee Dufault, Archie Beaton, Steven Gilbert and Daniele Pisanello

Consumers are increasing their demand for natural ingredients, and many are reading product labels and avoiding products with certain ingredients. Increasing consumer awareness has also led shoppers to avoid food contaminants like pesticides and mercury, leading to a push for clean product labeling. It is important for processors to understand how these newly informed customers make their purchasing decisions. Where are consumers getting their information from, and how can processors change perceptions?

The corn refining industry in the United States is a good place to look for answers. The high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) industry has been hard hit by the clean-label push, seeing a significant 5-pound-per-person loss in demand for the product in the United States between 2006 and 2008. HFCS has a public relations problem because its consumption has been linked to several diseases, including obesity and autism. In an effort to combat public perception, the Corn Refiners Association (CRA) has likely spent millions of dollars airing new television commercials arguing that HFCS is really the same as sugar. The CRA has also submitted a petition to the FDA to change the name of HFCS to “corn sugar.” At the same time, consumers are striking back with their own online petition to be delivered to the FDA urging the agency to disallow the name change. With more than 10,292 signatures collected within just a few weeks, it looks like the consumers may have a say. Only time will tell how much say they have.

While some think consumers are often ill-informed regarding food, they actually get their information from credible sources. With the widespread use of the Internet and free and open access to medical journals, consumers are now reading scholarly articles that have been peer reviewed by scientists in virtually every discipline. There is also a growing number of science based websites that allows consumers access to credible information. Such resources have a large impact on consumer food preferences.

An example of such an article was published about the mercury content in HFCS in the free access Environmental Health journal in January 2009. This article explains how the historical use of mercury cell-chlor alkali chemicals in the manufacture of HFCS is likely the reason why the product contains mercury.
Consumers are aware that mercury accumulates over time in humans with consumption of mercury contaminated food and exposure to mercury contaminated air. If these products are used to manufacture processed food, then there is a possibility that the final food product will contain mercury residue that is passed on to consumers. Although the use of mercury cell-chlor alkali chemicals is thought by many to enhance product shelf life, safer alternatives are available and should be used by food manufacturers, according to Archie Beaton of the Chlorine Free Products Association. A cohesive and conscious effort by food processors to end the use of mercury cell-chlor alkali chemicals and other unhealthy ingredients in food manufacturing must be made, or consumers will continue to take matters into their own hands with their purchasing power. 

As science progresses, so do the legal frameworks to deal with the new science based evidence and subsequent changes in consumer demand, reports Daniele Pisanello, independent food lawyer. Changes in legal infrastructure take time to make as governments grasp the differing concerns expressed by various stakeholders. A delay in updating regulations creates opportunities for tort law suits, and litigation in this area may grow rapidly as a consequence. Food processors may benefit from taking a proactive approach and keeping up with the newly published scientific findings in the open access literature.
Consumers are learning that their health and lives depend on proper nutrition and avoiding certain food ingredients that could cause harmful health effects. It is not possible to fool them with a name change. Food processors will enjoy an increase in market share when their products are truly healthy. Foods must be free of pesticides, mercury and other harmful substances. 

Cleaning up a food product label is a tough challenge. Reformulating an existing product using alternative ingredients can change product taste and shelf-life. Some manufacturers may benefit from launching new product lines with clean labels. While creating a flavorful clean label product is not necessarily easy, it will benefit both customers and the manufacturer in the end.

For more information, visit www.fihri.org.

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