How Safe Is 'Clean' Food?

While consumers may be demanding it, food scientists warn of increased risks for foodborne pathogens.

By Carolyn Schierhorn, Contributing Editor

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At its best, the “clean label” movement has fostered health- and sustainability-conscious consumption, corporate transparency and considerable product innovation, many food industry experts agree. More and more consumers today, as a result, eat a wider variety of fresh fruits and vegetables and high-protein foods, read Nutrition Facts panels and ingredient decks, and try to reduce their sugar and salt intake—a boon to public health in a country with a high prevalence of adult obesity and dietary-related chronic diseases such as Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

But misconceptions underpin the movement as well, most notably the fear of chemical-sounding ingredients and additives that are unfamiliar to lay consumers but well-understood by food scientists. As the food processing industry rushes to reformulate products to appease consumers, a number of university-based scientists are raising concerns that removing or replacing time-tested preservatives could compromise food safety.

In addition, some nutritionists worry that misguided anxiety over an ever-growing list of demonized chemicals distracts consumers from the importance of a balanced, nutrient-rich diet. In fact, food manufacturers have even removed vitamins and minerals from their products to “clean up” labels.

“I do see both pros and cons to the clean label movement. Ultimately, of course, what we want is a safe and nutritious food supply,” says Debbie Petitpain, spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in Chicago. “The flip side is that there is a movement that is clearly not going away in which consumers are interested in understanding what’s in the food that they’re eating. And that’s not a bad thing.”

You’ll have an ingredient in a list like ‘cobalamin’ and consumers will think it’s really scary, but it’s just vitamin B12. Consumers think, ‘Don’t eat anything your grandmother couldn’t pronounce.' But the reality is that sometimes we’re using much more precise words than your grandmother would’ve used to explain exactly what’s in the food.

– Jayson Lusk, Author and Head of Agricultural Economics, Purdue University

Free-from frenzy

In his 2008 book "In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto," activist Michael Pollan helped catalyze the frenzy for free-from foods with his warning not to eat anything containing unpronounceable substances that one’s grandmother wouldn’t recognize. During the past decade, bloggers such as “Food Babe” Vani Hari have further fanned consumer fears by condemning multisyllabic food additives in processed food.

“There’s a lot of evidence that consumers find chemical-sounding words somewhat objectionable,” notes Jayson Lusk, who heads the department of agricultural economics at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind. The challenge, he says, is that industry efforts to be more transparent and comply with FDA ingredient labeling requirements have resulted in long lists of scientific names for substances in food.

“You’ll have an ingredient in a list like ‘cobalamin’ and consumers will think it’s really scary, but it’s just vitamin B12,” observes Lusk, the author of "The Food Police: A Well-Fed Manifesto About the Politics of Your Plate" (published in 2013). “Consumers think, ‘Don’t eat anything your grandmother couldn’t pronounce.’ But the reality is that sometimes we’re using much more precise words than your grandmother would’ve used to explain exactly what’s in the food.”

Outspoken food industry critic Marion Nestle counters that such views exaggerate the public’s ignorance of science. “Most people know the difference between vitamins and unnecessary and potentially harmful chemicals added to food,” contends the retired former professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. “Most non-nutrient food chemicals are added to highly processed foods for purposes of cosmetics (colors), covering up the loss in flavor that occurs with processing, or shelf life. Most people would be better off eating less of highly processed foods.”

Noting that healthful diets can include processed as well as fresh food, Petitpain argues that food manufacturers need to do more to educate consumers about why particular ingredients and additives are used in specific food products.

Can’t do without effective antimicrobials

To remain competitive, many food processors, meanwhile, have been busy simplifying ingredient decks and trying to eliminate or reduce synthetic food constituents, often replacing them with naturally derived counterparts.

Michael Doyle, retired professor of food microbiology and former director of the University of Georgia Center for Food Safety, acknowledges that not all the additives traditionally used by the food industry are absolutely necessary, but they do serve a purpose. “Some are for functionality. Some are for stability. Some are for color,” he points out.

Doyle has many concerns about the removal and replacement of tried-and-true, proven-safe antimicrobial preservatives such as potassium sorbate and sodium benzoate.

“Sorbate and benzoate have been used for years as antimicrobial preservatives, not just for preventing mold and yeast growth,” he explains. “Sorbate is added, for example, to certain foods like processed cheese that’s vacuum-packaged because it helps prevent Clostridium botulinum from growing and producing toxins.”

Sorbate and benzoate are also highly effective against Listeria, Salmonella and other harmful microbes, adds Doyle, co-author of “The Challenges of Eliminating or Substituting Antimicrobial Preservatives in Foods,” an article published in Annual Review of Food Science and Technology in February 2017.

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