It’s probably fair to say that the clean eating movement is more than a trend. We’re not talking about the extreme “gluten-free, sugar-free, oil-free, grain-free, legume-free, plant-based raw vegan” type of clean eating that lately has been getting some pretty damaging press, but rather, the basic “avoid additives, preservatives, and other chemicals” type of clean eating that’s driving companies to clean up their labels on everything from hot dogs to ice cream.
The challenge for food processors is that there’s a lot of misinformation out there about food ingredients. And, in some cases, the costs of “clean” can outweigh the benefits.
Two professors in the Iowa State University Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition recently addressed this topic on the school’s website. Ruth MacDonald and Ruth Litchfield warn that consumer demand for “clean” food may actually reduce food safety and increase waste.
With consumers gravitating toward more natural food choices, what are food manufacturers to do? Do you have to choose between appeasing your consumer base and keeping your products safe? Hopefully not! Instead, the industry needs be proactive about educating consumers on what’s in their products.
Let’s dig into some of the consumer confusion points that MacDonald and Litchfield identify.
Companies have been scrambling to remove nitrates from their processed meat products, like deli meats. This is because nitrates have been associated in animal tests with an increased risk of colon cancer.
However, nitrates perform a function — namely, preventing the growth of Clostridium botulinum — a bacterium responsible for food poisoning. Removing them may result in the food being less safe to consume.
“People have a hard time understanding the risk-benefit ratio when it comes to foods,” MacDonald says. “They see a chemical, such as nitrates, listed on the label and assume it is bad or the food contains a high amount. The food safety risk without these preservatives is so much greater.”
In addition, the most common method by which processors remove nitrates is in reality no more than a name change. They simply substitute celery juice — a natural source of nitrates — for the synthetic variety. What many consumers don’t realize is that there’s no chemical difference between the two types of ingredients. (In fact, although processed meats tend to get a bad rap, 80% of our dietary nitrates actually come from vegetables.)
Natural nitrates also may also pose a food safety risk. MacDonald notes that the amount of nitrates in celery juice isn’t consistent across samples. This makes it more difficult for food manufacturers to add the right amount to prevent bacterial growth.
High-fructose corn syrup
Another highly-debated ingredient is high-fructose corn syrup, which has been linked to obesity.
According to the ISU professors, there’s no evidence that high fructose corn syrup is any worse for you or any less natural than its alternatives, including beet syrup, agave, and fruit sugars (though the authors of these studies might disagree). When it comes down to it, they’re all the essentially the same thing, sugar, with the same health risks. “The names just sound better on the label,” MacDonald says.
Food waste and safety
Finally, Litchfield emphasizes the role of additives and preservatives in keeping food fresh, which means it’s less likely to get thrown in the trash.
Food waste is a huge issue in the United States. According to a study by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Americans throw away 40% of food. Litchfield points out that additives like sodium benzoate, calcium propionate, and potassium sorbate extend the shelf-life of food. Removing these ingredients could result in more food ending up in the garbage can.
What manufacturers can do
“The one thing I would tell consumers is do not believe everything they see on social media. If they read about research on social media, track down the original study to see if it even exists.” ~Ruth Litchfield
If you’re going to battle the misinformation that floods the internet, you need to become a trusted source. Especially as consumers demand more transparency, companies need to take the lead in educating the public about what’s in their food.
Here are some strategies you can put in place:
- Use your website to provide information about what’s in your products and where your ingredients come from.
- Engage on social media. Respond truthfully and in a timely manner to consumer questions, concerns, and suggestions.
- Make sure consumers know about the steps you’re taking to clean up your labels. For example, write a press release about new product formulations that includes data showing how your decisions will benefit the consumer.
- Use food packaging and labels to provide nutrition information that helps consumers make better decisions.
As a manufacturer, it’s your job to distribute accurate, well-researched, and easily digestible information to your consumer base. Knowledge is power — give your consumers the tools to make the best decisions for their health by becoming even more transparent. This will help you gain consumer trust and also market share — the 2016 Label Insight Food Transparency survey found that 37% of respondents said they would be willing to switch brands for a brand that shared more detailed information that was easier to understand.