Of Clean labels and Half Truths

Of Clean labels and Half Truths

There’s a new wave in the D2C food market and it’s called CLEAN LABEL. Given all the noise about this new phenomena, let’s deconstruct the concept.

The bigger a brand gets, the more it is under public and legal scrutiny. That explains the high compliance levels of large main stream brands (Lever, P&G, Marico, ITC, Dabur etc.). Small D2C brands on the other hand, tend to escape the regulatory radar and this oftentimes leads to unsubstantiated and gimmicky label claims.

While that’s fine whereas shoes, bags, perfumes, cosmetics are concerned, it’s a problem when it comes to food, since food goes inside you, not on you.

Let’s take the case of the latest ‘CLEAN LABEL’ craze. Every nutraceutical/food brand now contains one or more of the following claims-

  • All Natural
  • Real ingredients
  • 100% Clean label
  • Nothing artificial
  • No chemicals
  • No preservatives
  • No ADDED sugar
  • Made with only 4-5 ingredients etc.

Let’s break this down and analyze what exactly are these so called ‘artificial chemicals/ingredients’ which are being purported as harmful by some marketeers

As you will realize, food additives are nothing but functional ingredients and in most cases, extracts of food itself. They possess properties to improve the taste & texture of packaged food. There is absolutely nothing insidious or natively harmful about having them in your food product at GMP levels. Heck I’m worse off with that pesticide-laden Broccoli Salad of mine or that sugar-loaded Dates Bar!

Vilifying large brands has now become fashionable and mission-driven to some extent. Examples- Maggi, Cadburys, Bournvita …etc… There’s again more to this than meets the eye. Having worked closely in R&D and Nutra manufacturing for close to a decade, I can tell you the extent to which the large brands go just to meet/exceed compliance and safety. D2C on the other hand can be pretty questionable at times.

The decision NOT to list ingredients at the front-of-pack for example, is a simple DESIGN DECISION. It has nothing to do with concealing ingredients. Similar to why I wouldn’t wear my T-shirt inside-out or my pants upside-down (unless I want to make a statement and stand-out!)

The Front-of-Pack is conventionally for displaying the product name, USPs, functions etc… while the back-of-pack is for listing out nutritional panels, declarations, ingredients etc… It has nothing to do with the conspiracy theory that food marketeers are trying to conceal something. After all, how difficult is it to simply flip the pack and read the ingredients?

The 3 ingredient CHICKEN MASALA
Here’s my CLEAN LABEL recipe to make Chicken Masala:

  1. Chicken
  2. Onions
  3. Tomatoes
    No masalas, no condiments, no seasonings, no garnish, no ghee/oil, no ginger/garlic, nothing. Now I’m going to name it CLEAN CHICKEN MASALA. Get the picture?

Fewer ingredients DOES NOT mean cleaner product. It’s a perception (or some might say deception). Food additives as shown above (see graphic) are similar to food masalas required to season your formulation and make it more palatable and improve the sensory experience. What’s wrong with that?

They’re well researched, food based, CODEX approved and have gone through rigorous safety studies before being approved at GMP levels by World Health Bodies. In fact some might argue that they’re safer than your pesticide laden vegan salad.

Do you remember our good old friend SUGAR. Did you know that it’s a natural disaccharide made up of 1 molecule each of Fructose and Glucose. And is manufactured from 100% NATURAL Cane and/or Beet.

  • Is it clean? NO.
  • Is it hidden in plain sight? YES.
  • Where? Front-of-Pack.

Here are some aliases for Sugar

  • Dates
  • Jaggery
  • Honey
  • Cane
  • Fruit
  • Coconut sugar

The rationale that all of the above are ‘CLEAN’ while stand-alone sugar is bad is like throwing all logic out of the window.

Here are the usual defenses for the above ‘Clean Sugar Sources’ by some marketeers

  1. They’re ALL-NATURAL (well so is table sugar- remember cane + beet)
  2. They contain FIBER which reduces their Glycemic load (if fiber was the qualifier in negating the ill effects of sugars, then I’ll just add some ISABGOL to my table sugar! And voila! I have ‘clean sugar’ now!

While the Clean Label craze gains momentum, we need stronger guide rails in place before getting carried away by propaganda. Here are the key take-homes:

  1. Every organic & edible substance in nature has a chemical formula. Simplest Examples (PROTEIN- RCH(NH2)COOH CARBOHYDRATE- (CH2O)n FAT- CH3(CH2)nCOOH). Are they artificial chemicals? No.
  2. A food ingredient doesn’t become harmful just by virtue of having a chemical formula. That’s an incorrect filter to apply while scanning your food.
  3. Fewer ingredients does NOT mean cleaner product. A formulator is like a chef crafting the finest possible recipe for his customer with safe and effective food ingredients (active and functional). The number of ingredients he uses to craft his recipe has no role to play in qualifying his recipe as CLEAN or UN-CLEAN.
  4. Listing ingredients Front-of-Pack is simply a DESIGN DECISION and NOT a conspiracy theory to conceal ingredients. After all, it does not take much effort to simply flip over the pack and read the ingredients.

Have you come across any products which led you into the above trap? Comment below.

Disclaimer: this piece is meant to be purely educational in nature and not derogatory to any brand/s. While I’m a strong supporter of D2C brands (Neulife is one of them), I’m also an advocate of stronger regulation to protect consumers being one myself.

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This an insightful post, but the image has some misinformation about Xanthum Gum; this does not grow on trees. I have done some fair digging around this while figuring out why the cafe’s cold coffee was always thick and creamy, but when I made it at home never got the texture right. This is because commercial cafes use xanthan gum to get that creamy texture.

All the more reason to read labels right! To not cause confusion, edible gum, i.e. Dink, is different from Xanthan, Dink grows on trees while Xanthan is manufactured in a lab from a natural fermentation process.

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Hey Kulsum
‘Misinformation’ is a rather strong word.

The term ‘Grows on Trees’ was used as a metaphor to drive home the point that Xanthum Gum belongs to a class of ingredients called ‘Gums’ which are plant based and natural.

As you correctly said xanthum gum is produced through fermentation of a natural micro-organism (good bacteria) which is found naturally on cruciferous vegetables like cabbage.

Fermentates, Extracts, Concentrates, Isolates etc… all these are formats in the food processing industry in order to increase concentration, purify further or simply upcycle into something more powerful.

You should NOT consider them as artificial or harmful. That’s science.


Also Kulsum
I’m dead against using news articles to debate scientific concepts.

I only use meta-studies as my fact check before discussing science based topics.

Even regular studies are unreliable. They need to be

  • randomized
  • placebo controlled
  • double blind
  • crossover
    in order to have some credibility.

Hey Samit, I was just putting the information out there. Thanks for the insights :slight_smile:

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Hey Samit, also something that i have always pondered about is a simple question, if anything is grown in a lab does that directly mean that it’s bad for us ? I reckon not, with the way science has advanced i feel not everything that comes from a lab is necessarily bad. And technically everything we eat is processed in a way, unless we decide to just pluck an apple from a tree and eat it.
We were planning on using xanthum gum for our zero sugar cookies and chocolates a while back, we ended up not using it because we didn’t need it, but then again from all the research I did, nothing negative came up.
Anyway I am of the opinion that not everything that comes from a lab is bad and not everything cooked at home is healthy :slight_smile:

Hi Abhi
And the biggest examples are sugar, maida, Atta, wheat, seed oils……Natural right? But healthy? NOOO

Lab grown simply means ‘processed’ and processing can be of several types such as concentrating, up-cycling, extracting, fermenting, spray drying etc… etc…

Heck even the Atta which you knead at home is ‘processed’ with your own bare hands in a way. How does it matter whether it’s done in a food mixer or an industrial blender?

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I agree

As for the pesticide laden broccoli salad, that isn’t safe either , and I am hoping you are not saying you will chose the ultra processed food over the salad ( because both aren’t ideal) , but farm produce also needs to be tested for the residue of various chemicals ( fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides, chemical waste from anything industrial in the vicinity) and there needs to be better access to healthier and cleaner produce.
Aata at home is processed, but I am sure you realise the difference in the extent of processing between the aata at home and the pringle chips.
Have you heard of the one about twinkies, that they’ll survive a nuclear blast? ( or was that about cockroaches) . Nonetheless, food doesn’t really need a whole list of ingredients when a few would suffice. We are trading our health for convenience.
Over the years, Ive been trying to grow a little bit of my food, I avoid packaged foods, I make a lot of my condiments and I make fermented foods as well . It is a journey and educating myself is part of the process.
Your article was informative but it felt biased, slightly.

Can’t get the context here. You’ve sent some disparate links and a post caption which is completely out of context.

Under no circumstances does my post support unhealthy carbs/starchy/vegetable oil laden foods nor every single additive on earth.

My post simply exposes the hypocrisy of todays CLEAN LABEL BRANDS. If I’m sugar, I’ll call myself sugar and let the world know I’m bad for them.

Not cleanup a few harmless additives (I’ve named them in my post) and replace them with 50% fructose (as Dates) and call myself Healthy.

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