Food Makers Define CLEAN

On a rainy afternoon in Boulder, Colorado, Beryl Stafford and her daughter decided to bake up a warm, filling snack. They stirred together whole rolled oats, brown rice syrup, salt, water and a store-bought vegan buttery spread that contained a blend of palm, canola and olive oils to keep it moist, and popped the mixture into the oven. What emerged was delicious. The oat bars were a hit with her daughter, Alex (nicknamed Bobo), and the nourishing baked bars were soon sold in nearly every coffee shop in town. Fast-forward 15 years, and though Bobo’s Oat Bars have grown to be a household name in the natural foods industry, the original recipe remained the same.

But the company recently announced that starting March 2018, the famed Bobo’s recipe would be altered for the first time: The vegan buttery spread would be replaced by organic coconut oil with the goal of creating a shorter, cleaner ingredient list. “We recognize the consumer preference for simpler ingredients as well as the preference

for organic when possible so we listened to the feedback we received,” says TJ McIntyre, CEO of Bobo’s. “Even though organic coconut oil is more expensive than the previous oil blend, a lot of our consumers were asking for coconut oil and we take their feedback seriously.” The switch took more than a year of research and development to achieve—eons in the food innovation world—to maintain the classic taste and texture. But according to Stafford, the opportunity to decrease the number of ingredients in the bars was too good to resist. (It also didn’t hurt that coconut oil improved the product quality and consistency.)

This switch is indicative of a larger trend in the natural industry to move toward “clean label” foods, a generally undefined—but largely used—term that has increasing salience for many consumers of healthy products. The Instagram hashtag #eatclean, for instance, has been used upwards of 49 million times, more than #glutenfree, #dairyfree and #paleo combined. In 2015, the market research firm Euromonitor predicted that “clean label” foods would generate $62 billion in the United States alone, and in 2017 Nielsen found that 93 percent of U.S. households have purchased a clean-label product in grocery stores. Recipes from Clean Eating magazine routinely appear in the top of Google searches.

Such stats and cultural references tell us that Americans are clearly interested in clean-label products. But it also begs the question, what exactly does “clean label” mean?

At least one organization—The International Center for Integrative Systems—has attempted to answer this via a verification label called Certified C.L.E.A.N., a handy acronym for “conscious,” “live” (as in not heated above 212 degrees and the majority of ingredients are organic), “ethical,” “active” and “nourishing” as determined by the ANDI score, a whole food index that judges foods based on their nutrient-to-calorie ratio. While some brands, such as Hail Merry, makers of few-ingredient raw desserts, have used the seal on their packaging, it’s confusing to even the most health conscious consumers. Why would “clean” also include “ethical”? Why must “clean” also be “raw”? Wouldn’t a single-ingredient organic, kettle-cooked applesauce be considered clean?

Similarly, a 2017 study published in Food Research Journal attempted to examine and understand “clean label,” but managed only to identify that consumers evaluated product cleanliness by looking at the front of food and beverage packaging in addition to the back-of-pack nutrition and ingredients label. Well, duh.

Certification labels that are deeply tied to fervently vocal food tribes, such as Certified Paleo and Whole30 Approved, are useful in that they help guide consumers—even those who don’t follow paleo or Whole30—to choose products that eschew excess sugar, artificial flavors, sweeteners, dairy and legumes.

But special diet certifications, too, often fall short. For many, yogurt is considered clean label—particularly if it’s sweetened just with fruit, and is from cows that ate only grass their entire lives. Paleo, Whole30 and even vegan diets would exclude this healthy category. Other registered dietitian-approved, nutritionally dense foods such as rolled oats, black beans and organic milk wouldn’t be up to clean-label snuff either.

“I think the clean-label movement is larger than the Whole30 program,” says Michele Silbey, senior marketing manager for the plant-based creamer Nutpods, which recently received the Whole30 Approved seal. “Whole30 has a specific way of defining health. But other fans of clean label foods might be vegans or vegetarians. Clean label can span all sorts of dietary lifestyles.”

Defining clean foods

Perhaps clean label isn’t about food tribes at all. Nor is it about popular superfoods-of-the-moment (although we’re still fans of acai and chia). Rather, clean label could be about getting back to the basics. It could be about returning to classically healthy foods that have, in recent years, been somewhat maligned because of the popularity of certain special diets.

Grains. Legumes. Sweeteners such as honey and maple syrup. Even produce such as fruit. Not typically permitted in popular diets like paleo, keto or Whole30, these ingredients are foundational building blocks in modern (and possibly ancient) diets across the world. In 2015—in the thick of paleo and grain-free zeal—researchers from the University of Florence weakened the argument that grains were entirely void from caveman meals by finding signs that people living 12,000 years ago in the Paleolithic era ate oats. The incriminatory piece of evidence? An oat starch-dusted stone pestle that was discovered in a petroglyph-laden cave called Grotta Paglicci.

So what are we talking about when we talk about clean label foods? Ultimately, it seems to come down to trust. It’s about buying a jar of honey that actually contains honey (not a blend of molasses and corn syrup) and that hasn’t been highly processed and filtered. It’s about purchasing bacon that contains just pork, water, salt and maybe celery powder; not sugar, nitrates, sodium phosphates and sodium erythorbate—ingredients found on a product that—I kid you not—says “natural” on the package. It’s about choosing additive-free foods that are 100 percent, well, food. That’s a definition all consumers (paleo or not) can get behind. 

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