'Clean Label' Foods: Healthy or Just Hype?

It's a hot trend, but "clean" food doesn't necessarily equal "healthy" food. Keep these cautions in mind when you're at the grocery store or out to eat.
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There's no doubt that "clean" is a buzzword-of-the-moment when it comes to food. Lots of parents (myself included!) are seeking out shorter ingredient lists and avoiding artificial additives, so restaurants and grocery stores are responding with "clean label" pledges and product lines. But are these clean labels really healthy, or just a bunch of hype?

In a new report, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) evaluated programs at nine major chain supermarkets (including Food Lion and Meijer) and four major chain restaurants (such as Chipotle and Panera Bread) that have clean label commitments for their house brands or menus. Those commitments include eliminating (or continuing not to use) certain ingredients like synthetic food dyes and artificial sweeteners.

The good news: If you're looking to avoid fake food ingredients, these restaurants and stores have you covered. You can much more easily avoid artificial dyes, sweeteners, preservatives, and flavors. Products are reformulated using simpler ingredients. That's definitely a positive step for the food supply.

But the "clean" label doesn't mean perfection—and it's still important to be informed when shopping or ordering. Here are CSPI's clean label cautions:

  • Clean label doesn't necessarily limit the amount of sodium and sugar in products, which according to CSPI, cause more harm to health than all of the other additives combined. It also doesn't apply to beverages at these restaurants, which means they can still contain dyes and artificial sweeteners (not to mention lots of added sugar).
  • Some clean-label commitments exclude artificial ingredients that CSPI actually considers safe, such as modified food starch (a thickener) and calcium propionate (a preservative), probably because the ingredients sound unfamiliar to consumers. Some people may automatically assume that any "chemical" is dangerous, says the report. Also, some of these stores and restaurants ban ingredients that aren't approved for use anyway or list the same chemical more than once with different names to lengthen their list of excluded ingredients.
  • Just because something is clean label doesn't mean it's healthy. Some clean-label restaurant meals can have a day's worth of sodium (and come in huge portions!). One clean-label nutrition bar from a grocery store's brand has six forms of sugar in the ingredient list. A clean label also doesn't mean the food is high in nutrients.
  • Some elements of clean-label programs may confuse or mislead consumers. For instance, clean-label bacon that isn't made using sodium nitrite or nitrate may be made with a natural source of nitrates—which is actually not considered to be any safer.
  • Clean label doesn't exclude "natural flavorings," which CSPI says includes a low-cal sweetener and animal-derived ingredients (which vegetarians and vegans may want to avoid).

Most importantly, don't let a "clean label" override common sense. A "clean" donut is still a donut—and simpler ingredients don't suddenly make something a health food.

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author ofThe Snacktivist's Handbook: How to Change the Junk Food Snack Culture at School, in Sports, and at Camp—and Raise Healthier Snackers at Home. She also collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.

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