Judging from recent history, it is plain to see that food and beverage labels can prove to be a powerful influence on consumers. Take, for example, the organic food movement, in which a variety of new terms were created specifically for inclusion on labels so that customers would feel more compelled to pick one product over another. Country-of-origin labels are also a trending topic, due in large part to the fact that domestic product manufacturers believe consumers will be more likely to purchase a food item if they realize it has been made within the boundaries of their own nation.
Although labels are often used to highlight specific ingredients, methods or geographical origins, they can also be used to conceal information. Take for example, the notorious “E numbers”, or chemical additives that have, in light of the body of research related to such products, gained increased stigma. It has been discovered that a growing number of food manufacturers are replacing the information pertaining directly to these controversial “ingredients” with labels and related ingredients that, ultimately, sound more “clean”.
Although the labels themselves seem, upon first glance, much more organic than their counterparts, the fact remains that these new additions, while perhaps less synthetic in nature, are still carrying out tasks that may or not be harmful to general health. Take for example, the incorporation of ‘black radish extract’ on a label. By using black radish extract, food manufacturers can effectively replace any of the synthetic preservatives they have been using in their products, as this particular “clean” additive accomplishes much the same tasks.
Yet another example can be found in tapioca starch. Tapioca starch can be used to accomplish nearly identical functions as standard polyphosphates, commonly found in cheaper meat products in order to retain added water and increase weight. Does this mean that tapioca starch improves the general nutritional qualities of the product in question? Hardly.
In fact, it is quite interesting to note that a large number of these natural sounding ingredients remain factory-made. Tapioca starch, for instance, cannot be found in the natural environment. This, like standard polyphosphates, is a product that is manufactured. Therefore, name aside, the nutritional benefits remain somewhat dubious.
Carrot concentrate, yet another ‘clean’ ingredient, is actually quite artificial. Carrot concentrate is well processed colouring agent manufactured within the factory environment that is used in a variety of common food products.
With this information in mind, it should, perhaps, come as no surprise that so much attention is now being devoted to label reform around the world. Policy makers in Europe and the United States have begun to actively push for increased transparency and clarity on product labels, largely in an effort to help consumers make informed choices without feeling overwhelmed or “duped” by the product manufacturers.
The process of change is, of course, a slow one, and it is unlikely that we will see the somewhat murky world of “clean” labels change anytime soon. A complete overhaul of labelling isn’t needed, however, in order to ensure that customers remain educated and informed. Simply by staying current on label-related news, customers can be aware of new trends that may affect their purchasing decisions over time.
It would be a mistake to believe that companies and food manufacturers really are trying to deceive their clientele. Like any industry, food manufacturing involves extensive marketing. Clean labels are yet another tool by which food products can be sold more efficiently. If customers are aware of how these labels work, they can then make intelligent and responsible purchasing decisions which is, of course, the best possible outcome for consumers at large.
The evolution of clean labels will likely continue over the course of the upcoming months. Those who are passionate about understanding how these label changes may affect the products they see in stores are advised to stay current on related news in order to update themselves on the story as it unfolds.