Clean label policy a disaster for consumers


Summary: don’t judge a food by its cover
What is clean label policy?
Clean label cons and deceptions
Reader comments: “almost like they’re tricking you”
How to read clean labels
Hidden food industry document reveals clean label secrets
Further reading

Keywords: food industry, labelling, clean label policy, consumers



Reassured by appearances, consumers are responding to the new clean label policy by inadvertently consuming heaps of additives. As artificial colours are replaced by annatto, sulphite preservatives are replaced by sorbates and flavour enhancer 621 gives way to free glutamates, we are receiving increasing reports of reactions – including children’s behaviour and headbanging, itchy rashes, heart symptoms and anxiety - to annatto natural colour, sorbate preservatives and MSG substitutes in their myriad forms from people who didn’t even realise their food contained additives.

What is clean label policy?

Clean label is the global food industry response to survey results showing that about 75% of shoppers are interested in natural foods and will avoid buying highly processed products. It seems to me that the name says it all - clean label, not clean food.

There is no actual standard for clean labels and decisions are not based on science. Clean label can have different meanings depending on the manufacturer but the bottom line is that a clean label product implies a lack of artificial ingredients and has to be something the customer will buy.

We are finding that consumers have been lulled into a false sense of security. If the label looks clean and green – literally – they buy it.

Clean label cons and deceptions

REMOVE or DISGUISE anything the consumer does not want to see on the label.

  • Artificial colours - there is no doubt that some manufacturers are removing artificial colours from their products but others are disguising them, as in slushies made of ‘99% pure fruit juice’. Most consumers don’t realise that the other 1% can contain artificial colours and or preservatives - see a report from 2008 - but four years later, parents are complaining about artificially coloured blue slushies in their schools.
  • Numbers - often names are used to disguise artificial colours e.g. colour (carmoisine) sounds more natural than colour (122).

The product still contains an artificial colour, but how many consumers knowl that carmine is a natural pink and carmoisine is an artificial red? Almost none.

  • Chemical-sounding names and anything that sounds artificial - e.g. names like carboxymethylcellulose and butylated hydroxyanisole are too long and chemical sounding. So the food industry changed the first one to cellulose gum and invented a new additive for the second.

We don’t think there is anything wrong with cellulose gum no matter what it is called. The second example, BHA, is one of our additives to avoid, but so are the natural replacements – herb extract or rosemary extract. Be careful with ingredients called …. extract – it means they are probably very concentrated. The first rule of toxicology is it’s the dose that makes the poison and this is an example of what Julie Eady of Additive Alert calls “natural foods in unnatural amounts”.

  • Yuk factor - e.g. carmine (natural pink colour 120 also called cochineal) is made from crushed beetles. It is not vegan and can cause true allergic reactions in people with insect allergies though it does not affect most of our members.

Cochineal was removed from Starbucks strawberry frappes recently due to public outcry, showing just how effective a public outcry is.

USE food lawyer words

  • Innocent-sounding names - e.g. You can’t get any more innocent-sounding than cultured dextrose. The trouble is, it’s another name for the propionate bread preservative, made by culturing dextrose with propionibacteria so you end up with a similar chemical that fools the consumer into thinking it is harmless.
  • Free-from claims - such as

gluten free
lactose free
cholesterol free
fat free
sugar free
no artificial colours
no artificial flavours

Yes, the product can be free of all of those and more. It doesn’t mean the product is free of all nasty additives.

Reader comments


Reaction to natural annatto

The photo shows forehead bruising in a young child due to headbanging triggered by annatto in a clean label product, see reader comment below.

“The label says ‘no artificial colours or flavours’ and the ingredients lists annatto without a number. It’s almost like they’re tricking you.”

How to hide MSG

“I am a food technologist and I am unhappy about the way food technology is going: I have sat in technical meetings discussing what to call the MSG that we want to put in a product.” – FedUp roadshow 2012

Sorbic acid and sorbate preservatives can affect consumers

A few months ago we went to Europe. When we came back my son returned to school and started getting very clingy, crying and not being able to read or write properly and was not able to concentrate. I have had trouble with these symptoms on and off over the 1½ years. I mentioned this to my friend, she gave me your book and I started an additive free diet. After about 1 week everything had improved dramatically. I waited about 4 weeks before I introduced additives, one a time … He reacted to 202 (potassium sorbate) in a drink of juice by crying and becoming clingy. He had it at dinner time, then had trouble getting to sleep. The next day he was very sensitive and cried a lot and hid in his room when our visitors arrived and would not come out until they had been there for several hours. He got better after he had his lunch (which he ate by himself in his room). He then came out, but didn’t talk much and sat right next to me. He can drink fresh juice with no problem. - FROM [801]

How to read clean labels

If it says … no artificial colours … watch out for these …
annatto, carmine or cochineal natural colours (last two cause allergies only)

If it says … no artificial preservatives … watch out for these …
cultured dextrose
cultured wheat
cultured rice
cultured whey, whey powder or whey …

… used in breads and other bakery products instead of preservative 282. (280-283)


If it says … rosemary extract, herb extract … watch out …
they are substitutes for BHA 320, BHT 321 and TBHQ 319 and can affect susceptible consumers

If it says … no added MSGthen almost certainly there will be free glutamates added. Watch out for other 600-number flavour enhancers especially 627, 631 or 635 and/or free glutamates such as yeast extract hydrolysed vegetable protein (vegetable can be wheat, rice, corn, plant, maize or soy) or a name made up from any of the previous words in any order such as vegetable protein extract (corn)
and naturally high sources of glutamates such as soy sauce

If it says … no artificial flavours … watch out for
highly concentrated natural flavours

If it says …
no artificial colours
no artificial flavours
no added MSG
… watch out for synthetic antioxidants or preservatives such as sorbic acid (200), sodium sorbate (201), potassium sorbate (202)
as well as other preservatives, free glutamates, natural colours and concentrated strong natural flavours

Hidden food industry document reveals clean label secrets

Have you ever wondered how the food industry could get rid of MSG (flavour enhancer 621) so completely from labels? Some of our Network members who know they are sensitive to MSG have been fooled so badly that they have been very ill, and one had to be rushed to hospital in an ambulance which was called by her young daughter.

I found the answers in a remarkably candid food industry document called Clarifying Clean Labels, but it’s not in the article that appears on your computer screen. You need to click on the Print version – but it’s not in the article that appears on your printer. You need to scroll down the print version on your screen and you will find the rest of the article.

Further reading

Berry D, Clarifying Clean Labels Print version read onscreen accessed 11/08/2013

Scott-Thomas C , What do ‘natural’ and ‘clean label’ mean anyway?

Watson, E Natural & Clean Label Trends 2013: How clean is your label? And can GMOs ever belong in 'natural' products?

Introduction to food intolerance

Annatto factsheet
Sorbate factsheet
MSG factsheet
Ribo rash factsheet
Heart symptoms factsheet

The information given is not intended as medical advice. Always consult with your doctor for underlying illness. Before beginning dietary investigation, consult a dietician with an interest in food intolerance. You can see our list of experienced and supportive dietitians

© Sue Dengate August 2013


Soy, lentil and other legume intolerance