June 17, 2021

What are Clean Label Ingredients?

Clean label food has become a big trend—and, believe it or not, it’s the subject of a lot of debate!

Choosing foods with clean label ingredients can help you make better, healthier decisions for yourself and your family. But it’s not always easy to know which foods are clean label and which aren’t.

To clear up the confusion, let’s take a look at what clean label really means and go over a few basic principles to guide you on your next shopping trip.

What Does “Clean Label” Mean, Anyway?

There are a lot of opinions on what makes a food clean label. That’s part of the reason why there’s so much debate over the term.

Early efforts at cleaning up labels stemmed from concerns about food safety; other distinctions were added later. Today, the most basic definition of clean label focuses on products that include ingredients you can recognize and pronounce. People who agree with this definition might also look for foods with as few ingredients as possible or only ingredients they’d use in their own kitchens.

Other definitions outline what clean label shouldn’t include, such as sugar, GMOs, artificial coloring, artificial flavoring, chemical preservatives and non-organic ingredients. One particular group, the Clean Label Project, specifies that foods receiving its certification must be free from a range of “environmental contaminants,” including pesticides and heavy metals.

More recently, the term has also begun to be associated with sustainability and environmental impact, which go beyond what’s in the food to include the manufacturer’s ethics and waste management practices.

If an official description of clean label is developed, it will probably include guidelines for safety, nutrition, sustainability, environmental impact and socially responsible ingredient sourcing.

Clean Label Food Trends

Brands are creating products or changing their formulas in response to the growing demand for simpler, fresher foods that meet these standards. To see how popular this trend is, take a look at the market for clean label ingredients: It’s expected to be worth $64.1 billion by 2026!

Clean label ingredients include things like sweeteners, thickeners and preservatives derived from food, as well as colorings and flavorings made from fruits and vegetables. Ingredients that can improve immunity or boost gut health are also becoming popular.

Although many small brands are leading the way, big names like Nestle and Campbell’s are also focusing on cleaner ingredients in both their most popular products and new product lines.

Clean Ingredients by the Numbers

If you prefer to shop for foods with these kinds of ingredients, you’re in good company:

But it’s also okay if you’re feeling a little confused. There are still a lot of people who don’t understand what clean label is. It can be hard to know exactly what to look for, especially because some definitions can steer you away from nutritious foods.

Common Clean Label Mistakes

There are a few areas where common perceptions of “clean label” can lead to confusion:

  • “Chemicals” aren’t always dangerous. Some ingredients that sound like they could be harmful are actually natural substances, such as tocopherol, which is a form of vitamin E.
  • A short ingredient list isn’t always better. Sprouted bread made with 10 whole grains has more ingredients than a soda, but the bread is the more nutritious choice.
  • Preservatives can be beneficial. Preservatives keep products from going bad on the journey from the manufacturer to your kitchen, and many—like citric acid—come are sourced from food.
  • Pronounceable ingredients can lack nutrition. Some refined and processed ingredients are recognizable but not generally considered clean label.

These issues don’t mean clean label has no merit; you just need to be smart and aware when you shop. Like “natural” and “made with real ingredients,” saying a food is clean label can create a health halo around some products while excluding others that might be just as good for you—or even better.

Are Plant-Based Foods Clean Label?

Plant-based foods are a great example. They may include ingredients that some people don’t consider clean label, but that doesn’t mean they’re dirty, dangerous or unhealthy. And not every plant-based product is designed to be the healthiest choice. So, while plant-based can be clean label, it’s not always the same thing.

Why is that? Clean label isn’t the goal of every plant-based brand. Some just want to re-create the foods you’re familiar with and give you something tasty to enjoy when you want a burger or chicken wings but would prefer not to eat animals. And that’s okay; it’s up to you whether you’re comfortable including these foods in your diet.

Many brands are making that decision easier by providing clear information about what ingredients they use and why.

Plant-Based Food Transparency

Being transparent about ingredients is becoming a big part of the plant-based movement. When every ingredient in a product is listed along with its origin and purpose, the information can serve as a guide when you’re filling your cart—and your plate—and make it easier to choose products that meet your health goals.

Plantcraft products use a mix of legumes, seeds, herbs and spices in a base of green banana flour to maximize flavor and texture without any stabilizers or flavor enhancers. That means you get a clean label plant-based product that tastes great and can improve your health when you eat it.

Keep an eye out for a growing trend toward more clean label ingredients in plant-based products.

Shopping for Clean Label Foods

Now that you know what clean label is, what it isn’t and some mistakes to avoid, how do you put all this information together to make better food choices?

Read labels!

If you’re not one of the 74% of people who read the entire label on a package before buying a product, this might sound like a lot of extra work. But it’s worth taking a few minutes to compare products to understand what you’re buying.

Try this simple three-step approach on your next grocery run, and you’ll be a proficient label reader in no time:

  • Turn the package over. The front of a box or bag doesn’t tell you much about what’s actually in a food. Look at—and read—the nutrition facts panel and ingredient list to get the whole picture.
  • Look for plant-based ingredients. If all or the majority of the ingredients are whole plant foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts or seeds, it’s hard to go wrong.
  • Do your homework. Go ahead and Google ingredients you don’t recognize or can’t pronounce. You might find they’re perfectly safe, healthy and natural—some even have added benefits for health.

It’s also okay to reach out to brands and ask them about the ingredients and processes they use to make their products. Many companies have ingredient information in the FAQ sections on their websites. You can connect on social media or send an email with more specific questions and concerns. Brands want you to feel good about eating their products, so they should be happy to help you out in your search for clean label foods!