Many Americans have embraced the “eating clean” movement, the concept that we should eat whole foods like vegetables, fruits and whole grains and healthy proteins and fats. And we should consume less refined grains, pesticides, additives, preservatives and fats.
Sounds logical, because who wants to eat pesticides and preservatives? New research from Iowa State University, however, shows that consumers are unaware of the costs related to producing “clean” label foods.
Ruth MacDonald and Ruth Litchfield, professors of food science and human nutrition at Iowa State University, warn of the consequences in terms of food waste, safety and cost. Clean food advocates suggest avoiding foods with ingredients you cannot pronounce. MacDonald says several food manufacturers, restaurants and grocery stores have responded by removing additives to fit the definition of clean.
The ISU professors say just because an ingredient or additive has an unfamiliar name does not automatically make it bad for you. The decision to remove additives appears to be driven more by market demand than consideration of the benefits these additives provide and the potential food safety risk, they said. Removing nitrates from deli meats and hot dogs is just one example.
Food manufacturers use ingredients such as sodium benzoate, calcium propionate and potassium sorbate to control the growth of microorganisms in foods without changing the character or taste of the food. Without such additives, foods will spoil faster, increasing food safety risk and the likelihood of more food ending up in the trash.
“People have a hard time understanding the risk-benefit ratio when it comes to foods. They see a chemical, such as nitrates, listed on the label and assume it is bad or the food contains a high amount,” MacDonald said. “The food safety risk without these preservatives is so much greater.”
Litchfield, an expert on food safety and health promotion, has this advice for consumers:
• Consider the source of the information. Be wary of advocacy groups using social media to push an agenda that may not be in the public’s best interest.
• Food manufacturers quickly respond to changes in consumer preference. Before buying into the latest fad, think about whether it is market-driven or science-based.
• Do not assume food label buzzwords such as “clean” or “all natural” are synonymous with nutritious or healthful.
Litchfield expects food waste in the U.S. – already about 20 pounds per person each month – will only get worse with the removal of additives and preservatives.
Americans expect their food supply to be safe, plentiful, convenient and low cost, which explains why grocery stores now offer more than 40,000 different food items. The convenience and choice many consumers value would not be possible without advances in food technology, the professors said – all things for consumers to consider when they ask for “clean” food.