Clean Label – A Clearer Understanding of What It Is

Clarifying What Clean Label Means for Your Food

The term can get messy when it comes to food transparency.

Our usual worries over fat, salt, and sugar content now have another troublesome additive: confusion. Mystery about the overall contents of our food has us worried as a nation. A recent poll discovered that as little as 13% of respondents actually read food labels, but the majority know we’re not getting the full story. They want clear, honest food labeling.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made a controversial move in 2017 by giving food manufacturers extended time to meet public demand: from 2018 to 2020. This hampers us being aware of what we’re eating. A very unhealthy delay!

In the meantime, the Clean Label (CL) movement is trying to help consumers understand what they’re consuming. Here’s a closer look at what it is, the obstacles it faces, and the benefits it’s trying to bring to grocery carts.

Clean Label means straight talking

One of the views of clean enthusiasts is this: if an ingredient can’t be pronounced, it shouldn’t be in food. Clean Label wants ingredients to be simple and natural: things the public can recognize and understand. For instance, it’s fine when our bread contains wheat, flour, and yeast. When it also contains azodicarbonamide (found in shoe soles and yoga mats), people get concerned.

From food colorings also used in cosmetics to high fructose corn syrup, so many of our daily foods are under the spotlight. How much butylated hydroxytoluene do you like with your snacks? We’re not sure, either.

Potentially harmful, hard to understand ingredients lurk in every sector of the food industry. Frustratingly, there’s scientific debate that attacks and defends the same ingredient. This leaves the average shopper unsure of what to think.

Go Clean LabelTM offers this by-category list of what’s deemed safe by their food partners…but does that make it the definitive last word?

Is clean labeling itself totally clear?

Here’s an issue with Clean Label: there’s no solid definition on what’s “clean” and what it isn’t. As a resource, the Clean Label movement itself doesn’t claim to be a judge of what’s good or bad; it’s simply a source of current information and attitudes in the food industry.

Companies like Aldi, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and Panera are all involved in the clean movement. When they deem an ingredient undesirable, they publish this on the Go Clean Label website. From there, the public can see what’s accepted by these big companies and what isn’t.

It isn’t just the consumer who’s confused

Generally, there’s a favoring of organic foods, natural ingredients, and items free from artificial additives. Clean Label acknowledges that the word “natural” is a really hard one to pin down. People like it, but there’s no real understanding of what it means. The FDA isn’t too firm on the word either and asked for public input to help them define it.

The same applies to the word “clean.” Some food labeling agencies will mark a product clean as long as there’s no environmental impact from its production. You may be eating all kinds of harmful ingredients, yet your food could still be called clean.

Food considered organic isn’t regulated by the FDA. It’s overseen by the Department of Agriculture via the National Organic Program. They’re the ones who set the national standard.

Does Clean Label mean consumers pay more?

Much like the costlier organic alternative to standard produce, Clean foods are expected to be more expensive. The required increase in labor intensity to produce foods to this higher standard (and not cut corners chemically like their competitors) is one factor expected to drive costs higher.

When the raw materials are more expensive, the manufacturers and bakeries who utilize them will have to foot the bill and, if they want to stay in business, are likely pass that price hike along in some way to the consumer.

As CL gathers steam toward becoming an industry standard, businesses will have to incorporate new visual adherence into their products. This will involve the designing and deployment of new product labels and promotional materials: another company expense that may make Clean Label products cost more.

The use of promotional materials will be of particular importance as consumers become warier of what they eat and drink. The company who spends more to demonstrate their Clean Label credentials will put their customers’ minds at ease. They will also have a bigger bite taken out of their profits to promote it in the first place.

As meat, dairy, and crop farmers are gradually affected by the shift toward Clean Label, they may have to alter their operational procedures to ensure compliance. It’s a cost trade off that carries its own risks. Will these farmers get in line and risk pricing their product too high? Even if their produce still sells, it creates an increased expense chain that reaches from the field to the food aisle.

Ultimately, the question is: will consumers be willing to pay more for peace of mind? You may like to review this resource from the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute that cautions consumers against the likely increase in cost of Clean Label ingredients.

Consumers could shape the future

As a result of all these varying attitudes and regulatory bodies, Clean Label isn’t any kind of industry standard…yet. Consumer concern about ingredients is forcing the food industry to sit up and take notice however, and that’s adding a lot of power to the Clean Label movement’s status and influence.

Since they’re the ones at risk, shouldn’t the public have the last say on what they want to eat? This seems to be the way things are going. Go Clean Label’s founders see the future as a collaboration between themselves, food providers, and the public.

Conscientious Leverage

The journey there means “clean” will become something more than just healthy ingredients. People’s social beliefs are becoming a factor, too. Everyone wants a clean conscience from their food. Was the environment harmed? Were the people or animals involved in production treated humanely?

As a company, We Take The Cake believes in the purest food possible. Even though our cakes aren’t Clean Label, we use only the finest ingredients with the minimum of additives.  It’s important to remember as the clean movement progresses that the lack of Clean Label doesn’t certify that any ingredient has a negative effect.

As our health concerns and our principles start to dictate our choices (and the companies who provide them), we truly are becoming what we eat.


The foggy definition of what’s clean isn’t going to last. When everyone understands the information and has their say, a final Clean Label will very likely be created. As things are, organizations like Go Clean Label are good resources, and the ongoing mixture of industry opinion and consumer concern is a healthy recipe. It will turn tomorrow’s Clean Label into something with a conscience, and our food into something we can trust.

At We Take The Cake, what you eat means the world to us. For over twenty years, we’ve continued to craft each cake by hand using only the finest ingredients. We’re proud to include among our customers nationally recognized caterers, party planners, private clubs, world-famous hotels, and exclusive resorts. Find out more about our delicious cakes for any occasion.