What You Need to Know About the Clean Label Project

putting baby formula in bottle
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Many parents panicked after reports from an agency called the Clean Label Project called out tainted infant formulas, baby foods, and toddler snacks. Popular pouches and other snack food staples from companies big and small have been called into question. Do these dangers live up to the hype? Find out if this group is a friend or foe of parents trying to make smart food choices for their kids.

The Back Story

As reported by USA TODAY in October 2017, the Clean Label Project (CLP) released data noting that 80 percent of infant formulas and food products tested contained arsenic.

A number of household name brands were targeted.

Hearing news like this understandably alarmed parents and caregivers, but there was lack of scientific evidence to back up the claims in the aftermath of this shocking reveal. Despite their claims for scientific evidence, the CLP has yet to cough up their data, which has parents and members of the scientific community rightfully asking more questions.

What Is the Clean Label Project?

The Clean Label Project is a nonprofit group created to inform consumers and raise awareness about what food companies are up to. They say they “look beyond the products' marketing” to determine if foods geared towards small children, like infant formula, are in fact safe for tiny bodies to consume. They also evaluate pet food. The products they target have received FDA approval for safety though, so who's telling the truth?

The organization claims to conduct independent testing for 130 environmental and industrial pollutants including lead, mercury, antibiotics, and BPA/BPS.

The data collected is weighed along with the nutritional quality of the product and translated into a rating out of five stars. The exact rubric is unclear.

Using CLP: The Pros and Cons

Products on the CLP website are searchable by categories, including cereals, pouches, jars/meals, snacks, and drinks.

These groupings can be filtered into top five and bottom five lists to allow readers a general sense of what CLP is recommending and shunning. 

Another general upside for this type of platform is the hope that they can raise awareness and get folks to pay closer attention to what’s found in all packaged foods. If there’s a buzz about keeping foods safe (or making them safer), then hopefully food companies that are considering cutting corners may think twice and act more responsibly.

And then there are the low lights. The website is a little overwhelming to navigate unless you have a specific item in mind to check. The group's advisory board is easily accessible, but if you read the bios you can see that it is made up mostly of integrative medicine experts and veterinarians.

The bottom line is that evidence is needed to back up CLP's claims, and they don't provide any.There is nothing published and nothing peer-reviewed. In the world of evidence-based medicine where dietitians and other health care providers practice, this is a red flag.

Tips for Reading Labels

Nutrition experts agree that reading labels can be extremely confusing for consumers. Words like “natural,” “clean," and even “healthy” can be ambiguous claims that don’t necessarily translate into good-for-you ingredients.

Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, creator of BetterThanDieting.com and author of Read It Before You Eat It, urges consumers to be skeptical of the word "clean" when it comes to food:

The term 'clean label' has no approved definition, yet it means many things to many different people. It is presumed to mean that the food within the package contains ingredients that you can recognize and pronounce, but just because you may not recognize an ingredient (like cyanocobalamin) it doesn’t mean that it’s harmful to you (that’s the scientific term for vitamin B12) ... a clean label doesn’t reflect how much added sugar is used; a clean label in this case may mean that no artificial sweeteners are within, but regular sugar could be included. The food may not have harmful trans fats, but it could have other fats, like saturated types in larger quantities than you may have bargained for. The food could also have unhealthy amounts of sodium."

So whether it's a third party like the CLP making claims or the food companies themselves, it's important for parents to do their homework when buying food for their kids. Taub-Dix advice is, “Don’t be fooled by the flashy front of the package—be sure to flip that bag or box over and read the ingredient list to see what you’re really getting.”

Sources:

Clean Label Project. 2017.