In January 2016, kids peering into their bowls of Trix cereal at breakfast found that the thrill was gone. The bright colors—lemony yellows, orangey oranges, and grapity grapes—had been replaced with more autumnal, somber hues. Instead of synthetic dyes, General Mills’ famous spheroids of puffed corn had been tinted with turmeric, carrot extracts, radish juice, and other natural colors. “Lime green” and “wildberry blue,” intensely neon shades the company’s scientists could find no natural ways to duplicate, had vanished entirely.
The resulting bowl looked drab and dull. But in theory, the change—which included swapping out high- fructose corn syrup for plain old sugar and corn syrup, and using only “natural flavors”—was a response to customer demand. “We’re simply listening to consumers and these ingredients are not what they’re looking for in their cereal today,” said Jim Murphy, president of General Mills’ cereal division, ahead of the launch. But the makeover met with harsh backlash, especially online. (“It’s basically a salad now,” one disgruntled lawyer whined.) By October 2017, all “six fruity colors” were back on shelves as “Classic Trix,” though the reformulated version continues to be sold.
Green and blue Trix were, for a brief moment, victims of one of the biggest trends in food production: “clean label.” The term still hasn’t reached broad currency outside the industry, but virtually anyone who shops has seen its impact on the grocery aisle. Starting around 2010, and with increasing momentum, ingredient lists began to shrink, with fewer spooky chemical names. The biggest names in packaged food—including Kraft Heinz, Campbell Soup, Nestlé, and Hershey’s—have lined up to jettison artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives, revamping products with shorter lists of recognizable ingredients. Meanwhile, smaller upstarts like RX Bar and Sir Kensington’s wield clean labels as a competitive weapon, angling for market share with ingredient lists so minimal they read like recipes.
On the surface, this may seem like the unprocessing of processed food. But the incredible shrinking ingredient list is a much stranger phenomenon than it at first appears. It’s more about optics than it is about health. It’s more about language than it is about specific ingredients. And it’s more about catering to a culture’s fears and biases than the genuine pursuit of better-for-you food.
Clean and simple?
“If you can’t say it, don’t eat it,” preached journalist and author Michael Pollan in a 2008 NPR interview promoting his book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, where he also prescribed avoiding foods with more than five ingredients on the label. Pollan’s rule of thumb, a strategy for avoiding “highly processed” foods, reflected a growing suspicion of food technology—which seems only to have increased since then.
Pollan’s suggestion, at least in part, was intended encourage healthier eating though whole foods and home cooking—anyone avoiding unfamiliar additives is more likely to reach for an apple than a sack of potato chips. But America seemed to heed his advice only selectively. We kept the processed snack foods. Now they just come with fewer four-syllable ingredients.
Today, “healthy” snack sales are booming as the public becomes more additive-averse, scrutinizing labels with a suspicion that borders on indiscriminate chemophobia. Google nearly any food chemical, and you’ll find reasons to fear. Maltodextrin, a starch used as a thickener, is a “metabolism death food,” according to popular “wellness physician” Dr. Axe. Carrageenan, a seaweed-derived emulsifier commonly used in non-dairy milks, might be “wrecking your gut,” according to Organic Life. Lifestyle blogger Vani Hari, better known as “The Food Babe,” has declared all “natural flavors” to be “chemical warfare.”
All this has taken its toll on consumer confidence in the food supply. According to the International Food Information Council (IFIC), in 2016, 38 percent of consumers named “chemicals” as their top food safety concern, up from 9 percent just five years earlier. This suggests that large numbers of ordinary Americans no longer trust the assurances of scientific experts or government agencies about the safety of food additives—much less corporations—not to put weird things into their bodies. And so they’re on a tear to banish strange and unfamiliar-sounding ingredients from their lives, the way Marie Kondo might purge a cluttered apartment.
For now, plenty of food companies are happy to oblige them. It’s no secret why: There’s money in it. While sales of “conventional” processed foods have stagnated or fallen in recent years, sales of foods and beverages that boast no artificial ingredients or that claim to be “all natural” continue to rise, despite an often higher sticker price. This growth has been especially strong for foods that combine a clean label with promises of environmental sustainability.
But a question remains: What, exactly, counts as “clean”? Retailers and chain restaurants with clean label programs, such as Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Kroger, and Panera, all have slightly different lists of prohibited ingredients. For instance, Whole Foods forbids food containing the artificial sweetener sucralose and synthetic vanillin from being sold in its stores; Trader Joe’s allows both, but bans oxystearin, a waxy preservative that Whole Foods currently permits. Panera’s original “no-no list” of forbidden ingredients included ascorbic acid (aka vitamin C), which it later removed after criticism for promoting pseudoscience.
“‘Clean’ lies in the eyes of the beholder,” Kantha Shelke, PhD, food scientist and principal at Corvus Blue, a food science and research firm, writes in an email. “Also, what is clean today might not be so tomorrow.”
That’s not by accident. The definition of “clean” is necessarily murky, because it’s not based on scientific reality so much as subjective perceptions about authenticity and artificiality. In general, consumers seem to feel recognizable ingredients are safer and more wholesome, while additives with chemical-sounding names are undesirable or even dangerous. What determines whether an ingredient is “clean,” then, is not its safety or salubriousness, but how it is perceived: whether it’s foreign-sounding enough to cause a label-scanning shopper to think twice.
As a result, some perfectly benign, tried-and-true food additives have started to become less than welcome.
Take tocopherol. It’s a ubiquitous ingredient in packaged foods like Hershey’s Cookies ‘n’ Crème bars, where it’s added to prevent rancidity and mask off-flavors. To the conscientious label reader, the word might raise eyebrows: It sounds medical and vaguely threatening, like a cousin to formaldehyde or Rohypnol. But tocopherol is nothing but vitamin E—an antioxidant that, by another name, might entice consumers. Vitamin E isn’t nutritious when used this way in chocolate, though it’s certainly safe—and yet the science lab name can be a deterrent anyway.
“It’s one of those internal struggles because it sounds chemical,” Hershey’s master chocolatier Jim St. John told Confectionery News in 2016, as the company debated whether to remove the ingredient from its candy bars. (It hasn’t, but now specifies that it is there “to maintain freshness.”)
Or consider the case of xanthan gum, a versatile stabilizer and thickener produced by fermenting plant-derived sugars. It’s safe and very useful, but to American ears, “xanthan” sounds foreign, like one of the desert planets from Dune—literally, alien. And so it’s become a kind of processed food shibboleth—one that’s spurred continuous debate about what’s “natural” and not. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) currently allows it in organic products, but some consumer groups are challenging food manufacturers’ interpretations of the rules. A class-action lawsuit filed last summer against General Mills alleges that the company’s use of xanthan gum in its “natural” label products is deceptive. And although Whole Foods and other clean label retailers do not forbid it, some food companies like Arla Cream Cheese have decided to remove it in an effort to outdo competitors…