Clean and natural – the rise of healthy living25 May 2021
The idea of healthy living is sound. Surely having a longer, happier life with less need for medical treatment should be an easy sell? Yet preservatives in food, chemical ingredients and hidden sugars can make it harder for consumers to make the right choice. Emma-Jane Batey explores the growing importance of food labelling and having access to information about healthy eating.
Let’s face it. The processed food cat is well and truly out of the bag. While it’s safe to say that not everyone has the same level of information or awareness regarding healthy eating – not to mention the ease of purchasing and storing processed and, usually, packaged ambient foods – it’s unlikely that the wider population will go back to cooking from scratch every day. It’s also rare to see special offers on fruits and vegetables when compared with the endless 2-4-1s on packaged convenience foods.
Consumers on lower budgets are also the least likely to have access to the tools required to turn cheaper ingredients into healthy, filling meals for their families. Mental health plays a role in healthy eating too, with the self-care motivation needed to cook nourishing meals sadly quick to go when the black dog strikes. A common argument for adding artificial preservatives to food is that it’s necessary to extend its shelf life, supporting convenience and logistics.
The choice appears to be between healthy, natural products with a short lifespan or more artificial products that will last longer. This does not necessarily have to be the case. Surely the goal for cleaner living, for the many not the few, is more complicated than just promoting processed food?
There is also the misconception that healthy eating, often referred to on social media as ‘eating clean’, ‘clean eating’, or ‘clean living’ – the hashtags – it is about obsessiveness, manifesting itself in difficulty for the consumer one way or another.
This is where the US-based Clean Label Project steps in; founded as a non-profit ‘with the mission to bring truth and transparency to food and consumer product labelling’. A cross-sector advisory project that promotes easy to understand labelling, the idea behind the Clean Label Project is to show people what is going in their products and to encourage people to buy foods and other products with as few ingredients as possible; and for those products to come from natural sources – ultimately, to live better without making compromises on health.
The Clean Label Project uses a certification programme in order to test for over 130 contaminants and toxins. The programme involves random sampling and testing at retail stores. This is in order to make sure that what is being tested is the same product that can be purchased at those stores. This helps to avoid issues, such as testing something that is a prototype developed in a company kitchen as opposed to the final product that will be available on the shelves.
In October 2017, the Clean Label Project found that a number of leading North American brands of infant formulas and baby foods contained contaminants, such as heavy metals and pesticide residues.
There has been some movement by some brands to improve their processes. Some companies have allowed products to be randomly purchased and tested as part of the Clean Label Project’s process of certification.
Cardiovascular disease – at the heart of the matter
It is easy to dismiss the idea of clean living as a fad, or as the latest TikTok trend. There may be the feeling that this is coming from a pseudo-science perspective from youngsters with too much time on their hands. However, what cannot be ignored are the studies from the World Health Organisation (WHO) regarding the nature of cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) and the impact food has on general health.
CVDs is a term that refers to heart and blood disorders such as coronary heart disease, cerebrovascular disease and rheumatic heart disease. It is estimated that globally 17.9 million people are killed by CVDs. Of those deaths, four out of the five occurred due to heart attacks and strokes. A third of these deaths are premature, affecting people under the age of 70.
CVDs can be caused by a number of factors. Typically they are linked to a poor diet but other issues can also include excessive alcohol consumption, tobacco usage and not getting enough exercise. Symptoms of CVDs include raised blood and glucose level, as well as the more visible signs of weight gain and obesity. The global lockdown not only brought considerable stress to millions, but it has also resulted in fewer people having access to gyms and restrictions placed on exercise – there has also been the additional temptation that comes with easy access to online grocery shopping and food delivery. Let’s not forget the temptation to open the fridge instead of finishing that difficult report or feeding hungry children that would be eating lunch at school in less strange times.
Stress is a factor in CVDs too. This can result in a vicious cycle, as people who want to deal with stress may look to short-term fixes such as alcohol and comfort eating that may in turn further add to these health issues.
Misleading packaging has a role to play too. For example, a product may be marketed as ‘low fat’ but will be high in sugar and may contain artificial sweeteners. While these replicate the taste of products containing natural sugar, artificial sweeteners also provide less energy but offer that same sugar rush that can make people feel distinctly edgy, which is not helpful to those already stressed. Recent animal studies have shown that artificial sweeteners can contribute to conditions such as weight gain, brain tumours and bladder cancer. The long-term impact of these artificial sweeteners is not known.
But sweet foods are not banned in clean eating. There are plenty of natural sweeteners such as honey and maple syrup that can be added, as well as fruits that are naturally sweet. The emphasis on these foods is that they are a treat, and it is better to have the occasional treat sourced from natural ingredients and processes, as opposed to consuming something artificial on a regular basis under the misguided idea that this is ‘healthier’.
Fats, oils and sodium reduction
Another issue that has influenced people’s cardiovascular health has been the use of trans fats in a variety of foods including baked goods, fried foods and surprising sources, such as nondairy creamers. Trans fats are a type of unsaturated fat, formed by converting vegetable oils into a semisolid, partially hydrogenated oil.
It should be made clear that not all fats are bad, and certain fats can even be beneficial for your health. The Mediterranean diet includes nuts, olive oil and dairy – this combined with fruits, vegetables, beans and seafood has resulted in reported health benefits including better cardiovascular fitness, reduced risk of Alzheimer’s and a reduction in muscle weakness. It also offers secondary benefits such as plumper, more glowing skin thanks to the natural ingredients, and, anecdotally, fewer joint pains.
It’s a plant-based protein
The trend for plant-based food is on the up and up. There are environmental benefits that sit alongside the health advantages. Food production is a factor and of those emissions, 75% is estimated to come from animal derived products. Agriculture is also said to use 70% of global freshwater and 40% of the Earth’s landmass that isn’t covered by ice. In short, a lot of these emissions could be reduced if people cut back on animal-based products.
Healthwise, a recent study published in The Lancet showed that plant-based diets could reduce the number of deaths caused by heart disease and other chronic conditions by up to 10.9 to 11.6 million premature deaths every year.
There are different forms of this kind of diet and the approach people will take varies depending on why they are choosing to adopt it. Some people choose to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, or even a raw vegan diet which consists of only raw foods and nothing connected to animals in any way.
The ‘Flexitarian’ approach is also increasingly popular, whereby a person may not go entirely vegetarian or vegan but will reduce their meat or dairy intake in order to improve their health.
In April 2014, 39 studies were quoted in JAMA Internal Medicine, finding that on average a vegetarian diet resulted in lower blood pressure compared to an omnivorous diet. In August 2019, a study that was published in the Journal of the American Heart Association showed that a plantbased diet could reduce the risk of cardiovascular conditions by 16%, and that deaths from this condition could potentially be reduced by as much as 31%.
Back to being informed
This is where the idea behind the Clean Label Project comes in. As well as reducing the amount of harmful additives, chemicals and so forth, it is also about having fewer ingredients that are derived from natural sources. While the main guidance has been that artificial ingredients have to be listed, this term has sometimes been confused with terms such as ‘organic’, ‘natural’ or ‘vegan’. For example, a product may come from a natural source, such as the apple in an apple pie, yet the product can still contain plenty of additives. However, the term ‘clean’ does not just refer to the ingredients used but also how it is produced and processed. While the apple itself might be natural, any pesticide used to keep insects away would not be. When it comes to something that is manufactured, certain additives will be brought in to increase the shelf life of the product. For example, sulphites may be added in order to extend the ‘freshness’ of the apple pie, ‘refined oil’ such as corn or peanut oil may be added for ‘mouthfeel’, which research suggests can contribute to heart disease and increase the risk of cancer. Another example that could be added to baked goods like apple pie is a thickener, such as polysorbate 60. Some animal studies have suggested that this ingredient may be a contributing factor to the development of cancer in some laboratory animals.
It is not just the ingredients that are a potential concern when it comes to manufactured foods and products; there’s the risk that something produced in a factory could become potentially contaminated on the production line. This is not just restricted to mass-manufactured food, there have been high profile cases where food ordered in restaurants has not been properly labelled and people with allergies did not receive the right information, resulting in illness, and death in the most severe cases.
While official organisations such as the FDA are in place to improve consumer safety, there is the feeling that a move toward better processes will speed up with sufficient demand from the consumer themselves. Yet how can consumers know what alternatives are available in this complicated situation? FMCG companies are aware of what they can do in order to make their products cleaner without impacting on convenience. For example, instead of using an artificial oxidiser in the product itself, an additional oxygen sachet can be added to increase a product’s shelf life. Another way to increase the shelf life in a more natural way is to use a mix of oxygen and carbon dioxide that is also known as modified atmosphere packaging.
For brands, this has the potential to be massively beneficial. With the increased demand for cleaner products and greater transparency, showing commitment to clean labels will inevitably appeal to consumers who are stuck choosing between two different products – as long as the greenwashing doesn’t become a whole new problem.
The contribution of food production to global greenhouse emissions.
Our World in Data
The percentage of global freshwater used by agriculture.
Our World in Data
The percentage of the earth’s landmass (not covered by ice) that is used by agriculture.