Unintended Consequences of Clean Label
Clean label products are an opportunity for the food industry to work to simplify the ingredient label to make branded products more appealing to consumers. Such reformulation typically means fewer ingredients listed on the legend. In many cases, fewer ingredients also means healthier products to the consumer.
It was my feeling that clean label could be defined as “less is more” in the consumer’s eyes — fewer additives, flavors, preservatives, etc. Until one day I received a disturbing phone call from a friend and R&D baker at a mid-size baking company. My friend said her company was asked to begin using unenriched refined flour to make bread and rolls for a specific retail customer. The reason for the request: “cleaner label.”
So let’s understand what using unenriched flour means. For consumers who want a clean label, the ingredient list for French bread would be very simple: “Wheat flour, water, yeast and salt.”
For those who use enriched flour and follow Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations, the label declaration would read: “Enriched wheat flour (wheat flour, malted barley flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), water, yeast and salt.”
While the two ingredient lists look very different to consumers, the legends are for the exact same product. The latter is legally labeled for FDA regulations per 21 CFR 137.165 for enriched flour, and the former is the desired “clean label” for the customer.
Unfortunately, this retailer is working too hard to market products that meet consumer demands. In this case, it does not want the chemical-sounding names of the vitamins and minerals. While in theory it makes sense to meet the wants and desires of consumers, in this case, it may be a disaster waiting to happen.
The unsung heroism of enriched grains cannot be overemphasized or restated enough to the general public. Unfortunately, only negative information makes the news. Just a couple of months ago, 60 Minutes aired a segment on the evils of sugars. A famous white bread, from a financially distressed company, stood front and center in the show. No data was given to prove that the white bread was evil, only the implied message by showing the branded product with the negative aspect of added sugar.
So let us not forget the importance enriched grains have played in the health and nutrition of the American population since the early 1940s. About 95% of refined white flour in the US is enriched. That means the three major B vitamins — thiamin, riboflavin and niacin — as well as iron are added back in at the same proportion as is found in the whole kernel. In fact, enriched grains contain twice the folic acid found in their whole grain counterparts.
Enriched grains have been credited with helping eradicate diseases such as beriberi and pellagra. Since fortification with folic acid began in 1998, neural tube birth defects have declined by nearly one-third. In fact, in 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention named folic acid fortification of enriched grains as one of Top 10 public health achievements of the first decade of the 21st century for its role in birth defects prevention.
So what are the unintended consequences when the baker takes out the enrichment to meet a retailer’s (and consumer’s) request for a cleaner label? Hopefully, people will think to ask the question. If we’re smart enough to ask the question, then hopefully someone will research the answer and realize the unintended consequences of eliminating enrichment may be an increase in neural tube defects.
Spina bifida is a costly, life-altering birth defect. The risk of this birth defect is reduced with the small investment of less than 17¢ per year per person, or the cost of enriching the yearly per capita consumption of white flour. I only wish this topic would make the news.