Clean Label or Mislabeled?

Ikedas - Dried Canteloupe

This is a guest blog post by Carol Harvey, Director of food/nutrition labeling and product development at Palate Works.

What’s not to like about a “clean” label – listing only one or two ingredients – to show how pure a food is? Well, besides the fact that fewer ingredients, in itself, does not make a food “cleaner” or better (Is a food product made from seven good ingredients – providing better taste, texture and nutrition – worse for you than something with just one of those ingredients?), many small businesses omit the ingredient list on their products all together, even when more than one ingredient is present.

While there is a small business exemption for nutrition labeling (but only if no health or nutrient claims are made about the food product anywhere… including on websites), there is no such exemption for ingredient listings. All packaged food must contain an accurate and complete list of ingredients in descending order of predominance.

Farmers market vendors and small retailers that package their own products, such as nut mixes and dried fruits, frequently do not list all ingredients, even when some may be a concern or hazard for consumers. The package shown above is one of many dried fruit products that contain more than just fruit. In addition, it contains a fair amount of added sugar, and possibly sulfur dioxide*, but fails to list those ingredients, without which the dried fruit would look noticeably less plump, moist and colorful. The same vendor sells “veggie chips.” They don’t list which veggies, or the oil they are fried in, or the salt that is probably in there.

If a package doesn’t specifically say “Ingredients: [and then a list of all ingredients]” it is not in compliance and it is likely that the list is incomplete, incorrect, and/or out of order. Even if there is only one ingredient, the package must state, for example, “Ingredients: Dried cantaloupe”… and even then you can’t be 100% sure, because there are not enough inspectors to uncover all the mislabeled products. Clean is not so simple.

*Sulfur dioxide is a gas commonly used on dried fruit to help preserve it (retard mold, etc.) and maintain color. Some is absorbed by the fruit, and that “residue” can be detected. Testing can be expensive, so a small vendor is wise to declare the use of sulfur even if the product might fall below the 10 parts per million (ppm) threshold for declaring it on a food label.

Carol Harvey has been a nutrition labeling and product development consultant for over 15 years. She can be reached at palatemail [AT] yahoo [DOT] com.

  • nini

    As confusing and complex as it is, very helpful, thank you.

  • vita

    Wow, I just ate dried figs. The ingredients list said it was just dried figs. Now I am scared that it was treated by the SD gas. How do u know?