Monday afternoon’s lively panel discussion, moderated by Washington Post columnist Tamar Haspel, began by talking about Cheetos—specifically, the Simply Cheetos product that panelist Nadia Berenstein, journalist and historian, wrote about in a New Food Economy article. Frito- Lay reformulated its cheesy, crunchy corn snack to get rid of the artificial colors and flavors. But is this clean label version any healthier than the original Cheetos?
For many consumers, clean label offers a health halo around products that may still have the same number of calories and same amount of fat. “There is an atmosphere of confusion and a lot of ambiguity,” said Berenstein in the session, entitled “The Clash Between Consumer Demands and Responsible Food.” “Manufacturers are investing money to reformulate and it doesn’t seem to be making much of an impact on the healthfulness of food.”
“Just because something is clean label doesn’t mean it’s healthy,” replied Mehmood Kahn, MD, vice chairman and chief scientific officer at PepsiCo. “Who gets to define what is healthy?” he posited. “The consumer—in making the decision what to purchase, they are making the decision as to what is healthy.”
Consumers seem confused about whether they want their food and beverages to contain ingredients that they are familiar with and can pronounce versus food that is better for them, and perhaps better for the environment. “What consumers want is to have their clean label cake and eat it too,” said Haspel.
For Laura MacCleery, policy director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, it comes down to the fact that there is “a lack of consensus about what kind of additives and ingredients are good for you and which ones are bad for you.” She believes that food manufacturers are somewhat to blame for this confusion since they have taken clean label and turned it into a marketing term for the ingredients that are, or more importantly, are not in the products. “Consumers want to buy healthier foods, but in most cases, they are being badly misled,” said MacCleery.
“At the heart of this discussion is trust,” commented John O’Brien, professor and former chief executive officer of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland. He shared the findings of the most recent Edelman Trust Barometer report, which shows a double-digit decrease in trust in America—not just for the food industry, but in government, business, media, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
How does the food industry restore the public’s trust? For Kahn, it centers around listening to consumers. “We have to be very careful about how we bring consumers along,” said Kahn. It’s a delicate and slow process. After all, “people see PepsiCo as part of the problem instead of seeing them as part of the solution,” explained Haspel.
Berenstein believes that there must be more public education and more transparency, not just about ingredients but about how companies work. “Ordinary consumers tend to think about this romanticized vision of the farm,” she said. Her job as a journalist, she explained, is to “show how farm and factory—nature and technology—have a necessary role to play in the food system.”
Scientists have a role to play as well, according to Kahn. “We [scientists] assume everyone should just trust us,” said Kahn. “We are having to learn how to communicate.”
But let’s not forget that at the end of the day, “whatever you do has to be economically feasible and has to taste good,” stated O’Brien. The panel discussion may have left attendees with many more questions than answers, but it is certainly the kind of conversation necessary to rebuild trust and credibility with consumers.