How Big Food hides undesirable chemicals in its clean labels

“Live Dirty, Eat Clean” is a popular contemporary mantra. People who live dirty make a concerted effort to increase the diversity of the microbes in their gut by using less household cleaning products and fewer antibiotics while exposing themselves to more microbes in their daily lives. Eating clean has many different connotations, but generally refers to eating more whole foods and avoiding “processed foods,” particularly those with more than five ingredients. “Processed” is rarely defined, but unpronounceable ingredients are to be avoided at all costs. A popular book, Eating Clean for Dummies1, helps jump start the uninitiated.

Both Big and Little Food are scrambling to clean up their labels by reducing the number of ingredients in their products and removing any unpronounceable ones. By doing so, they are suggesting to their consumers that clean-label products have fewer chemicals. The Dorito Effect2 shows that natural ingredients are actually much more complex chemically than the simple unpronounceable ones they replace. Scientists who develop products for food companies are clever at being able to find common ingredients to replace the objectionable ones. In many cases these food scientists find a natural source of the unwanted chemical and are thus able to achieve similar quality using the cleaner ingredient. Unfortunately, an off-flavor or off-color may develop such that the cleaner product is less acceptable than the original one. Frequently, the change allows the manufacturer to hide supposedly undesirable compounds behind the clean label.

One such example is naturally cured or uncured bacon. Instead of adding nitrates and nitrites, manufacturers substitute the ingredients celery salt, celery powder or cultured celery juice. Why? Because these celery ingredients contain high enough levels of natural nitrates and nitrites to cure the meats. The pink color of bacon is due to nitrosomyoglobin which is a very stable chemical. The only way a processor can set nitrosomyoglobin in a cured meat product is to react the myoglobin with nitrites. The concerns about cured meats, also referred to as processed meats, is that excess nitrates and nitrites can form nitrosamines which are possible carcinogens. Natural nitrates and nitrites react with amines just like added ones3.  What is also disconcerting is that a dietician from the prestigious Mayo Clinic recommends the use of celery salt as a replacement for table salt to reduce sodium. Celery salt contains both sodium and nitrate but little or no chloride. I requested a response from the dietician, but she declined to answer me.

Bacon uncured

Read the fine print on the above label below the statement NO NITRATES OR NITRITES ADDED
Except those naturally occurring in sea salt and celery powder
Do natural nitrites produce less nitrosamines than added ones? is the uncured product safer?
bacon cured

To avoid declaring monosodium glutamate (MSG) on a label, food companies can just add hydrolyzed vegetable protein, soy extract or most soy sauces. The potential danger from MSG largely came from its reported link to Chinese Restaurant Syndrome in the 1970s. This research has since been discredited scientifically, but the scare tactics about the chemical persist4. Consumers are urged by authors to avoid any ingredient found “out of its natural environment5”. The same authors give the green light to pure vanilla extract which is obtained by extraction that removes a small portion of chemicals found in the vanilla bean.  The specific chemicals and their relative amounts vary considerably depending on the conditions of extraction and are definitely out of their natural environment. Yet, vanillin is the major chemical present in all pure vanilla extracts6. Pure vanilla extracts are considered to be clean, but vanillin is not.

Likewise, cranberry juice is naturally endowed with benzoic acid which is an excellent preservative either in its acid form or as sodium benzoate, a salt. Cranberry juice is considered a clean ingredient; benzoic acid or sodium benzoate are not. To put this into more contemporary terms, let’s say that the FDA approves the manufacture and sale of brownies containing marijuana as an ingredient. Don’t worry, they haven’t, and chances are not likely under the current administration. Under this scenario, however, marijuana would be a clean ingredient, but marijuana extract or THC would not.

The problem with eating clean and clean labels is that they are based on the premise that we can avoid chemicals when we eat. Thus we hear about chemical-free gardening, chemical-free water and chemical-free food. We are all chemically dependent requiring:

  • the element oxygen from the air,
  • water (H2O),
  • minerals (elements in the form of compounds that can be absorbed by the body),
  • vitamins (organic chemicals necessary for growth, development and maintenance),
  • protein (complex chains of amino acids, nine of which are essential for health),
  • essential fatty acids (derived from fats to perform essential functions in the body), and
  • glucose (needed in blood circulation for proper brain function).

In addition, many beneficial chemicals such as antioxidants can improve our health. Cooking and other forms of food preparation such as the mixing of ingredients in the home, restaurant or processing plant generate new chemical compounds when the chemicals in them interact to delight our senses. Everything that we put into our mouths is chemical. Let’s start from that premise and design diets that are healthy, safe and delicious rather than using scare tactics that tend to lead to as much disordered eating as advertisements for junk foods on public and social media.

Next week: Fear of processed and formulated foods

Sources (click on book cover to order from

  Wright J. and Larsen, L., 2016. Eating Clean for Dummies, Hoboken NJ: John Wiley & Sons

2 Schatzker, M., 2016. The Dorito Effect, New York: Simon and Schuster


3 Djeri, N. and Williams, S., 2014. Celery juice powder used as nitrite substitute in sliced vacuum-packaged turkey bologna stored at 4Cfor 10 weeks under retail display light, Journal of Food Quality 37:361-370 

4 Bonvie, L. and Bonvie, B., 2017. Badditives, New York: Skyhorse Publishing

5 Sacks, S., 2014. What the Fork Are You Eating? New York: Penguin Group 

6 Shewfelt. R.L., 2017. In Defense of Processed Food, Cham, Switzerland: Copernicus


16 thoughts on “How Big Food hides undesirable chemicals in its clean labels

  1. Would you mind providing more information about:

    “The potential danger from MSG largely came from its reported link to Chinese Restaurant Syndrome in the 1970s. This research has since been discredited scientifically, but the scare tactics about the chemical persist4.”

    Your citation is interesting to me but I’m too lazy to borrow the book.


    1. I’ll be reviewing “Badditives” in either early July or August. But MSG rates as one of the 11-most dangerous additives in processed foods. The review article that discredits the scares is from the Journal of the Academy of Nurse Practitioners 18(2006):482.


      1. Looking forward to your review of Badadditives. My body does not do well when MSG has been added to food. There is a meat tenderizer that has MSG in the top tier of ingredients, but I cannot think of them name of it right now. Someone else had used it and I had a reaction to it but did not know they used the tenderizer until a few days later.


      2. It is important to know what you react to and avoid that ingredient when possible. My point is that just because one person reacts to an ingredient, that the ingredient should be avoided by everyone. I’ll bring you a copy of the book next time i see you.


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