By Tamara Schryver, PhD, MS, RD
Over the last five years, “clean label” food products have swept through the conventional food supply. Literally every food and beverage category has been affected from dairy to bakery, baby foods to snack foods, alcoholic beverages to water, and though not human food, even dietary supplements and pet food.1According to research from Nielsen and Label Insight, overall sales of clean label food and beverages grew 1.2% in the past year.2 And while consumer awareness has increased not only in regard to product claims related to clean labels but to what ingredients are actually in the products, the intent of the food movement and the specific impact of clean labels on otherwise nutritious, accessible foods, isn’t always aligned. Thus, the case with soy and soy ingredient derivatives.
The transformation of the American table can be traced back to the 1950s with advancements in agricultural technology bringing an abundant, affordable food supply. For the first time ever, average consumers could focus their food preparation efforts on gastronomic luxuries rather than food for necessity.3 Traditional soyfoods were consumed largely by immigrants and at the same time, soy protein products were developed for use in U.S. Army rations, to feed refugees, and to enhance the functionality of products sold in grocery stores and schools.3,4
At the turn of the century, the food movement’s attention focused more on the delivery of “whole food” or “real food” from alternative food systems that promoted foods that were less processed and refined, and sourced from local, sustainable markets. Organic and minimally processed soyfoods became preferred to soy meat analogs. One leading advocate, Michael Pollan, provided advice on eating in his book, Food Rules, which focused several rules on avoiding foods that had ingredients with chemical-sounding names and anything that contained more than five ingredients.5Pollan’s specific advice on soy was to avoid foods that contained soy protein isolate, textured vegetable protein from soy, soy isoflavones, and soy lecithin.5,6
While the tenets of the modern-day food movement are complex and include not only the food itself but food production, labor practices, distribution, fair trade practices, and environmental concerns, the consumer drive for whole foods has been best captured in its desire for “clean eating.” Clean eating embraces eating “real” foods that are wholesome and unprocessed. It is more than a diet, but a lifestyle that promotes purity through body detoxification and the elimination of entire categories of food such as gluten and soy for nonclinical reasons.7 Particularly when it comes to soy, these practices are not evidenced-based and run counter to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.8 The food industry’s response to consumer demand has been the creation of a variety of “clean label” foods.
Defining Clean Label
The term “clean label” has no agreed upon definition nor has the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) publicly entered the dialogue to clarify its stance. The term generally refers to food formulations with shorter ingredient lists, without artificial/synthetic chemicals, and with familiar ingredients.9 The most common claims are “free from artificial colors and flavors,” “no preservatives,” and “only natural ingredients.”9
Consumers most often associate the following clean label claims with greater healthfulness: preservative-free, natural, no artificial sweeteners, hormone-free, unprocessed, organic, antibiotic-free, GMO-free, and real.10 FDA and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidance and policy documents on related terms help develop a framework for how the industry should approach clean label positioning. USDA has defined a “natural” claim, whereas FDA has only provided policy.11,12 The guidance is similar in that no artificial ingredients may be included in the final product. Additionally, USDA further requires the food item to be minimally processed to qualify as “natural.” USDA also provides criteria for the claims “hormone-free,” “organic,” and “antibiotic-free.”
FDA has recently provided guidance for labeling foods that are derived from genetically engineered plants. In the U.S., 93% of planted soybeans are bioengineered; however, labeling foods to indicate its status is currently voluntary.13Passage of the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard Act in 2016 will soon make disclosure mandatory.14 The USDA is expected to implement the act in 2018 and may allow a scannable QR code on packaging containing a bioengineered product.
At this point in time, consumers have the option of purchasing “100% organic” or “organic” products if they want to avoid bioengineered ingredients like soy.15 Organic soyfoods and ingredients, which are currently available for purchase, have experienced enormous growth indicating strong consumer demand.16 Their leading competitor is the commodity, or conventional, soybean.
Consumer Acceptance of Soyfoods
For some consumers, “organic” is a proxy for clean label and a soy product with an organic label would meet their personal criteria. Soyfoods perceived to be “whole” like edamame, tofu, soy sauce, tempeh, soy nuts, and soybeans are also likely to meet consumer clean label criteria provided there are no additional artificial colors, artificial flavors, or preservatives added.
The challenge is the “soy-free” market, which was estimated to be $4.5 billion for the 12 month period ending July 1, 2017 -- the third largest behind “organic” and “no artificial color.”17 In 2016, 16% of Americans were trying to avoid soy in their diets while only 13% were trying to increase soy consumption.18 Beef, milk and dairy were the only other sources of protein more commonly limited or avoided than soy.18
In the last thirty years, unfounded fears have been expressed by some that soy might feminize men, increase the risk of certain cancers, be unsuitable for kids, be allergenic, or be an inferior source of protein. However, there are strong data to support the safety of soy, its relatively low rate of allergenicity, and its superior protein quality.19-21
New emerging concerns are related to processed foods in general, especially in ingredients like soy protein concentrate, isolated soy protein, and texturized vegetable protein. This concern is in part, due to the perception that hexane is used to process the soy.22,23 Consumers are also reacting to their perception of environmental concerns related to the use of genetically modified soy.23 However, plant-based diets that contain soy protein have a lower carbon footprint than animal-based diets that include meat and dairy.24
Unacceptable Ingredients Lists
With no FDA definition for “clean label,” food institutions choosing to use the term are left to define it themselves. While Whole Foods and Panera are believed to be among the first to publish lists of ingredients they find unacceptable in foods they sell or make, other retailers, food manufacturers, restaurants, and food service channels like schools, hospitals, colleges and universities have developed their version of a list. Unacceptable ingredient lists are generally lists of ingredients a retailer or manufacturer has deemed contrary to that organization’s clean label philosophy and most always include the exclusion of artificial colors, artificial flavors, artificial preservatives, artificial sweeteners, high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated fat, BHA/BHT, nitrates/nitrites, and dough conditioners. Inclusion of “natural” colors, flavors and preservatives vary. As noted earlier, these lists are based on subjective perceptions rather than scientific evidence.
A few organizations include some form of soy on their “unacceptable” ingredients list like hydrolyzed soy protein, textured soy protein, soy protein concentrate, and/or isolated soy protein. In contrast, a national Mexican restaurant chain reports to use “real” ingredients on its web site, one of which is soyfritas (made from tofu), while a national noodle company chain does similarly with soybean oil and soy sauce.
Impact on the Consumer
The upside of the clean label phenomenon is the emerging transparency and dialogue between those who grow, manufacture, and prepare food with those who consume it. On the downside, clean label efforts often ignore the sodium, sugar, or calorie content of food in its obsession with what not to eat. Additionally, many processed foods and food categories have been slighted and outright banned for unscientific reasons. Processed soyfoods sometimes fall in this category and we should be aware of this situation because a nutritious food can easily be excluded from an otherwise healthy diet.
The food movement is continuing to evolve with emphasis shifting from “unacceptable ingredients lists” to larger issues like managing the communication and use of bioengineered crops, organic and sustainable food, fair trade practices, humane treatment of animals, food waste, and the overall environmental impact of agricultural practices. Soyfoods can most certainly be part of the solution.
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