Produce On The Menu: Is ‘Clean’ Eating An Opportunity For Produce?

Amy Myrdal Miller - Produce on the Menu

I’ve been watching the clean eating trend with great interest lately. While the original meaning focused on home cooking and consuming more whole foods, this trend now focuses on packaged foods with “natural” claims, shorter ingredient lists with ingredient names consumers recognize, and no artificial additives.

Amy Myrdal Miller - Produce on the MenuNew Nutrition Business, a global food business consulting firm based in London, named “free-from” one of the Top 10 trends in food for 2016. Founder Julian Mellentin reminds people, “For consumers, ‘clean label’ is an aspiration — but pleasure, taste, price and convenience all come first.”

So is this trend based on science or hype? It’s actually based on consumer beliefs, and beliefs drive consumer need. If they believe “clean” is better for them — regardless of whether or not that is true — that motivates them to seek products that fit that need.

Mintel reports that 59 percent of U.S. shoppers believe fewer ingredients means a healthier product. As product manufacturers for both retail and restaurant use are scrambling to remove artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives, recipe developers are striving to create easy, delicious recipes with as few ingredients as possible. It’s a maddening time for both product and recipe developers who have fewer tools in their toolboxes.

The Hartman Group, a Bellevue, WA-based food and beverage marketing agency, reports consumers are avoiding the following ingredients: high fructose corn syrup (56%), saccharin (52%), growth hormones (52%), MSG (51%), aspartame (49%), artificial flavors (49%), artificial colors (49%) artificial preservatives (45%), sucralose (42%), and partially hydrogenated vegetables oils (37%). You may find some of these ingredients in croutons and salad dressings in or near your produce department, but you won’t find them in produce.

What are you selling? Fresh produce. You possess clean labels. But this doesn’t mean you don’t need to be ready to educate shoppers and be advocates for the industry. Fresh-cut produce may contain ascorbic acid to slow the browning reaction. Shoppers need to know this is the same as squeezing lemon juice on your fruit salad at home.

At a recent tour of the Chiquita Fresh Express processing facility in Salinas, CA, I heard the plant manager tell a group of mommy bloggers that the final step in processing apples for McDonald’s Happy Meals is to “dip the apple slices in ascorbic acid.” A mommy blogger anxiously asked, “You’re telling me you’re putting acid on apples for children?” The plant manager looked confused for a moment and then said, “Oh, no. Ascorbic acid is the chemical name for vitamin C,” to which the mommy blogger said, “So you’re putting both acid and chemicals on the apples!” She then turned around and tweeted that to her followers. We have a lot of basic science education to do in this country if we’re going to make any headway on consumer demand for “clean” products.

“We have a lot of basic science education to do in this country if we’re going to make any headway on consumer demand for “clean” products.”

Consider other Mintel data showing that shoppers who seek “free-from” claims on products are most likely to look for trans-fat free products (78%) and preservative-free products (71%). The produce department has nothing to worry about — except for issues like the “Dirty Dozen” report, a clever marketing device for the Environmental Working Group. Creating consumer fear and confusion is a great way to get more subscribers for newsletters.

So how do you combat the pesticide residue issue? With science. Research shows consumers who eat the most fruits and vegetables — including fresh, frozen, dried, canned, or juiced products produced from both conventional and organic methods — have the lowest risk of heart disease. Shoppers need to know this.

We need to encourage people to buy and eat more produce, and not get swept up in discussions and debates about superfoods, the fruit with the highest antioxidant levels, or the cruciferous vegetable with the most glucoraphanin. We need to reassure people that the Environmental Protection Agency sets very conservative limits on pesticide residues, and consuming all types of produce is safe, and making half your plate fruits and vegetables promotes good health.

Carl Winters and colleagues at UC Davis reviewed the “Dirty Dozen” list in 2010, and published a paper in 2011 that concluded: “(1) Exposures to the most commonly detected pesticides on the 12 commodities pose negligible risks to consumers; (2) Substitution of organic forms of the 12 commodities for conventional forms does not result in any appreciable reduction of consumer risks; and (3) The methodology used by the environmental advocacy group to rank commodities with respect to pesticide risks lacks scientific credibility.”

So is “clean” eating really a big opportunity for produce? It is if we can get shoppers to buy and eat more produce. We need to talk about the natural flavors and colors of produce. We need to talk about deliciousness. We need to educate on ways to use the produce, including cooking tips. And we need to remember that produce matters — for your business and for the health of the American public.

Amy Myrdal Miller, MS, RDN, FAND is a farmer’s daughter from North Dakota, award-winning dietitian, culinary nutrition expert, and founder and president of Farmer’s Daughter Consulting, Inc. Learn more about her business at Follow her insights on food and flavor issues on Twitter @AmyMyrdalMiller.