What does "clean label foods" mean to you? It seems like a simple question to answer. You, most likely, have a clear idea of what that means. I know I do. The problem is that everyone's idea is little different, and no one will go so far as to "define" the term (just like the concept of All-Natural... great marketing tool, but the meaning is sometimes unclear).
One of my favorite definitions of clean label and all natural foods is the "Grandma's Cupboard" theory of food labeling. It states that if you wouldn't find it in Grandmas Cupboard, you don't put it in the food. I love the simplicity of the concept. Looking down at an ingredient label and recognizing every item as food is a very comforting feeling.
What gets us in trouble, though, is when we make broad stroke judgements about anything. We lose important details along the way. Just because its "clean", doesn't meant it "good" in the same way that just because it tastes good, doesn't mean it’s good for you. It's often hard to see beyond the marketing which is based on flawed science to the truth in the food.
We've all grown up with some true held beliefs ingrained in us by our parents or government agencies (schools, news reports). We've seen the fad diets come and go. Eggs are good. Eggs are bad. Eggs are good again. We have been seeing study after study debunking some of our favorite old axioms (sodium's link to hypertension….not as much as we thought, Saturated Fats link to heart disease….wrong again, Consumed Cholesterol’s effect on body cholesterol levels…..I'm starting to feel distrustful). Because of this, I withhold some of my judgment on the newest scourges of the food world. Science takes a long time and is easily manipulated to say what people want it to say.
I can't say for sure that certain chemicals are bad for us. I don't think anybody really can either. I know that I don't like the taste of sodium benzoate (a relatively common preservative), so I don't eat foods that have that. I don't like artificial sweeteners, so give me sugar or (dun…dun…dun…) corn syrup. My body likes those. Cultures have preserved food with vinegars, fermentations, and curing since the beginning of time. Human kind seems to have existed quite fine when foods were given something to keep them fresher. Maybe some of these chemicals aren't bad for us either.
What we can do is offer products as fresh and homemade as possible to our clientele. Give a balanced meal with plenty of fresh produce. Keep the food as "real" as possible and limit those "ingredients" whose functionality is based on making some manufacturer more money (if it stays fresher longer they don't have to make it as often and if they can use that gum to tie up a little more water they can make it cheaper). The elimination of them is really tough to do in this day and age and can be quite cost prohibitive.
A solid fresh protein, be it animal or vegetable, paired with fresh produce, herbs, and spices is the epitome of clean label by my book. Keep striving for that in your cooking and buying and you'll keep your customers happy. So while red wine and dark chocolate aren't the health foods they once reported (my disappointment is as great as yours)….they're still tasty and worth the enjoyment.