The recent popularity of plant-based burgers, including those containing soy protein, has led to observations that these products don’t have clean labels. But really, what is a clean label?
While there is no formal definition, the term “clean label” generally refers to food formulations that have fewer and more familiar ingredients, and that contain no artificial or synthetic chemicals. However, the number of ingredients isn’t a sound basis for assessing the nutritional quality of food. The quality of the ingredients is what matters.
Given the current focus on the nutrient-poor foods–commonly referred to as junk foods– it is understandable that product ingredient length has become synonymous with quality.1,2 These foods typically have several ingredients. For example, some snack foods can have up to 37 ingredients, many of which aren’t easily recognizable. These include sodium acid pyrophosphate, which is a buffering and chelating agent and polysorbate 60, which is a thickening agent. But also included in the ingredient list are nutrients like iron and vitamins B1, B2, and folate, as well as recognizable ingredients like whole eggs, whey, and soy protein.
While universally recognized healthy foods like broccoli have just one ingredient, according to the USDA nutrient database, it contains 142 compounds or more accurately put, chemicals, including sugars like maltose, fatty acids (such as stearic acid) and flavones like luteolin. Broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables are also rich sources of glucosinolates, a group of sulfur-containing secondary metabolites (typically referred to as phytochemicals).3
This is precisely what food is, a vast array of chemicals. To this point, Fang et al.4,5 identified 136 phytochemicals in soy protein isolate, which is almost certainly not a complete listing.
A recently developed plant-based tuna substitute illustrates how the number of ingredients isn’t always the best indicator of quality. A leading plant-based tuna substitute contains 15 different ingredients. But the first 6 ingredients are sources of protein (pea, soy, chickpea, lentil, faba and navy bean). Combinations of protein may possess some advantages over single proteins. It also contains algal oil, which is added as a source of DHA, the long chain omega-3 fatty acid. Other ingredients include garlic, onion powder and sea salt.
The plant-based tuna has a somewhat similar macronutrient composition to canned tuna, although on a caloric basis it is a little higher in protein and a little lower in fat. Both the plant-based tuna and canned tuna are much higher in sodium (~450 mg), although fresh tuna is very low in sodium. These comparisons between plant-based and animal-based tunas illustrate the importance of looking beyond the length of the ingredient list. What matters is the quality of the ingredients and the role a food plays in meeting nutrient needs and adhering to dietary guidelines.
- Gibney MJ. Ultra-Processed Foods: Definitions and Policy Issues. Curr Dev Nutr. 2019;3(2):nzy077.
- Gibney MJ, Forde CG, Mullally D, et al. Ultra-processed foods in human health: a critical appraisal. Am J Clin Nutr. 2017;106(3):717-24.
- Latte KP, Appel KE, Lampen A. Health benefits and possible risks of broccoli – an overview. Food Chem Toxicol. 2011;49(12):3287-309.
- Fang N, Yu S, Badger TM. Comprehensive phytochemical profile of soy protein isolate. J Agric Food Chem. 2004;52(12):4012-20.
- Kang J, Badger TM, Ronis MJ, et al. Non-isoflavone phytochemicals in soy and their health effects. J Agric Food Chem. 2010;58(14):8119-33.