Transparency: How Clean Label Options Drive Consumer Trust

The trend towards transparency can get confusing, even for dietitians. A nutrition expert explains what clean labels mean for consumers.


Proprietary blends, private testing protocols, and obscure practices are becoming a thing of the past. The word “transparency” seems to pop up everywhere from newspaper headlines to the back of the cereal box. What exactly does transparency mean, and how can consumers know which brands to trust?


Transparency in the food and nutrition industry is the move towards exposing true nutritional quality and clarity in consumer products. There is a growing expectation for honesty and clarity instead of false or misleading information. Additionally consumers are drawn more and more to companies that promote philanthropic efforts -- even though the most transparent option isn’t always the healthiest option.


Read on for the truth on transparency and where nutrition fits in.



What is Transparency in Food and Nutrition?

The mass trend towards knowing where your food has been has been described as “hyper-”, “real-time”, and “radical” in transparency -- but transparency is more than just a buzzword. Other words used to describe this movement include:


Transparency is generally described at the exposure of truth. In the food industry, the term describes the demand for publicly available and accessible information about topics such as the following:

  • Production practices

  • Employment practices

  • Environmental practices

  • Global food system impact


Farm-to-Table or a Food System Evolution?

A vice president of food safety at Walmart Frank Yiannas, who oversaw the food supply chain for 260 million customers weekly, 28 countries, and nearly 12,000 stores, says this of the challenges he faced:

“People often talk about the food supply chain, but in reality it isn’t a chain at all...the way we get our food from farm to table— has evolved into a complex network that is interdependent on many entities... For example, in today’s food system, the output from one ingredient producer could end up in thousands of products on a grocery store shelf.”

The following is an image from a recent study showing the “Life of a Mango”.






Technology has played a huge role in transparency. A recent article in Today’s Dietitian describes the leaps and bounds that transparency trends have encouraged:





it took six days to trace mangoes on store shelves back to the source using conventional means—manually e-mailing, faxing, and calling each step of the supply chain to find the mangoes—compared with two seconds to trace them via a database query

When traceability and transparency have become so commonplace, are there any consequences of this quick technology?



The Danger of “Farm-to-Table” Thinking

As wonderful as farm-to-table products seem to be, there isn’t a standardized term to guarantee food transparency. In other words, the term “farm-to-table” can be used to trick consumers into focusing on transparency rather than nutrition.


Another problem with the “farm-to-table” movement is that food insecure consumers may not be able to access the freshest food. Ignoring the urge to eat in search of farm-fresh food may not be the best option.


The Benefits of “Farm-to-Table” Food

Suppliers and consumers can work together to demand change from the industry and accountability from themselves. Working with local vendors and farmers, suppliers can opt for farm-to-table options and provide more nutritious options to consumers.


Traceability

Increasingly adopted by suppliers and utilized by consumers, traceability basically provides visibility regarding a product.


The image below shows a Pork Supply Chain in China , and aptly illustrates how tracing works.



Essentially, suppliers and consumers can utilize technology to “trace” the origins or processing a product has been through. For suppliers, this helps to automate data and track trends. For consumers, this offers a more tangible illustration of transparency.





What Does Transparency Mean for Suppliers?

The demand for transparency provides both benefits and challenges for suppliers. Suppliers can include farmers, manufacturers, distributors, retailers, etc.


In general, transparency and traceability allow protection and promotion throughout the supply chain -- for both consumers and suppliers. For example, foodborne illness is easier to track and even prevent. Issues such as food waste can also be reduced.


Companies can also use transparency to their advantage by publicly providing information about their philanthropic efforts. Consumers can in turn support causes and brands that address the issues that concern them.




The Benefits of Transparency for Suppliers

Transparency, especially hyper-transparency, potentially allows for improved access to services and markets for suppliers.


For those in possession of the necessary technology, digital innovation can facilitate transparency and fulfill consumer’s demand for transparency trends. Additional benefits include the following:

  • Better relationships with customers

  • Increased efficiency

  • Reduced risk and cost of food recalls

  • Reduced risk of food or supplement fraud

  • Reduced product loss

  • Enhanced data collection throughout supply chain procedures

  • Rapid knowledge of quality (i.e. contamination, foodborne illness)


In the food world, transparency aided by technology is beginning to be praised as a way to fix and transform the food system.


The Challenges of Transparency for Suppliers

Along with the benefits, transparency introduces some unique challenges to those involved in the supply chain. Transparency can be a difficult practice to integrate for the following possible reasons:

  • Lack of access to data

  • Limited skills

  • Lack of power relations

  • Limited use of technology

  • Lack of automated data collection or analysis

  • Need for data management platforms

  • Internet connection

  • Storage requirements

  • Device security

  • Government regulations

  • Consumer acceptance

  • Multiple phase data collection


A large roadblock for established and older companies is integrating transparency-enabling technologies into existing infrastructure.


What Does Transparency Mean for Consumers?

A recent study that looked at technology in the supply chain summarized transparency for consumers perfectly:

“By creating traceable and transparent supply chains for food, consumers can attain the information they need to make informed choices about the food they buy and the companies they support.”

Transparency allows for customers to feel a sense of trust about a brand. They feel that they understand where their food comes from and in turn can develop a connection with that brand.


The transparency doesn't even have to be about food -- consumers purchase products based on philanthropic or earth-friendly efforts as well. Often times, environmentally minded companies can provide both a sustainable and nutritious product.


However, some companies use this knowledge to their advantage to form a connection with the consumer that overshadows their nutrient-poor product. Dietitians can be a helpful resources in navigating different claims and alleged transparency on food labels.





What Do Dietitians Need to Know About Transparency?

One important point to be aware of is that the most transparent option isn’t always the healthiest. Some suppliers don’t have access to technology like sensors, drones, satellites, or blockchain transparency or traceability platforms(technology for data sharing) that help automate and disseminate data.


When Transparency Becomes Too Much

It may be needed, especially with tech-savvy clients or patients, to explain that their apple doesn’t have to have a traceable bar code on it in order for them to know it is nutritious. Transparency has the potential to fuel disordered eating when clients are obsessed with finding the most clear food option out there.


Helping patients to navigate decision-making in an increasingly transparent market requires skill on the part of the dietitian. Emphasizing and understanding of nutrition and how to evaluate nutrient content may help alleviate anxiety over transparency.


The Truth about “Clean Labels”

“Clean label” is not a term regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It is usually used to describe foods that fit into the following categories -- with the caveat that they aren’t necessarily the most nutritious option:

  • Minimal processing

  • Shorter ingredients list

  • Free from artificial ingredients (i.e. sweeteners, colors, flavors)

  • No added hormones

  • Non-GMO

  • Allergen-free or allergen-friendly




The Bottom Line on Traceability and Transparency

Transparency and traceability impact virtually everything between the supplier and consumer. Dietitians need skills to counsel their clients and patients about how nutrition relates to transparency.


Technology is considered both a bane and a blessing -- it’s thought to widen the gap of accessibility while illuminating trends and transparency efforts. Overall, transparency is seen as a move in the right direction, especially for those companies choosing to promote philanthropic causes.




References


Astil J, Dara RA, Campbell M, Farber JM, Fraser EDG, et al. Transparency in food supply chains: A review of enabling technology solutions. Trends Food Sci Technol. 2019;91:240-247.


Bumblauskas D, Mann A, Dugan B, Rittmer J. A blockchain use case in food distribution: Do you know where your food has been? Int J Inf Manage. 2020;52:102008.


Davidson K. Top 10 Food and Nutrition Trends on the Horizon for 2021. Healthline.com. Published November 23, 2020.

Elliot C. Radical transparency: food labeling, taste, and the food citizen. Senses Soc. 2021;16(1):80-88.


Kos D, Kloppenburg S. Digital technologies, hyper-transparency, and smallholder farmer inclusion in global value chains. Curr Opin Environ Sustain. 2019;41:56-63.


Ruhs B. The Retail RD: Deciphering Clean Labels. Today’s Dietitian. 2018;20(9):18.


Yiannas F. A New Era of Food Transparency Powered by Blockchain. Innov Technol Gov Glob. 2018;12(1-2):46-56.