The “Clean Label Project” is playing dirty.

Earlier today, a group called “Clean Label Project” released the results of a study that they say found dangerous contaminants in infant formulas and baby foods. It’s been going around on social media and various news outlets, and, as is often the case, it has benefited from some pretty irresponsible reporting. (My favorite tagline was “The Dangers Lurking in Your Children’s Food.”)

I’m all for feeding kids healthy foods, and if there are dangerous levels of contaminants in infant formula, I want to know about it. I’m also cynical enough to realize that sometimes corporations aren’t always as noble as we’d like them to be. So I went to the group’s website to find out more.

I learned that Clean Label Project (CLP) is a nonprofit group with a vision to “reduce contamination across all consumer products” and a mission to “educate the public so they can make informed choices on cleaner options every time they shop.” They don’t really define what they mean by “cleaner,” but those seem like reasonable objectives.

The group’s Medical Advisory Board consists of 5 members. One is an epidemiologist who “works with people to identify small, simple, gradual and inexpensive changes they can make to their living environment to reduce their exposure to toxic chemicals.” Two are physicians, both of whom practice “integrative” medicine (which basically means that they don’t care a whole lot about scientific evidence). And two are veterinarians.

Veterinarians? Yes. Apparently, Clean Label Project’s first study, published in July 2017, dealt exclusively with pet food. The idea was the same as the infant formula and baby food study: take products off the shelf, test them for a variety of substances, and report the findings in what they feel to be a public-friendly way.

After they got their fill of testing kibble, the group decided to do a similar study for infant formula and baby food.

But unlike a traditional scientific study, their data isn’t peer-reviewed. In fact, they don’t even publish it. I really wanted to see the details of what they found, but all I have to go on is some star ratings on their website and a white paper called “The War on Contaminants: The Case for Infant Formula and Baby Food.”

The “methodology” section of the website states that “products are blind tested in an independent chemical lab for 120 contaminants and toxins…Then results are validated by 2 other labs.” That sounds great–it’s always nice to have independent, unbiased input.

Except that the “independent lab,” Ellipse Analytics (EA) doesn’t seem all that independent. It’s a relatively new lab located in the same city as CLP. EA’s website doesn’t provide a lot of information. But if you check out the LinkedIn profile for Jaclyn Bowen, you’ll find that she served as the President of Ellipse Analytics from April 2016- January 2017 prior to her current role as the Executive Director at Clean Label Project. And apparently, the pet food data for the original study was provided to CLP by EA as a “generous donation.”

It seems like the two companies might not be all that independent. So does that invalidate their data? Absolutely not, although it does make me question why they would make such a big deal about it in the first place.

The thing that invalidates their data is that they don’t publish it. Their methodology section provides a list of things they test for, but they lump some of them into broad categories like “antibiotics” or “pesticides.” An actual scientific study would provide a list of the specific substances.

Why is this important? Well, testing positive for “pesticides” could mean a lot of different things. Some pesticides are more toxic than others, and some are harmless below a certain dose. It’s also important because if they tested for pesticides used in conventional agriculture but not those used by organic farmers, the results would be heavily skewed. But we don’t know which ones they looked for, because CLP won’t tell us.

Another really important detail that actual scientific researchers would have published is the amount of specific contaminants found in each food or formula. It’s important to know whether a substance was present in high concentrations or if it was barely detectable. As with any potentially toxic substance (including, say, water), the dose is key. Even if we knew what substances were found in each food, we would have no idea if it mattered or not without this vital detail.

Instead of providing actual information, CLP rates each food or formula with an “easy-to-understand” star rating. They rank each product from 1-to-5 stars in four areas: Heavy Metals, Process Contaminants, Byproduct Contaminants, and Nutritional Superiority. They don’t say which specific substances were found or the concentrations of each substance. They don’t discuss the sensitivity of the equipment they use to analyze the products. They don’t detail how they arrive at the star rating. And when I clicked on “Nutritional Superiority” under the Similac Advance infant formula, this was the description:

“We know you want a quality, nutritious food for your dog or cat in addition to one that is low in industrial and environmental contaminants. While it’s always best to consult your veterinarian for your pet’s specific nutritional needs, we have created a system to help. Not all pet food ingredients are created equal– some products use preservatives, artificial colors or chemicals, while other products do not. Some products are dedicated to using quality meats, vegetables, and starches, while others use loopholes to include lower quality ingredients. Our ingredient quality system captures this, rewarding products for using a smaller number of quality, transparent ingredients rather than a large number of less regulated ingredients.”

Obviously, they forgot to change this copy after the pet food study. Elsewhere on the site, they explain the “Nutritional Superiority” measure in extraordinary depth: “We also factor the good stuff in like ingredient quality.”

Clean Label Project does not have the least bit of scientific credibility. Instead of transparent, rigorously analyzed data, we get a handful of stars and a sloppy website. After the pet food results were published, some people asked for the raw data to review. According to this website, the response was that the data would only be shared if the requester signed a non-disclosure agreement and agreed not to discuss it. That seems super shady to me. And a little bit out of line with their corporate values:

  • “We value the power of unbiased science and data-based decisions.”
  • “We value the power of knowledge and imparting that knowledge in a straightforward and useful way to the public for the greater good.”
  • “We value every consumer’s right to know what is in the products they purchase.”

The most charitable conclusion I can reach is that CLP just doesn’t get it. They don’t understand the importance of peer review. They don’t know what “independent” means. They don’t see why anyone would be interested in seeing their numbers instead of just taking their word for it.

The more likely answer seems to be that they are being intentionally misleading or dishonest. Maybe they received funding from companies in exchange for higher rankings. Maybe they didn’t actually do the analysis and are just profiting from the Buy-It-On-Amazon links and the Donate button. Without seeing the data and information about any potential conflicts of interest, there’s no way to know. They say 2 other labs validated their data, but why should I believe this if they provide absolutely no evidence, even simply the names of the labs?

So what does this mean for your grocery list? Honestly, nothing. We know nothing more today than yesterday. If you’re breastfeeding, keep going. If you’re feeding your baby formula, I wouldn’t change a thing. And for the older kids, feed them developmentally-appropriate, nutrient-rich foods.

If there were a significant amount of lead if your baby’s formula or food, we’d probably know about it already because we test for that routinely in early childhood. If there are other contaminants, I’d love to know about them. But until CLP is willing to stop being shady and tell us what they actually found, there’s no reason that it should scare you.

(Clean Label Project, send me your data. I’ll be happy to review it.)

As always, your comments are welcomed (even if you happen to disagree). I'll get back to you as soon as I can. Please try to keep it civil--I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

30 thoughts on “The “Clean Label Project” is playing dirty.

  1. Their website uses the word “transparency” a lot but ironically…has none. It’s hard to know what their agenda is but the undisclosed relationship to the testing lab is worrisome. As is the detail-free “get certified” option. Parents are inundated with fear-based messages (especially around food) so I really appreciate you taking this thoughtful look under the hood here.

  2. Your article seems really helpful and Informative except for your comment about doctors who practice integrative medicine. Saying they don’t care about science is totally false. Integrative medicine is a practice that combines eastern and western practices as well as nutrition and exercise. Have you heard of Andrew Weil? Have you heard of Mayo Clinic? Both offer integrative medicine. Your statement is offensive.

    • Hi, Jessa–thanks for reading. I appreciate your feedback but stand by my assertion. Physicians who practice “integrative medicine” tend to promote healthy lifestyle choices like nutrition, sleep, and exercise, which I totally support. But to pretend that these topics are outside the realm of conventional medicine and somehow unique to the integrative medicine practitioner is dishonest.

      Where conventional and integrative physicians tend to differ is in incorporating various forms of alternative medicine into their practices–things like accupuncture, homeopathy, etc. Some of these practices have little or no evidence to support their use; others have mountains of evidence to show that they are unsafe or ineffective.

      I’ve written about this before, and would argue that “alternative” medicine is a meaningless label. It would be far better to separate various treatment modalities into three categories:

      1. Things that work.
      2. Things that don’t work.
      3. Things we’re not sure about.

      When a form of therapy is shown to be safe and effective, it is incorporated into the first category and becomes “medicine.” Treatment modalities that have been disproved–those in the second category–should be rejected. And those in category three need to be studied before incorporating them into routine practice.

      Essentially what I’m saying is that the difference between conventional and integrative medicine is the acceptance of practices that are either ineffective or unproven. I have heard of Andrew Weil and the Mayo Clinic (as well as numerous other centers that are now offering training in integrative medicine). I am also aware that the American Academy of Pediatrics plays a role in promoting integrative medicine–a topic that Dr. Clay Jones recently discussed on Science-Based Medicine.

      But the fact that people are practicing or promoting alternative medicine doesn’t make them right.

      I think there is a lot to be said for respecting a patient’s beliefs, supporting healthy lifestyle choices, and looking at the “whole person.” All of those things can and should be practiced in the conventional medicine setting. But there is a difference between taking that approach and promoting ineffective or unsafe practices.

      • Irobically, your explain of what constitutes good or bad scientific medicine is as faciLe as you are saying the CLP is. To reduce it to “what works”, “what doesn’t work” etc… is irresponsible at best and shows a superficial approach to “medicine” like we typically see in allopathic practices. While I can’t get behind every “alternative” approach, I certainly can’t get behind most allopathic approaches which employs anything FDA approved that reduces the symptoms a patient is experiencing. It would be laughable if it weren’t so irresponsible to say something “worked” because symptoms were dorectly suppressed. Yet, that is the gold standard of “scientific” traditional allopathic practices. If your measure is “did symptoms go away”, it is a dangerously superficial approach. What was the CAUSE of the symptoms? Don’t just suppress them (and kill the messenger)…find out WHY your body is raising this red flag. You don’t have high blood pressure because you lack a pharmaceutical, you don’t have chronic pain and inflammation because you lack an nsaid, you don’t have depression because you lack a ssri, children aren’t having immune responses to run of the mill illnesses because they lack antibiotics…their immune systems and bodies need to be supported through the illness so that their immune systems learn from it, not are inhibited and crippled by repeated OTC symptom suppressors and antibiotics. All of our ailments have causes, yes some are so advanced they are beyond merely supporting the body as it heals itself (which it’s desperately trying to do if you’d give it everything it needs and nothing it doesn’t). And so for those people, sure help alleviate their symptoms…but we see this used in 90% of cases across the board in otherwise healthy people who could correct the problem and not just manage the symptoms as the years go by and more damage is done because the problem is left untreated. We are a VERY sick nation, despite being one of the most advanced medically. And the vast majority of our GP doctors are being trained based on what pharmaceuticals can “fix” what ails us based on the idea that if the symptoms are reduced, “it works”. Unbelievably tragic that this pseudoscience has become the very name of “science”. The blame is not entirely on them, consumers don’t want to make the necessary changes to their lifestyle to live a preventative life. So the problem is twofold. But it will never be as simple as “what works”…that definition requires a whole lot more depth of explainArion just like how CLP’s star rating does. Don’t just take someone’s word for it.

        • Olivia,
          Your insinuation that physicians focus only on treating symptoms and prescribing medications is off-base. For many chronic diseases, the first line treatment is lifestyle modification. If your cholesterol is high, change your diet and exercise. If you are depressed, get counseling, exercise, and make sure you’re getting enough sleep. Prescribe antibiotics only when the benefits outweigh the risks.

          I agree that many medications are over-prescribed. And I’m the first to tell a patient they don’t need antibiotics. But then my advice isn’t chiropractic treatment, accupuncture, or homeopathy–it’s just to wait for things to get better.

          To argue that conventional physicians want only to treat symptoms is ridiculous. We don’t want to treat the symptoms of cancer–we want it to go away. We don’t want to suppress the cough caused by pneumonia–we want to get rid of the infection. But sometimes, we can’t fix the root cause, and so we do end up managing symptoms. Whether we are managing symptoms or addressing their cause, we should always use treatments that work. I’m not sure why you have an issue with that phrase; I’d think you should want to use treatments that work. That’s what science gives us–a way to test whether a treatment is effective, and if it presents an additional risk to our patients. Obviously “works” is an oversimplification, but you can find its meaning in great detail in the studies performed by scientists who aren’t afraid to publish their data.

          Unfortunately, even if everyone ate healthy food, exercised regularly, avoiding substance abuse, and got plenty of sleep, people would still get sick. And they would need our help.

  3. I try to review the sata from the news and their website and fiund none. Just trust me kind of report. My guts feeling told me it is a hoax and you confirm it.

  4. My question is this:
    Where is the Clean Label Project receiving their funding? Even NFPs need a source of income.
    Thank you for your article. I wish more news outlets would do their homework before publishing these things.

  5. While I found that your article brought up valid points, your underhanded and somewhat snide comment about integrative medicine was off-putting. It was presumptuous and stereotyping. Which led me to give you less credit and feel that you aren’t truly objective. Which is a shame because objectiveness and transparency is the topic here!

    • Robin-
      I would wonder which specific practices offered by integrative medicine physicians you would argue are outside the realm of a “non-integrative” physician, but still supported by sound science. Unfortunately, the area where they diverge from conventional medicine tend to be those with the least evidence to back them up. I’m all for knowing your patients, understanding where they are coming from, emphasizing the importance of lifestyle factors, etc. But that’s just medicine. The “integrative” label may sound good but most of the things they are integrating don’t hold water.

  6. I really appreciate this article. Ever since the CLP article came out, I’ve seen moms posting news links related to it and causing hysteria. As soon as I read that the CLP study wasn’t peer reviewed, I knew it was fishy. They don’t give any evidence of the level of substances found in each product. I’m taking the CLP study with a grain of salt.

  7. Thank you. As the mother of an 18 month old who occasionally eats baby food from food pouches, I read the headline and then the story, and of course, began to worry. I did some additional searching to find out what scientists and physicians are saying about this study, but was surprised to find very little out there. I appreciated your response and will rest a bit easier tonight.

  8. wow. I agree. I went on their website the first day it was published and couldn’t find any specific data. I emailed them for the results of a specific Enfamil formula and have not heard back as it was very hard to search on there lame website. keep us posted thank you

  9. I have seen nothing but hysteria from moms sharing the CLP articles. I am SO happy you shared this. Unfortunately, I do not think most people will understand because they trust anything they read on social media. Thank you for breaking it down and for challenging CLP for more information!

  10. This is really fantastic! I will be using your article (coupled with the news and CLP page) to teach my biology students about the importance of evidence to support scientific claims. I’m also a new father who supplements with formula. Thank you for the teachable moment and allaying some fears.

  11. The Clean Label Projects website does say this under FAQ:
    ” …we get a lot of requests from concerned consumers wanting increased transparency on the Clean Label Project website. We have a new website under development that will provide more detail about the industrial and environmental contaminants and toxins. Stay tuned!”

  12. Thank you so much for taking the time to write this up and call out CLP. I’ve been super worried all weekend about their non transparent ‘research’. I was thinking to call our formula manufacture, Neocate, to find out more. At over $30 per can, I feel like I’m entitled to know if there are other ingredients in the can besides what their label states. Hummmm….

    • Hi I am worry too, I am giving to my baby Similac, I called them and say everything is good with them but for sure they are not going to say anything bad about it, I just want to know if this study is true, they are none profit organization so why would not it be true :/

      • I would love to know if it’s true as well–wish they would release the data they collected. But being a non-profit doesn’t mean they don’t have anything to gain. If they want anybody to believe them, they need to publish their findings so that we can review them.

      • Ellipse Analytics, the lab involved, is not a non-profit. Just like BeverageGrades was not a non-profit. Remember the bogus lawsuits about California wines a few years ago? Same guy. Prior CLP press release, Ellipse “about us”, BeverageGrades publicity around 2014. It’s not a complex trail. Ellipse and CLP both founded at the same time in the same city, etc. But whatever, the FDA needs to make a decision on the pending rules they have had pending since 2016 regarding allowable levels in baby rice products. The EU enacted a rule using the same level that the FDA is considering, but 75% of baby rice products still fail, so there is no hope, that’s just how rice rolls.

  13. Thanks for your commentary Dr Hayes. You appear to make fair and valuable points about the integrity of the CLP data.

    Just to be sure, can you certify that you have no financial interests and/or arrangements of a clinical nature with any of the companies who may have been impugned by the CLP article?
    Thanks again.

  14. Hi! I live in Miami and many news are posting this article here, I am really worry, it is true or not?

      • I’m a hospital based physician but I have considerable knowledge on the topic of arsenic and am currently writing a white paper about it from a clinical perspective aimed at the residential water testing industry. Arsenic in rice is real, people on gluten free diets have proven it with their urinary arsenic levels. However, CLP uses Ellipse Analytics Lab, which is owned by the same person (Kevin Hicks) who owned BeverageGrades, which published the data on California wines a few years ago. Snopes may have gotten info from me for their story. “Detected” is meaningless considering that the limit the FDA is considering is 100 ppb, the same as the EU adopted last year and 75% of their baby rice cereal still fails that standard as published in PLOS in May 2017. “Detected” for most labs is 2 ppb, so when CLP uses detected it says little about safety. Surface water on Earth including the ocean averages 2 ppb, according to data from the journal Critical Reviews in Clinical Lab Science and republished by the WHO. Also 50% of wells in the US have detectable arsenic, 10% nationwide (1986-2001 data) are higher than the EPA maximum contaminant level for drinking water, 10 ppb. That said, CLP has had a “stopped clock moment” because it’s still good to draw attention back to the very real threat posed by arsenic in the US. I practice in an area where one third of the wells have hazardous levels of arsenic and there are no regulations requiring testing except for a one time test for new wells. My colleagues are universally unaware of the problem. We spend a lot of time on patient safety but Americans are nearly 3 times as likely to die from arsenic related cancer as we are from complications from medical treatment and surgery (1:500 vs 1:1310 lifetime risk). A good online source of continuously updated studies is the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, published by the NIH.

  15. I went on the CLP website and was able to find most, if not all, the answers to the questions or ‘ambiguity’ that you assert in this blog post.

    Why isn’t the study peer reviewed (yet), what is the relationship with their ED and the lab, etc.

    They also did posted the heavy metal raw data (which is the most dangerous):
    If you’re gonna be super mad it’s blind–you’ll be hard pressed to find non-blind data in most peer review studies (if it’s available at all) or studies performed by the FDA.

    …and they did explain that there is an algorithm for the star ratings–and the lab equipment they use for testing, and their minimal detection levels.

    I’m not sure why it seems so revolutionary that there is lead in baby food. There was another report released in June 2017 that showed there was lead in a lot of baby foods–summarizing data by the FDA from 2003-2013 ( I don’t think anyone needs to freak out, but at least CLP gives a concept of which foods tested the worst–so you can at least avoid those.

    Lastly, who cares who is on their medical advisory board. You don’t need a special degree to know you shouldn’t eat lead–or feed it to babies. Now, I’m not a doctor, but looks like some of the lead levels in CLP’s results exceed CA Prop 65 (also known as The Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986 – which is a level scientifically proven to cause cancer and birth defects, hence the law.
    But I can’t provide the raw data for said studies, so you may not believe that either.

    • The first two links you provided were not on their site at the time I wrote the article. After reading them, it appears these were posted in response to valid criticism from the scientific community (like this post). I’m not satisfied.

      They still didn’t release any useful data. It does no good to see the heavy metal testing results for “Sample 387.” There is no way to correlate these results with the ratings given to specific foods, and still no way for anyone to know what concentrations of contaminants were found in which food. The difference between this and the FDA’s blind results is that CLP is clearly trying to push parents towards or away from specific products, while the FDA is looking at overall exposures. That’s a crucial difference.

      Think of it as a call to the police reporting that there is a bomb in a building…somewhere. There’s no way to know whether or not that is true. And assuming it is, there’s nothing that can be done about it without more information. It causes panic, but fails to have any actual benefit.

      I have no problem with their association with the lab, but feel that it’s a bit dishonest to make such a big deal about how independent they are.

      I’m glad that they are having the data reviewed and can only hope that they picked someone who is qualified for the task. And releasing the data prior to that is not noble, it’s irresponsible. It’s great for web traffic and donations, but also causes a lot of unnecessary fear. If the results were so significant that they felt immediate intervention was needed, they should have notified the manufacturers of those products and gone public with the specifics.

      Finally, the reason it matters who is on their advisory board is because they obviously have no idea how to do science. The people they picked reveal a heavy bias, their methodology displays either incompetence or ill-intent, and the way they released their results has caused a great amount of concern for parents without actually helping anyone.

  16. Thank you for writing this article. Despite my understanding of what constitutes as high quality research, the Clean Label Project’s claims have a way of working into the part of me that is fearful, guilty, and worried. I am fearful that I am not making the best choices for my infant twins. I feel guilty that I had to use formula so that they would get enough to eat and I feel worried all of the time. Motherhood (or really parenthood generally) is hard enough without people playing into these insecurities without solid evidence. These days it is so easy for anyone to have a platform, regardless of their credentials and for people to react based on their emotions. Thank you for offering a logical way of reframing this information and promoting pause before an emotional reaction.

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