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.)

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