• Dr Emma Derbyshire

In Depth: Clean Labelling – Are Foods Containing Less Than Five Ingredients Always Healthier?

Clean Labelling – What is it?

Clean-labelling does not have a defined meaning; it is a concept that incorporates different trends. Clean-labelling often refers to the number of ingredients in a product and consumers are paying more attention to the list of ingredients of the foods they are buying and seeing products with shorter ingredients list as “cleaner”.

The number of consumers who perceive the ingredient list as very important is rising and secondly only to price in importance to consumers when choosing a product. The clean-labelling trend sits hand-in-hand with NOVA’s (name not an acronym) classification system to avoid ultra-processed foods. However, reducing the number of ingredients to less than five may not be feasible in many instances.

Manufacturers’ reaction to consumers’ demands and the NOVA classification system could lead manufactures to re-formulate products to lessen the ingredient list of a particular food to less than five by removing fortificants, product stabilisers and preservatives, which poses potential nutritional and food safety risks. An ingredient list of less than five components, however, does not necessarily mean that a particular food is healthy, nor nutritious. Thus, isn’t it more important to educate consumers regarding the ingredients that should actually be avoided, as opposed to just counting the ingredients list?

Processing in Perspective

When foods are altered from the state in which they were harvested or raised they are termed ‘processed’. Foods are generally processed to better preserve them and simply put, processing is any food that has been altered in some way during its preparation which can be as basic as freezing, drying, canning and baking.

With concerns about food shortages and given the world’s growing population, processed foods can play a role in both food and nutrition security. There is currently a growing interest in food classifications systems according to the levels of industrial processing and how these may impact human health. This includes ultra-processing, or highly processed foods which have been the subject of recent media attention.

Ultra-processed food is a terminology used to typically define foods that contain five or more ingredients. These foods have been deemed to be high in calories, unhealthy types of fat, free sugars and salt and low in nutrient density. Ultra-processing is a term that appears to be partly driven by the ‘clean eating’ trend and the publication of the NOVA system. The NOVA food classification system categorises foods according to the extent and purpose of food processing, rather than in terms of nutrients.

Grades of Food According to the NOVA System:

  1. Group 1: Unprocessed or minimally processed foods, eg, fresh foods, grains, legumes, meat, poultry, fish, seafood.

  2. Group 2: Processed culinary ingredients, eg, salt, sugar and molasses, honey, vegetable oils, starches.

  3. Group 3: Processed foods, eg, salted, cured or smoked foods, canned fruit and vegetables, fresh breads.

  4. Group 4: Ultra-processed food and drink products, eg, packaged snacks, bread and buns, breakfast cereals, pre-prepared meals, chocolate, confectionary.

Putting it to the test

We used the Department of Health’s Nutrient Profiling Model to calculate the scores of some selected foods with ‘clean labels’. A food is classified as ‘less healthy’ where it scores 4 points or more. Here we present the nutritional profile and score of five particular examples of clean-labelled foods – all with five ingredients or less.

1. Crunchy Peanut Butter Three ingredients: Roasted Peanuts (97%), Sustainable Palm Oil and Sea Salt. 643 Calories per 100g 7.9g of saturated fat per 100g 1.1g of salt per 100g

This peanut butter, though only having three ingredients, of which the palm oil is sustainable has a Nutrient Profiling Score of 13. Its energy, fat and salt content contributed to the higher, nutritional profiling score.

2. Vanilla Ice Cream Five ingredients: Fresh Cream (39%), Condensed Skimmed Milk, Sugar, Egg Yolk and Vanilla Extract. 17g of saturated fat per 100g 18.8g of total sugar per 100g

This ice cream had five ingredients and a Nutrient Profiling Score of 17. One hundred grams (a little over 2 scoops) provides around 62 per cent of the daily saturated fat guidelines. It gives close to a young child’s energy saturated fat quota (17-18 grams for a child aged 4-6 years).

For sugar this is equivalent to 63 per cent of the dietary benchmark for adults. This amount would nearly fulfil a young child’s entire daily sugar intake quota (no more than 19g/day is advised for children aged 4 to 6 years).

3. Root Vegetable Crisps Sea Salt Five ingredients: Beetroot, Sweet Potato, Parsnip, Sunflower Oil, Sea Salt. 520 Calories per 100g 3.1g of saturated fat per 100g 1.1g of salt per 100g 26.3g of total sugar per 100g

The crisps had five ingredients and a Nutrient Profiling Score of 8. Surprisingly their sugar content is 26.3g per 100g. This amount is higher than guidelines set for any child under the age of 11 and only 3.7g lower than benchmarks set for anyone over the age of 11, including adults.

4. Peanut Butter Energy Balls Five ingredients: Dates (64%), Peanut Butter (17%), Gluten Free Oats (10%), Peanuts (9%), Salt. 45.4g of total sugar per 100g

These energy balls also had five ingredients and a Nutrient Profiling Score of 8. The sugar content of these energy balls was a staggering 45.5g per 100g (a little over two portions/bags). This figure is over 150% of the recommended maximum sugar intake per day for an adult. Astonishingly, for children aged 4-6 years this is 239% of their recommended maximum daily allowance for sugar.

5. Greek Style Yogurt One ingredient: Greek Style Natural Yogurt (Milk) 6.3g of saturated fat per 100g

Containing only one ingredient, this natural Greek style yoghurt has a Nutrient Profiling Score of 11 owing to its saturated fat and sugar content.

Concluding Points

In conclusion it can be seen that so called ‘clean labelled’ foods do not necessarily have a healthier nutritional profile. The real reality is that a healthy diet is all about making the right food choices, whether processed or not.  The present use of terms such as ‘clean-labelling’ and ‘ultra-processed’ may be on trend but have not yet been subject to rigorous scientific critique. At the very least the use and application of these terminologies should be put on hold until nutritional profiles are considered alongside their rudimentary definitions.


Derbyshire EJ (2018) Ultra-processing unleashed. What is it and should we fear it? Complete Nutrition Vol.18 No.3: pp. 74-76.

Gibney MJ (2018) Ultra-processed foods: definitions and policy issues. Current Developments in Nutrition. Available at: https://academic.oup.com/cdn/advance-article/doi/10.1093/cdn/nzy077/5097779

Monteiro CA et al. (2018) The UN Decade of Nutrition, the NOVA food classification and the trouble with 297 ultra-processing. Public Health Nutrition 21(1): p. 5-17.

Gibney MJ et al. (2017) Ultra-processed foods in human health: a critical appraisal. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 106(3): pp. 717-724.

Monteiro CA et al. (2016) Food classification. Public health NOVA. The star shines bright. World Nutrition 7: p. 28-38.

PHE [Public Health England] (2016) Government Dietary Recommendations. Government recommendations for energy and nutrients for males and females aged 1 – 18 years and 19+ years. PHE: London.

DoH [Department of Health] (2011) Nutrient Profiling Technical Guidance. pp. 1-18.

This work was supported by Marlow Foods. The content of the insight has been written independently.