Frequently Asked Questions



Why is Clean Label Project™ doing this work? Why does this matter to consumers? How is Clean Label Project different from other food advocacy groups? Find the answers to these frequently asked questions and more below.


What is Clean Label Project?

Clean Label Project is an unbiased, science-based nonprofit educating consumers about quality in consumers products on the market today.

What are the toxins in consumer products that are not listed on product labels?

Product labels list ingredients that a product is known to contain. What they don’t include are contaminants and additives that ingredients may come into contact with as they enter the food supply chain. These can include heavy metals (e.g. lead, arsenic and mercury) and ‘legacy’ chemicals that, in the case of food, leach into the soil and water in which ingredients are grown as a result of agriculture methods, industry and mining activities. Transportation and storage systems provide additional opportunities for contamination. At Clean Label Project, we understand that no food product will be 100 percent free from all unwanted contaminants, but we believe we consumers should know which products are the purest*, meaning that they contain the least number of contaminants.

Why does this matter to consumers?

As consumers and parents, we all want to feed our loved ones the cleanest food possible. There are a lot of troubling news stories about arsenic in baby rice cereal and lead in water, as well as pesticides, antibiotic resistance and additives in foods. By publishing lists of the cleanest foods according to our data, Clean Label Project gives shoppers an easy solution for cleaner foods.

Why is Clean Label Project™ doing this work? Why does this matter to consumers? How is Clean Label Project different from other food advocacy groups? Find the answers to these frequently asked questions and more below.

Why is Clean Label Project doing this work?

Clean Label Project is doing this work because we believe that every consumer has a right to know what is really in the products they purchase so they can make informed choices. Our nonprofit advocates for cleaner food and consumer products on behalf of the public. 

Aren't contamination levels in food already regulated by the government?

Surprisingly, not really. The FDA had made significant efforts when it comes to traditional food safety- making sure the growers, manufacturers, retailers, and restaurants have the necessary systems in place to protect the consumer from foodborne illnesses like salmonella, e.coli, and listeria. The US lags behind countries like France who have already issued a call to action to improve the quality and purity of the foods we feed the nation’s most vulnerable populations. Very little regulatory attention is being paid at the federal level to minimize the consumer exposures to environmental and industrial contaminants and toxins.

This sounds expensive. Will I have to pay more for cleaner products?

Price is not a true indicator of purity. This is why Clean Label Project blind tests all products. The data reveals that the cleanest ingredients can be found across all price points and across all categories.

Do manufacturers already test for these ingredients?

Manufacturers are indeed doing their own random product testing, and guidelines exist to regulate some single contaminants, such as arsenic in drinking water. However, packaged and processed food can contain a variety of hidden contaminants that are not regularly tested for, such as heavy metals, antibiotics, and pesticides that have been shown to be of concern to human health.

How are products scored for Clean Label Project's Product Ratings?

Our third-party laboratory partner blind tests products for a list of 130 toxins and contaminants, including heavy metals, antibiotics, BPA/BPS (plasticizers) and pesticide-residues that are not identified on labels but are prevalent in food and consumer products. We also factor in the good stuff- like ingredient quality. The products are then published on the Product Ratings using a five-star rating system based on how they perform across in comparison to the rest of the industry category. All of this information is wrapped up to represent the overall product score.

What do these tests look for specifically?

Clean Label Projects looks beyond the product’s marketing terms to tell you what is really the product. We test products for the following industrial and environmental toxins, including arsenic, cadmium, mercury, lead, BPA, antibiotic, BPs, mycotoxin and pesticide residues, acrylamide and melamine. We also factor in the good stuff- like ingredient quality. 

How is Clean Label Project different from other food advocacy groups?

Clean Label Project uses actual laboratory testing data to conduct large-scale category tests on America’s best-selling consumer products. We rely exclusively on data and science, not marketing claims.  The products evaluated, account for 90 percent of the most purchased products in the marketplace. These products are tested and analyzed for 130 contaminants and toxins, including heavy metals, pesticides, antibiotics and other unwanted substances. We also factor in the good stuff like ingredient quality. 

  • Clean Label Project is focused on finding solutions that increase rigor in reducing potentially harmful contaminants in consumer packaged goods.
  • Our organization takes rating to a new level by having products tested for numerous contaminants including heavy metals and pesticide residues. We also factor the good stuff in like ingredient quality. Our medical advisory team then analyzes and benchmarks the results.
  • We rely exclusively on blinded laboratory tested data and science to make our recommendations.
  • Our findings empower consumers with the scientifically based data they need to choose the cleanest products.

How do contaminants get in food?

Our future work will include research to find out how and where the contamination occurs. However, our early due diligence and data lead us to a number of conclusions. For example, in food products, naturally occurring toxic and heavy metals; contaminated soil and water from agricultural farming methods; mine tailing runoffs, as well as storage, silos and transportation systems that can transfer certain contaminants as food is stored and transported.


What if my pet food wasn't tested?

While we tested over 1,000 of America’s best selling wet & dry dog foods, cat foods & treats, while that is a lot, we didn’t test them all. We try to do “by consumer request” special data releases when possible, so let us know if we missed your favorite and we’ll consider it for a future test.

How can I tell if a brand changed its product since it was tested?

We don’t have a spare to tell if a product has changed without retesting. We invite brands to join the Clean Label Project certification program, which includes random testing of their products throughout the year to ensure purity. We do plan to retest all the product periodically, to keep the ratings up to date.

Why do some brands have 1 star and 5 star products?

Clean Label Project focuses primarily on products. Depending on the ingredients each product has different sources, suppliers, packers, etc. It was not uncommon for a brand’s products to rate up and down the scale. We do include brand “report cards” so you can see the overall brand average based on products tested compared to other leading brands.

How do you choose the products to test?

Clean Label Project used 2016 Nielsen data to select the top-selling pet food products in the US that make up 90% of the overall dry and wet dog food, cat food, and treats revenue. Additionally, we included some pet food specialty retailer’s favorite brands. Our team purchased products from store shelves and online—just like customers would.

How do you know that the test are accurate?

Ellipse Analytics is Clean Label Project’s partner laboratory for testing. They are an independent third party analytical chemistry testing and data company. The test results are verified by two additional labs through random testing. Blind data is then analyzed by Clean Label Project’s Technical Advisory Board of veterinarians, statisticians, epidemiologists and food safety scientists before being published.

My pet eats prescription food. What should I do?

Present the results of our study to your veterinarian, and discuss with them the best options for your pet’s diet.

How were the products rated?

Products were tested for more than 130 toxins and contaminants & ingredient quality.

Can I see the raw data?

The five star system is our way of telling consumers how contaminated their pet’s food is compared to the rest of the products we tested. The stars are not arbitrary, but the result of a carefully developed system. We developed this system in conjunction with data scientists, epidemiologists, veterinarians, chemists and using survey data from over a thousand consumers just like you to synthesize the thousands of data-points collected on each product to make it easier to interpret and use the data in a meaningful way. Our system is designed to save time — distilling thousands of pieces of information into a single rating. A 5-star rating means the product is amongst the best when looking at environmental and industrial contaminants. A 1-star rating means that the product is among the worst- meaning it has among the highest amount of industrial and environmental contaminants. A 3-star is about average.   That said, 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!

What does Clean Label Project Certified mean?

Clean Label Project tested more than 1000 dry and wet dog foods, cat foods, and treats for over 130 environmental and industrial contaminant, toxins and ingredient quality. As part of our study, Clean Label Project simulates the consumer shopping experience. This means that just like you, we went to our favorite retailers and ordered products online to ensure the products we were testing were the exact same type of pet food products you have in your pantry and refrigerator.

Clean Label Project’s Certification program is for the highest performing products. Not only did the individual products of these brands perform exceptionally well in our initial unannounced sampling and testing, they have voluntarily signed on to having the Clean Label Project continue to randomly sample and test a subset of their products to ensure ongoing compliance with Clean Label Project standards.

What does Best-in-Class mean?

Clean Label Project Best-in-Class program is reserved for the highest performing brands. Not only did their individual products perform exceptionally well, their entire product portfolio tested averaged a near perfect 5-star. These brands have committed to performing routine supplier assurance testing, having regular food safety audits, and incorporating maximum contaminant levels as part of their sourcing specification. We commend these brands for their pet food ingredient quality and have awarded them a best in class distinction for this commitment.


Why did we test baby food products?

The World Health Organization refers to the first 1000 days of life as the brain’s window of opportunity –when the foundations of optimum health, growth, and neurodevelopment across the entire lifespan are established. Children, especially babies, are uniquely vulnerable to the effects of many industrial and environmental contaminants. To date, the focus of regulatory and manufacturing food safety assurance is largely placed on preventing exposure to microbiological contaminants- e.coli, salmonella, and listeria. Little to no attention is being placed on long-term exposure to industrial and environmental contaminants.

Does food processing eliminate environmental contaminants?

No. Food safety during manufacturing is focused on eliminating microorganisms like E.coli & Salmonella. Environmental contaminants are NOT regularly tested so can easily slip through the process.

How do contaminants get into our food?

Contaminants are the result of sourcing and production practices. Contaminants can be found in soils because of pesticides and mining run-off (ex. heavy metals) and can be absorbed into plants just like nutrients. They can also be the result of the manufacturing process (ex. acrylamide forms when starches are heated quickly to high temperatures.)

What are the risks associated with exposure to those contaminants?

The risks linked with exposure to the contaminants vary, but can be life-threatening. All of the contaminants listed carry the risk of adverse health effects. Exposure to these contaminants should be minimized whenever possible.  

What did we test for?

We sampled and tested over 500 of the nation’s most popular infant formulas and baby foods. Products were purchase directly from regional and national grocers and online- the products tested are the exact same products in pantries and refrigerators across America. The products were tested for heavy metals (arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury), by-product contaminants (Pesticides, Antibiotics, Melamine, BPA/BPS), and process contaminants (Mycotoxins, Acrylamide).


Why did you test the protein powder category?

You diet. You work out. You try to eat healthily. Often this means incorporating a protein powder into your daily routine. But what’s REALLY in the protein powder that so many of us reach for to put in our morning smoothies? Whether its to lose weight or bulk up, countless work out magazines tout the need to consume more protein. With claims like “natural”, “holistic”, “plant-based”, and “proprietary-blend” that sound healthy, but in regular Clean Label Project fashion, we wanted to find out for ourselves. So we used analytical chemistry to look beyond the label.

How did you select protein powder products?

We pulled over 130 of America’s best selling protein powders in accordance with Nielson data, the best seller list, and supplemented that list with top sellers in the natural/organic retail channel and consumer favorites mentioned on fitness blogs and websites.

What did you test for in protein powder?

Clean Label Project tested for heavy metals (arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury), over 100 pesticides, BPA/BPS (plasticizers that are known endocrine disruptors), residual solvents, mycotoxins, melamine and its analogues, and antibiotics residues.

How do contaminants get in protein powders?

Contaminants are the result of sourcing and production practices. Contaminants can be found in soils because of pesticides and mining run-off (ex. heavy metals) and can be absorbed into plants just like nutrients. They can also be the result of the manufacturing process (ex. BPA/BPS is using the lining of cans and containers and leach into the protein powder.)


Why did Clean Label Project test sunscreen?

After our infant formula and baby food study, we heard from Clean Label Project followers that they also wanted to know what was actually in baby personal care products. We too were interested in looking at the contents of "baby" personal care products and sunscreens were part of this. Given the timing of the 4th of July holiday and summer vacation, we thought it made more sense to release the results of these products first. After testing some of the "baby" sunscreens, we wanted to compare the results to the levels observed in regular sunscreen. We too were surprised by the results.

How did you choose what products to test?

Consistent with all Clean Label Project studies, we aspire to simulate the consumer shopping experience. We purchased 95 of the top selling sunscreens based on the best sellers list, tested them, and benchmarked the results.

Why did you measure antioxidants?

At Clean Label Project, we focus on the true contents of products- both the good stuff and the bad stuff. Antioxidants help fight the oxidative stress on skin cells caused by the dangerous sun rays. So we wanted to figure out what products had greater amounts of this beneficial attribute.

But people don't eat sunscreen, so why the concern?

The skin is the body's largest organ, and what you put on your skin can effect your health. Things like smoking cessation, birth control, and anti-nausea patches all rely on the fact that what you put on the skin can get absorbed into body. This holds true for any of the personal care products that are put on the body each day. Sunscreen is no exception. 

However, another important part of sunscreen is the potential for oral exposure. People reapply sunscreen every few hours in the summer. With people attending barbecues, picnics, and cook-outs, oral exposure is possible. This is especially relevant for America's most vulnerable populations- infants and children who may put their hands or feet in their mouth. 

What sunscreen should I use?

The American Academy of Dermatology suggests 30+ SPF, broad spectrum, and water-proof sunscreens. In addition to these, the Clean Label Project's evaluation considers other attributes and contents that you may not find on the label.  

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