Coke's got a secret formula – and they’re not dishing. What keeps the cat in the bag for America’s favorite soft drink is an FDA labeling law stating that spices and flavors need not be listed individually. Natural and artificial flavors can be grouped together without specific details, and incidental additives, such as processing aids, don't need to be listed unless they have a functional or technical effect on the finished product.

Enter food and product allergies, lactose intolerance, vegans, kosher consumers and any other consumer who wants to know what’s in the products they use. They’ve put the pressure on manufacturers of cosmetics, toiletries, household cleaners and processed foods to disclose a full list of ingredients. The grassroots movement for ingredient transparency has led to changes by large corporations, as well as updated FDA guidelines for food and product labeling.

The New Disclosure Trend

In 2004 Coca Cola created the Beverage Institute for Health and Wellness, a website that communicates detailed information about the common ingredients found in their drinks. In the same year, a new FDA law was approved requiring manufacturers to list all ingredients and clearly disclose common allergens.

PledgeSC Johnson launched a user-friendly website in 2009 that lists products by brand and by use, along with a comprehensive list of ingredients and a user-friendly explanation of its purpose. The industry’s right-to-know initiative requires companies to communicate with consumers regarding product ingredients in at least one of three ways; SC Johnson is using all three – a toll free number, informative website and product labels.

By January 2012, SC Johnson will also disclose all fragrances, dyes and preservatives used in their products – a category that is not required to be disclosed according to right-to-know initiatives. Chairman and CEO Fisk Johnson explained, “Transparency doesn't mean cherry-picking which things to share and which things to hide. It means opening the door and letting people see what you’re made of.”

A Push for Eco-Labeling

The race is on between private corporations and government to create a universally-accepted label for transparency and sustainability. Wherever the label comes from, consumers can expect it will take years to implement.

Wal-Mart has been working with the cleaning industry to improve ingredient transparency for customers. Their goal is to create a mechanism to give consumers the information they seek regarding ingredients, packaging materials, and the sustainability of products they sell in the form of a private sector eco-label.

Concurrently, Congress has been working on a similar plan. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) circulated a draft of a bill in 2008 to establish a federal voluntary program with the EPA for eco-label standards and authorization. (Sen. Feinstein’s office has not yet responded to our request for an update of this bill.)

As companies and policymakers move forward in their plans to promote eco-labeling, they are aided by researchers and authors who have conducted studies and written about this topic at length. University of Vermont Professor Jason J. Czarnezki wrote a paper published in the Stanford Environmental Law Journal that urges environmentally-friendly states to create an eco-label to convey environmental information to consumers.

In Europe, Frieder Rubik and Paolo Frankl wrote a book that addresses problems with eco-labeling, along with effective and ineffective practices of eco-labeling. They propose solutions that can make a difference in sustainable production and consumption in their book, "The Future of Eco-Labeling."

Bottle of perfumeCosmetics Regulation Makeover

The recently proposed Safe Cosmetics Act of 2011 calls for some long overdue changes in the regulation of the cosmetics industry. For decades, the trend with cosmetics manufacturers has been to guard their ingredient list as a trade secret, but today’s consumers want to know before they buy.

Among other revisions, the newly updated bill calls for suppliers to provide up-to-date safety test results, more transparent labeling and full disclosure of contaminants. Manufacturers call this the ‘producers-right-to-know.’ It enables them to make informed choices as to which products meet their standards, since they are liable when consumer complaints arise.

On the flip side, fragrance manufacturers spend serious money and time to create scents for a vast array of products, using up to several hundred scents in a single fragrance. Stephen Weller, director of communications for the International Fragrance Association, suggests in his blog that a mechanism be set in place to protect the secret formulas that will be disclosed from being reused and replicated by other companies.

Photos: SC Johnson; bloomsberries/Flickr

What do you think? Is ingredient transparency a good thing? How do you balance the needs of the consumer with the needs of the business owner? Leave us your thoughts below.