Eating clean

Clean sugar

Clean or unclean?

Close encounter with clean labels

I distinctly remember my first encounter with clean labels. A food scientist from a Georgia company came to campus to describe some of the innovations that were going on in his company. He described the push in the food industry to simplify labels as consumer activists were turning against food additives, particularly those that sounded like chemicals. As a group of us huddled together in a small conference room, he told us that his company was working on sophisticated chemistry with water to maintain the functional properties of their products. Such work would allow the company to eliminate some of the most  controversial ingredients. I came away an understanding that advanced chemistry was being employed to convince consumer advocates that products did not contain chemicals under the guise of transparency!

A brief history

Clean eating may be a relatively new term, but it may be an old concept operating under a new name. Throughout American history there has been a steady stream of articles and books revealing a counterculture critical of mainstream food products offered by the food industry. Most of these critics were on the outside looking in as Americans opted for convenience in their foods despite warnings that they were ruining their health. Sugar, refined flour, meat and overindulgence were primary targets then much as they are now. The food industry countered by turning alternative foods into best sellers such as Graham crackers and Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. With the emergence of the internet, a whole new generation of writers, and less respect for science the mainstream media has turned against processed foods. Books that capture the ferment of previous days include


Forbidden ingredients

Food additives are on the hit list for ingredients that should not appear on the label of a clean food. A list of dangerous ingredients is found in Badditives which includes artificial colors, BHA & BHT, HFCS, GMOs and MSG. More extensive lists have been drawn up by the Concord Food Co-Op, Panera Bread, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. In Food Rules Michael Pollan warns against foods with more than five ingredients especially if any of them cannot be pronounced by a third-grader. Is this the level of sophistication we can expect from a typical American? Apparently, such rules do not apply for food made at home.


The food industry responds

Always scanning the latest trends and out to keep up market share, Big Food rushed to clean up their labels so as not to fall behind consumer demands. The Angry Chef suggests that the food industry started simplifying their labels as a pre-emptive strike before the lists of unauthorized ingredients started to appear. Once such lists were in place, clean labels became essential to penetrate upscale markets like Whole Foods. Often, food companies describe their motivation for simplified ingredient statements as providing transparency, but it seems to becoming more of a defensive tactic as the guidelines for “clean foods” seem to be changing. The goal of a clean ingredient statement is to have it be “chemical free” using only “kitchen shelf ingredients.”


Clean or unclean?

Clean eating books

According to the Angry Chef, the definitive book on clean eating is The Eat-Clean Diet by Tosca Reno. I went on and found 23 books on clean eating published in 2017 and one that has come out this year—and that was only on the first five pages! Only one mentions diet in the title. More typical is the use of “plan” as “diet” is taking on a negative connotation. The mantra of the day, Live Dirty, Eat Clean, connotes the use of unprocessed, whole foods while lowering sanitation standards to increase the diversity of our gut microflora.


Problems associated with clean labels and clean eating

So, what could possibly be wrong with eating clean? The Angry Chef suggests that clean eating is really about being thin and not necessarily about being healthy. Although sold more as a movement and a lifestyle, eating clean really functions as a restriction diet. It can be so restrictive that it can lead to deficiencies in certain minerals and vitamins. While not the cause of eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia, clean eating serves as an enabler for ignoring the consequences of the disorder and as a barrier to treatment.

The idea of clean eating doesn’t seem to be pushing consumers to eat more fruits and vegetables. Rather it allows them to feel better about eating snacks that claim to be “healthier” and “less processed” diverting attention from the nutritional part of the label to the pared-down ingredient statement. Reformulation of current products to clean labels is not easy, but it does give product developers some job security. Eliminating certain ingredients can affect flavor, color, texture and other functional properties. The push for eating clean at Panera Bread may not be working so well as Listeria in their cream cheese sparked a recall. Kudos to food scientists at Panera for catching the issue before it became an outbreak, but removing controversial ingredients can push companies closer to the edge of food safety.

Clean or uncleanClean Trix

Clean or unclean? Note no artificial colors!

Long-term movement or a fad that will die

The clean-eating movement has been around for more than a decade. Big Food has kept pace by simplifying product labels with an ever-increasing sophistication of ingredient manipulation. As the concept of eating clean changes, so does the concept of what a processed food is. The arms race between critics of processed foods and Big Food will continue as they both appear to benefit from the struggle. Perception of product transparency rather than an understanding of the chemical nature of foods will prevail. The term clean eating will continue to evolve and likely morph into something it doesn’t represent today, but it seems to be a more stable concept than previous anti-processed food movements.

Next week: Smart snacks


8 thoughts on “Eating clean

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