What is Clean Eating?

By Caroline B. Cunnane October 4, 2017 | 6 MIN READ

The Dirt:

What does it mean to eat clean? We read a lot about this approach to ‘healthy eating’ but it seems somewhat misleading. Is it a sensible lifestyle change or a marketing gimmick?


What is Clean Eating?


Health and Nutrition


By Caroline B. Cunnane October 4, 2017 | 6 MIN READ

The Dirt:

What does it mean to eat clean? We read a lot about this approach to ‘healthy eating’ but it seems somewhat misleading. Is it a sensible lifestyle change or a marketing gimmick?

Are you eating “clean”?

There are so many different ways to interpret this new food trend. What originally started as a healthy push to eliminate heavily processed foods (like sugary cereal, white bread, and candy) has now become a program that considers “processed food” as any foods that have been altered from their most natural form.

But, does this vague definition include best farming practices? Safe labor? Harvesting methods? Pesticide application? Treatment of farm animals? We’re not so sure…

Consumers want to feel more connected with their food— and this is a movement D2D certainly supports. However, the idea of “eating clean,” which has been heavily perpetuated by social media, is often very misleading. Media outlets, like Clean Eating Magazine and Fitness Magazine, outline various ways to practice clean eating but this definition varies depending on the consumer.

Sometime in the early 2000s, two distinct but interrelated versions of clean eating became popular in the US – one based on the creed of “real” food, and the other on the idea of “detox”. Once the concept of cleanliness had entered the realm of eating, it was only a matter of time before the basic idea spread contagiously across Instagram, where fans of #eatclean could share their artfully photographed green juices and rainbow salad bowls. The Guardian

The basic definition of “clean eating” means eating no “processed” food. But what does that mean?

After some research, it seems that the most basic definition of eating clean is a diet full of fresh, often organic, whole foods. This means no processing— and, for the record, “processing” can include steaming your veggies or putting fresh ingredients into the blender for a smoothie! In some cases, this eating method can actually be detrimental to the nutritional value of produce. Peas, for example, lose nutrients very quickly when harvested and are often flash frozen to protect the nutritional content. But frozen produce is considered processed, so by keeping clean you are actually getting fewer nutrients! Like peas, tomatoes also contain more nutrients when they are heat-processed, as they release more lysine.

“Processing is not always bad. Often processing removes toxins or bacteria, or allows for us to eat certain types of foods in the off-season due to freezing or canning. Processing can also include altering the consistency or taste of food to make it more appealing.”
Jessica Fanzo, assistant professor of nutrition at Columbia University

And how does the “clean” label apply to labor, animal farming, and best agricultural practices? Currently, there is no accepted standard by which companies are measured and able to deem their food “clean.” This whole clean trend is not as cut and dry as you might think…

Meet The Clean Label Project. This non-profit organization is currently working to add transparency to consumers’ food purchases and reduce the contamination that can occur in consumer products. They want to clarify the misleading labels and bring more awareness to the environmental contaminant issues that can affect your food. And while this initiative could prove to be very beneficial in the future, at the moment they can only advise on pet food. 

“Clean eating” means eating only organically grown foods — but does that translate to healthier?

It comes as no surprise that the organic industry is a fan of the clean eating movement. Similar to the use of the “natural” label, they have motivated the narrative on this term. Keep in mind, there are no set rules or regulations when you eat “natural” or “clean.” You might remember, we recently investigated the natural label in order to clarify that “natural” doesn’t translate to healthier.

, What is Clean Eating?

Does organic mean “cleaner?”  The organic industry is deeply rooted in the clean eating trend, but as we discussed in the article Conventional or Organic? organic doesn’t always mean fewer or no pesticides have been used to grow the food.

What about the definition of “clean meat?”

What gets a bit trickier, however, is how to incorporate meat. How are you determining the cleanliness of your beef and poultry? Some diets recommend organic, grass-fed meat and poultry. But let’s think about this rationally— does feeding your cow grass really make its meat clean?  

Clean meat means meat that was produced using safe and regulated practices. It means animals that were harvested following the standards set by the USDA or respective governing organization of that country. It means meat that was inspected before entering the grocery store. And it means meat that won’t make you sick! The idea of “clean meat” being held to a different standard than our current global regulations would create a total disruption of our understanding of the food chain. This could lead to increased foodborne illnesses and would negatively affect the safety regulations that are already in place. Why are we trying to blur the food safety lines? It is harmful to our health!

Globally, consumers spend about $1 trillion per year on meat and this can have a pretty significant impact on the environment and our natural resources. Memphis Meats is an innovative food company that wants to find a safer, more ecologically-sound way to harvest meat while preserving farming resources. Meat created in a lab isn’t grass-fed, it isn’t considered organic, but it was harvested using clean and safe practices. In fact, it was cultivated in a petri dish! Memphis Meats actually hopes to cater to non-meat eaters by providing these individuals with a safe way to enjoy meat that does not harm animals.

Memphis Meats’ cell-based chicken and duck

Does “clean eating” incorporate labor regulations?

This idea of eating clean seems to only incorporate the food once it has reached our plate— but there is a fundamental issue with this. If the grass-fed, organic beef on your plate was farmed under harsh or unsafe labor conditions, is it still considered clean?

Good labor practices are a huge component of sustainability efforts. While some “clean-eating” consumers consider clean food to mean food created using safe and regulated labor practices, the majority of people eating clean focus solely on the processing of food.

UTZ chocolate, for example, created a model around sustainability that includes child labor laws, therefore child labor is prohibited on all contributing UTZ farms. Their products are farmed and harvested within regulatory guidelines, their factories are inspected, and their products are made safely — but their chocolate isn’t considered “clean.” Chocolate is made from by processing cacao beans. And as we learned in Crazy for Cocoa, there are nutrients in cacao beans that are available in a serving of dark chocolate. So, while we aren’t telling you to eat tons of candy, if you are buying a more nutrient-dense dark chocolate, shouldn’t we reward the companies employing these safe practices with our business?

The notion of clean eating can be very confusing, and raw ingredients often must be processed slightly to create a viable and safe product. Processed foods are not always the enemy, in fact, they often keep you from getting sick. The D2D team certainly supports a diet rich in fresh produce and lean meats, but the idea that your diet can be deemed “clean” is very misleading.

The Bottom Line:

Everyone interprets “clean” in their own way. Like the use of the word “natural,” "clean" has no set definition or regulation. Don’t fall for the marketing gimmicks! It's always best to maintain a healthy diet rich in veggies, fruit, protein, and healthy fats.