“Clean Eating” Is More About Moralizing Class Boundaries Than About Science and Nutrition | Vol. 3 / No. 23.2

Now that’s what I call clean food | Photo: Dan4th Nicholas, CC BY 2.0


I’m already kind of sick of this “clean eating” trend. Hell, even Panera’s advertising their “clean” foods now, like calling it “clean” makes eating an 800-calorie bacon turkey “bravo” sandwich the healthy choice by some magical principle of having fewer ingredients than a twinkie. But let me back up, because some of you are probably going “wait, what’s he talking about?” Let me explain.

“Clean” eating is the latest proscriptive/prescriptive eating movement, demanding that its adherents eschew all “processed” foods in favour of “unrefined” ones; “watch out” for fats, salt, and sugar; and — in a strange twist that seems to have nothing to do with eating — exercise often.

There’s some merit, I’ll admit, to eating whole fruits and vegetables (yay fiber!) and not drinking your whole day’s calories in a single double-mocha, full-fat, venti-means-large caffe latte. Hell, even trying to cut as much “added sugar” out of your diet as you can is probably a laudable (if challenging) goal. But there’s some serious moralizing going on with not just the terminology, but the availability of the foods in question, and I think we need to explore that situation for the good of society writ large.

Despite claiming to be all about nutrition — this website claims, for instance, that ““Clean Eating” dates back to the natural health food movement of the 1960s, which shunned processed foods for the sake of moral and societal values (rather than health and nutrition issues)” the implication of course being that it’s not like that anymore — it’s still desperately moralistic in its tendencies.

Calling one kind of eating “clean” makes other kinds of eating “dirty,” plain and simple. This may not sound like upper-class moral prescriptivism, until you realize that the inexpensive food is almost all “dirty” and the expensive food is almost all “clean.” “Clean food” is fresh, has few preservatives, and has lower caloric density than dirty food. Fresh food is harder to come by — it has to be shipped faster and by more expensive means in order to stay “fresh.” Having no preservatives means it spoils faster, which means more of it goes to waste and the extra cost of that waste is worked into the price. And without the added “processing” it tends to be a lot lower in caloric density, meaning that your hamburger helper, freezer pizzas, and easy mac are out, in favour of Peruvian quinoa and fresh GMO-free soy beans in the pod. Pretending this isn’t a movement that aligns poverty with immorality would be, well, let’s be generous and stay with “incorrect.”

What’s more, nobody seems to be able to define “processed” food. Why? Because tons of great healthful foods are processed. Take flour, for instance: all sorts of processing takes place. Cake flour is usually treated with chlorine gas to make stiffer batters. Enriched flour is white flour that has B vitamins reintroduced that are lost when the bran and germ are removed. Are you going to “eat clean” just to avoid extra B vitamins? What about milk? Pasteurization is a “process” — but not one I’d advise you skip. I’d hardly call e. coli in your diet “clean.”

That website I mentioned above thinks processed foods are “anything in a box, bag, can, or package,” which, unless you shop exclusively at farm stands or those places where your food comes in bulk bins — which, judging by the bulk bins of sour patch kids and cheetos, is no guarantee of healthfulness — is kind of impossible.

It becomes pretty clear after you look at it for a few minutes that “processed” food is “that cheap GMO stuff poor people eat out of cans, boxes, or their freezers,” and “clean” food is the flown-there-on-the-same-day or locally-grown-“organic” stuff that comes to your door in a CSA box from your local agri-share for a premium price.

Proscriptivist, natural-fallacy dietary movements like “eating clean” are nothing but ways to make well-to-do people feel smug about their eating options, parting them from their money in the process. Nobody’s going to say eating more fresh fruits and vegetables (and less sugar-coated and deep-fried everything) isn’t likely to be good for you (at least health-wise), but frozen vegetables — hell, even canned vegetables — are certainly healthful foods. “Processed” sugar-free (and perfectly safe, aspartame-filled) soda is a fantastic alternative to sugar-filled 100% “natural” “clean” fruit juice — even if you mix it down with “natural” spring water (avoiding that awful “processed” tap water?) while you’re at it. And honest to god, there’s nothing unhealthy about flour — can we stop beating up on bread already? I blame you for this, Atkins.

Anyway, all I’m saying is that there’s no such thing as “clean” eating — there’s just choices, balances, and alternatives in what we eat. A healthful and well-balanced diet can indeed include things that come in boxes or packages — can include “processed” foods, salt, fat, and even some sugar — and a poor diet can include only the finest in GMO-free fruits, especially if you use a juicer.

So maybe knock it off.


Richard Ford Burley is a human, writer, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as an editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.