When people ask me what diet do I follow (Atkins? Paleo? Primal?) I say “none of the above,” and explain that basically I try to “eat clean.”
Eating clean is a vague concept, although the general idea is simple enough – when you eat clean, you try to avoid highly processed foods, commercial additives and preservatives, food dyes, and flavor enhancers such as MSG.
I’m sure you’ve heard it all before – shop mostly the perimeters of the store for fresh produce, meat and dairy and avoid the junk-laced inside aisles as much as possible (though staples such as olive oil do live there too); when buying packaged foods, read the ingredients list carefully and don’t buy the product if it contains anything that you don’t recognize; when possible, choose local and organic produce and grass-fed meat and dairy.
Still, “clean eating” remains a vague term because different people use it in different ways. For example, sugar might be considered fine by some, while others see it as highly processed and therefor unclean. The same goes for grains. And what about an organic, BPA-free can of chopped tomatoes? Should you avoid that too, and always peel and chop fresh tomatoes?
To better illustrate the nuances of clean eating, and what it means to me, let me share a story with you. My teenage daughter was recently tasked by her science teacher with designing and executing a science experiment. She came up with the following experiment:
She baked a homemade blueberry muffin, and bought three – one from Whole Foods, one from the Safeway bakery, and one from Little Debbie. She placed each of the muffins in a clean, sealed plastic container, at room temperature, and checked them each day for signs of spoilage or mold. Her hypothesis was that the muffins would spoil in order of junkiness, so that the homemade muffin would spoil first, followed by the Whole Foods muffin, then the Safeway bakery muffin and the Little Debbie muffin would spoil last.
Sure enough, the homemade muffin spoiled after four days; the Whole Foods muffin after six days (its high sugar content probably acted as a natural preservative); the Safeway muffin after eight days; and as I write these lines, the Little Debbie muffin is still surviving, unscathed, a full month after the experiment started. We’re not sure if it will ever spoil.
Gross, I know, but what’s truly fascinating to me, and what I wanted to share here, is the ingredients list for each of the muffins. I think it will help me illustrate what I mean when I talk about “clean” or “unclean” in connection with food. Let’s take a look:
Homemade blueberry muffin
whole-wheat flour, blueberries, olive oil, Greek yogurt, sugar, whole eggs, whole milk, vanilla extract, baking powder, baking soda and salt.
Whole Foods blueberry muffin
Unbleached wheat flour, brown sugar, sugar, heavy cream, whole eggs, canola oil, vanilla extract, whole milk powder, baking powder, salt, lemon zest and blueberries. Topping: unbleached wheat flour, sugar, brown sugar, unsalted butter, canola oil, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg.
Now, prepare to be amazed…
Safeway Blueberry Muffins
Enriched Bleached Flour (Wheat Flour, Niacin, Ferrous Sulfate, Thiamine Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Sugar, Water, Soybean Oil, Blueberries, Eggs, Modified Corn Starch, Contains 2% or Less of: Partially Hydrogenated Shortening (Soybean Oil, Cottonseed, or Canola Oil, Propylene Glycol [a liquid alcohol that is used as a solvent in antifreeze!], Mono- and Diesters of Fatty Acids, Mono and Diglycerides, Soy Lecithin, BHT), Emulsifier (Propylene Glycol Monoesters, Monoglycerides, Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate), Salt, Nonfat Milk, Sodium Bicarbonate, Sodium Aluminum Phosphate, Cellulose Gum, Artificial Flavor, Sodium Caseinate, Guar Gum, Xanthan Gum.
Little Debbie Blueberry Muffins
Water, Enriched Bleached Flour (Wheat Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamin Mononitrate (Vitamin B1), Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Folic Acid), Sugar, Soybean Oil, Blueberries, High Fructose Corn Starch, Egg Whites, Nonfat Dry Milk, Emulsifiers (Sorbitan Monostearate, Propylene Glycol, Monostearate, Sodium Stearoyl, Lactylate, Polysorbate 60 [an emulsifier often used in cosmetics], Mono and Diglycerides), Eggs, Leavening (Baking Soda, Sodium Aluminum Phosphate, Calcium Phosphate), Natural and Artificial Flavors, Wheat Gluten, Salt, Sorbic Acid (to Retain Freshness), Xanthan Gum and Guar Gums.
When we opened up the Safeway container, my younger daughter said the muffins smelled and looked great and “I would love to have one!” I said OK, she can have a muffin, but first she needs to read aloud the ingredients list and then decide if she still wants one. When she was done reading, she said “it doesn’t read like a food; it reads like the ingredients list of some industrial product!” She opted out of ingesting it.
Moral of the story? Know your ingredients! And as a side note, it deeply saddens me that it has come to this – that a seemingly innocent package of baked goods from the local supermarket contains all these chemicals. I’m sad that processed foods need added flavoring, which tells me that without the flavorings, they would not taste good; and I’m sad that it feels like war – manufacturers against consumers – with manufacturers having no qualms about selling us “food” that is not really food (will our body recognize those additives? Will it know what to do with them and how to break them down, or will they be toxic to our systems once ingested?), all for a longer shelf life, and bigger profits.
This is why I choose to eat clean.