The Truth about "Clean Eating"

Starting a health journey can be very confusing and  overwhelming. Everywhere we look, all we hear is “Take this supplement. Eat this, not that! This is clean, but that is toxic!” On top of that, we don't even know what “clean” means because it has not been defined. So naturally, customers are distrustful and simply overwhelmed. So, should we truly rely on labels that say clean? Maybe we shouldn’t, and here’s why.


Why does the idea of “clean” resonate with us?

Well, a lot of it has to do with the availability of Information. Details about where our food comes from are more accessible than ever. However, the truth about where food comes from feels unclean to many consumers (The Food Institute, 2022) and likewise,“consumers want to understand and substantiate terms such as organic, free trade, cruelty-free, and free-range. They want more openness (Practical Ecommerce, 2021).”

Even though some customers resist "greenwashing" or false impressions, this does not stop companies from using strategies that lead consumers to think their products are "clean" (McKinsey Company, 2020). For example, instead of saying “clean,” a company might say, “free from unwanted ingredients” instead. 

So, companies acquire “fair-trade certifications” and bombard their website with keywords that feel transparent without truly providing insight into their supply chain process. They use phrases like “sourced from  so-and-so farm or co-op” and “without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.” 

Claims like this make us feel reassured without actually providing information about their supply chain. And in truth, providing this information would be very challenging. Supply chains have 5 critical steps: planning, sourcing, production, distribution, and returns (Investopedia, 2024), and even if the branding provides some transparency, branding only has the time and space to provide a snippet or snapshot of what would look best to consumers.  And ultimately, it has to be strategic and resonate with consumers (McKinsey, 2022).

Most companies will sell and market what provides them the most advantage.  For example, even though health supplements are shown to have no marked difference in overall health, companies are always coming up with new supplements and multivitamins to sell. When in reality, you should get your nutrients from food because they are more effective this way (Johns Hopkins Medicine, 2020).

So, why aren't companies pushing vegetables and fruits? 

To begin with,  you can't patent an already discovered plant (Nolo), but  you can patent a “proprietary blend.”  More simply, if a formulation is deemed “new and inventive,” companies can take over the formula, meaning no one else can sell it (Proprietary IP). This has significant potential to reduce competition with other companies (Carr Ferrel, LLP). But, in reality, comparing supplements should not be the main focus. 

Getting these nutrients from food should be the obvious choice. Ingredients like calcium, vitamin D, vitamin C, and Coenzyme Q10 are amongst the most common ingredients found in these supplements, but it’s very easy to get them from food. Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) is a nutrient that acts as an antioxidant and is naturally found in the body as well as in many foods. For example, vegetables like spinach, broccoli, and cauliflower are high in coenzyme Q10 and so are strawberries and oranges (American Pharmaceuticals Association).

So, when it comes to the idea of eating simply, whole foods are your best bet. Some people might call these foods “clean,” but they are simply the most straightforward food you can eat.Whole foods are foods that have not been processed. When food is processed, fat, sugar, and salt are usually added and important nutrients, such as fiber, are usually removed. 

Whole foods include fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains (such as oats, brown rice, and barley), nuts, and beans ( Cooked or raw, a whole foods diet includes foods in their most simple form.Whole foods are generally those that remain close to their state in nature. For example, a whole food meal could be fresh oatmeal and strawberries or red beans and rice. Whole foods do not have added sugars, starches, flavorings, or other manufactured ingredients. They are not primarily produced in a factory (Verywell Fit, 2021).

Despite what marketing says, eating whole foods is the most straightforward and transparent food you can eat.Eating whole foods is a good way to get plenty of nutrients, antioxidants, and fiber in your diet, which may improve your health. And even though whole foods have a supply chain as well, when you eat them, what you’re consuming is clear. Nutrition-wise, they are the closest thing to real transparency.