This article originally appeared in VICE Australia
I recently attended a lunch held by one of the country's foremost organic companies. The event's host—a yoga teacher who lives in a Connecticut suburb where the streets are jammed with hybrid luxury SUVs and single-source organic almond milk lattes in every cupholder—explained how the brand's holistic world view aligned with her own.
The waiters entered the banquet hall. As they dropped off plates of salmon, risotto, and broccoli, the host announced that this food was 100-percent organic, locally sourced, non-GMO, and free of antibiotics, hormones, and additives. "Enjoy this clean lunch made with real food!" she proclaimed.
I don't buy organic, think the anti-GMO movement is basically BS, and eat a bowl of Lucky Charms with conventional whole milk every night of the week. And for 30 years I've somehow not only survived, but thrived. My docs say my health is stellar—on my diet of what is, apparently, filthy, fake food. Am I a miracle of biology? Not even close.
"Clean eating" is a feel-good diet based around organic, non-GMO, ethically raised foods that are free of unnatural additives. It's a popular method among wealthy yoga moms, Whole Foods hippies, and the occasional fitness fanatic. It offers "fast fat loss that lasts a lifetime," and promises a Gwyneth Paltrow-esque vision of wellness that will "reset" your health.
You also see clean eating on magazine covers and bookshelves— Clean Eating Made Simple, Clean Eats, Clean, and The Eat Clean Diet are all bestsellers. It's the catch phrase of Panera Bread, the $5.1 billion fast-casual brand, who has based their marketing around the idea that "100% of our food is 100% clean." Celebs like Alicia Silverstone and Jessica Alba are on board.
Trouble is, the movement is a wholly classist phenomenon—or, in the words of one of my students who grew up in inner-city Detroit, "Clean eating? That's some rich white people shit." Yet despite a lack of scientific evidence, clean eating is defining the health and weight loss discourse, says Krista Scott-Dixon, a nutritional consultant for Precision Nutrition.
And that's too bad, because if you accept clean eating ideals, you may think you can't afford to eat healthily—organic foods cost about 40 percent more than conventional foods, according to Consumer Reports. "Of course you can't afford to eat healthily—if you're buying $12 bottles of green juice and all organic, non-GMO, clean food," Scott-Dixon says.
Seventy percent of Americans are overweight, and only one in ten eat the recommended amount of produce each day. The poorest states eat even less than that. Adding extra financial and accessibility barriers to entry surely isn't helping the majority, and hits underserved populations especially hard, says Robin Deweese, a food disparities researcher at Arizona State University. "We need to start with access to produce and make it affordable and desirable," she says. "We can't worry about beliefs like clean eating in the communities I work in."
Deweese says she hates the term clean eating. "It's a social status thing. It's more about 'I'm better because I eat clean,'" she says. Adds Scott-Dixon, "'Clean eating' is a preoccupation of people who, in socioeconomic terms, really don't have any real, legitimate worries. It's a first-world problem."
Indeed, labeling some foods as clean frames the rest as dirty, setting up a binary, us-vs-them, self-righteous world view. "It's using food as propaganda. There's a moral component," says Trevor Kashey, a nutrition consultant for Complete Human Performance, who holds a PhD in biochemistry.
When so many people have limited resources, you need to be careful about deeming foods "bad," says John Weidman, deputy executive director of The Food Trust, a nationwide non-profit dedicated to ensuring that disadvantaged communities have access to affordable, nutritious food. "If you're trying to get a kid to eat more bananas," he says, "you don't want kids to think they're eating 'dirty' bananas."
Scott-Dixon agrees: "With the concept of clean eating, there's so many moralistic, judgmental associations." So few people can afford to make every meal 'clean' that it can lead to a skewed relationship with food. "Now every choice you make has this incredible baggage; you can't just make a choice? With clients, the way we see this manifest is that every eating choice becomes this opportunity to be paranoid, anxious, worried, punishing, or critical," she says.
And if you do have the dough to eat 100 percent clean, you hold the moral high ground. "Clean proponents need to realise that not everyone has the resources to go out and buy a grass-fed steak that costs four times as much as the conventional steak, which most research shows is probably nutritionally equivalent," says Anothony D'Orazio, an adjunct professor of biology and nutrition at Ohio State University. "And that doesn't make anyone any less of a person."
Nutrition education programs should be culturally sensitive, Weidman says. "There's no one type of healthy food," he adds. If people want to eat all-organic and GMO-free, his program is happy to help them do that, but at the end of the day, "we just want to help people eat healthier," he says.
There's more than one way to do that. The clean eating movement's big pitch is that its food is healthier and better for weight loss compared to its conventional, "dirty" counterparts. But if you ate the same diet of clean foods instead of dirty ones, no scientific evidence suggests you'd lose any more weight or be any healthier, Kashey says.
"Yes, clean eating will usually result in weight loss. But not for the reasons you think. If you lose weight it's because you stopped eating comfort food and started eating leaves," Kashey says. "That the leaves are organic or non-GMO have nothing to do with your weight loss." The reason: pesticides, GMOs, antibiotics, and chemicals don't impact the energy content of your food, says Michael Lowe, a clinical psychologist who researches weight control and obesity at Drexel University.
Regularly eating fewer calories than you burn each day—called a calorie deficit—is the only thing that's been consistently proven to help people lose weight. "At the end of the day, weight loss, gain, or maintenance is calories in, calories out," Lowe says. Years of scientific research agrees. "Claiming something like a non-GMO or organic food will help you lose more weight is like me saying 'what's the alignment of the stars, and which alignment are you born under, and then I'll tell you whether you can lose weight or not,'" Lowe says.
The same goes for health. "Is organic actually healthier? it feels like it should be, but is that scientifically correct? It's hard to say," Scott-Dixon says. After scrutinising 240 studies on the topic, scientists at Stanford University failed to find any evidence linking organic food to better health.
Just last month, researchers in the UK also looked at the data and concluded that the jury's still out on the topic. They conceded that organic food does have some slight nutritional differences compared to conventional food—for example, organic milk has slightly more Omega-3s but less iodine, while organic produce tends to have more antioxidants—but those differences haven't been shown to improve health outcomes. "A food having slightly more or less of a vitamin or mineral doesn't necessarily mean it will have a practical impact on our ability to thrive as a species," Kashey says.