If you’re still fuzzy on what the buzzy term “clean” eating even entails, that’s for good reason. There is no official definition of what clean means in the context of food. Popularized by food bloggers and stars such as Gwyneth Paltrow, the term took off several years ago as a kind of catch-all for natural and healthy.
The problem is that “clean” is unspecific and not backed by research. “Everyone defines it their own way, whether it’s ingredients you can’t pronounce, artificial additives or no added chemicals,” says Ruth MacDonald, a food science and human nutrition researcher at Iowa State University. “The reality is that’s impossible. Everything has chemicals in it, whether they’re natural or added.”
A key example: nitrates, which have been used in processed meats for decades because they eliminate botulinum toxin and help meats retain their red color. Natural plants—including celery—contain nitrates, too. Celery powder is now being used by many companies to keep meats looking fresh while sounding healthier. But that doesn’t (and shouldn’t) eliminate nitrates from the body, which needs nitric acid, MacDonald says. “You get five times more nitrates from a spinach salad than you would from a hot dog,” she says.
Still, restaurant chains such as Panera are experiencing great success by advertising that their menus are wholly clean, with only natural ingredients. At Michigan State University, Executive Director of Dining Services Guy Procopio observed that marketing win and decided to make the East Lansing, Mich., school’s Vista venue entirely clean, too. His team, including dietitian Gina Keilen, define the term as whole foods with no dyes.
The MSU team is still promoting the changes, and plans to conduct a survey for student feedback. “We saw it as a trend, and also saw the success with, quite honestly, how well Panera’s doing,” Procopio says. “If it’s overly popular, we’ll see whether we can expand this and potentially have a clean menu throughout the system.”
No matter where the trend goes, operators may face questions from diners about whether foods include ingredients such as nitrates or are otherwise “clean.” Iowa State provides a webinar called “Clean Labeling: What and Why” with nutrition scientists who walk dietitians and others through specific components. Otherwise, MacDonald suggests operators reassure diners they’re being thoughtful. “It’s just a matter of saying you trust the foods you’re buying from reliable sources are using safe ingredients,” she says. “You’re mindful of where you’re buying food and where you’re purchasing it from.”
Procopio sees the clean eating trend more sympathetically. “Food is personal,” he says. “We’re all trying to live longer. You have to try your best to provide a variety of options for students in the campus community every day.”