15 Aug 17 Why we fell for clean eating
The oh-so-Instagrammable clean-eating food movement has been thoroughly debunked – but it shows no signs of going away. The real question is why we were so desperate to believe it. [A brilliant essay. Long read. Ed]
For as long as people have eaten food, there have been diets and quack cures. But previously, these existed, like conspiracy theories, on the fringes of food culture. “Clean eating” was different, because it established itself as a challenge to mainstream ways of eating, and its wild popularity over the past five years has enabled it to move far beyond the fringes.
Powered by social media, it has been more absolutist in its claims and more popular in its reach than any previous school of modern nutrition advice.
At its simplest, clean eating is about ingesting nothing but “whole” or “unprocessed” foods (whatever is meant by these deeply ambiguous terms). Some versions of clean eating have been vegan, while others espouse various meats (preferably wild) and something mysteriously called “bone broth” (stock, to you and me).
At first, clean eating sounded modest and even homespun: rather than counting calories, you would eat as many nutritious home-cooked substances as possible.
But it quickly became clear that “clean eating” was more than a diet; it was a belief system, which propagated the idea that the way most people eat is not simply fattening, but impure.
Seemingly out of nowhere, a whole universe of coconut oil, dubious promises and spiralised courgettes has emerged. Back in the distant mists of 2009, James Duigan, owner of The Bodyism gym in London and sometime personal trainer to the model Elle MacPherson, published his first Clean and Lean book. As an early adopter of #eatclean, Duigan notes that he “battled” with his publisher “to include ingredients like kale and quinoa, because no one had ever heard of them”.
Now quinoa is in every supermarket and kale has become as normal as lettuce. “I long for the days when clean eating meant not getting too much down your front,” the novelist Susie Boyt joked recently.
Almost as soon as it became ubiquitous, clean eating sparked a backlash. By 2015, Nigella Lawson was speaking for many when she expressed “disgust” at clean eating as a judgmental form of body fascism. “Food is not dirty”, Lawson wrote.
Clean eating has been attacked by critics such as the baker and cookbook author Ruby Tandoh (who wrote a much-shared article on the subject in Vice magazine in May 2016) for being an incitement to eating disorders.
Others have pointed out that, as a method of healthy eating, it’s founded on bad science. In June, the American Heart Association suggested that the coconut oil beloved as a panacea by clean eaters actually had “no known offsetting favourable effects”, and that consuming it could result in higher LDL cholesterol.
A few weeks later, Anthony Warner – a food consultant with a background in science who blogs as The Angry Chef – published a book-length assault on the science of clean eating, calling it a world of “quinoa bowls” and “nutribollocks” fuelled by the modern information age.
When Dr Giles Yeo, a geneticist at the University of Cambridge, presented an episode of the BBC’s Horizon this year that examined the scientific evidence for different schools of clean eating, he found everything from innocuous recipes to serious malpractice.
He reported on the “alkaline diet” of Dr Robert O Young, who peddled the idea that disease is caused by eating “acidic” foods. After being diagnosed with terminal cancer in her 20s, Naima Houder-Mohammed, an officer in the British army, paid Young more than $77,000 for treatment (including meals of avocado, which Young calls “God’s butter”) at his “pH miracle” ranch in the US in 2012. She died later that year.
Separately, Young was jailed in June this year after being convicted of charges including practising medicine without a licence. While he may represent an extreme case, it is clear that many wellness gurus, as Yeo’s programme concluded, tell a “troubling narrative” founded on falsehoods.
As the negative press for clean eating has intensified over the past year, many of the early goddesses of #eatclean have tried to rebrand – declaring they no longer use the word “clean” to describe the recipes that have sold them millions of books.
Ella Mills – AKA Deliciously Ella, the food writer and entrepreneur whose coconut-and-oat energy balls sell for £1.79 apiece in British supermarkets – said on Yeo’s Horizon programme that she felt that the word “clean” as applied to eating originally meant nothing but natural, real, unprocessed food. “Now, it means diet, it means fad,” she complained.
But however much the concept of clean eating has been logically refuted and publicly reviled, the thing itself shows few signs of dying. Step into the cookbook section of any book shop and you will see how many recipe writers continue to promise us inner purity and outer beauty.
Even if you have never knowingly tried to “eat clean”, it’s impossible to avoid the trend altogether, because it changed the foods available to all of us, and the way they are spoken of.
Avocados now outsell oranges in the UK. Susi Richards, head of product development at Sainsbury’s supermarkets, told me earlier this year that she had been taken aback by the pace at which demand for products fitting with the clean eating lifestyle have grown in the UK.
Families who would once have eaten potato waffles are now experimenting with lower carb butternut “squaffles” (slices of butternut squash cut to resemble a waffle). Nutribullets – a brand of compact blenders designed for making supposedly radiance-bestowing juices and smoothies – are now mentioned in some circles as casually as wooden spoons.
Why has clean eating proved so difficult to kill off? Hadley Freeman, in this paper, identified clean eating as part of a post-truth culture, whose adherents are impervious, or even hostile, to facts and experts.
The modern terror of food
But to understand how clean eating took hold with such tenacity, it’s necessary first to consider just what a terrifying thing food has become for millions of people in the modern world. The interesting question is not whether clean eating is nonsense, but why so many intelligent people decided to put their faith in it.
We are not the only generation to have looked in disgust at an unhealthy food environment and wished that we could replace it with nutrients that were perfectly safe to eat. In the 1850s, a British chemist called Arthur Hill Hassall became convinced that the whole food supply of London was riddled with toxins and fakery. What’s more, he was right.
Hassall had done a series of investigations for the medical journal the Lancet, and found that much of what was for sale as food and drink was not what it seemed: “coffee” made from burnt sugar and chicory; pickles dyed green with poisonous copper colourings.
Years of exposing the toxic deceptions all around him seems to have driven Hassall to a state of paranoia. He started to see poison everywhere, and decided that the answer was to create a set of totally uncontaminated food products. In 1881, he set up his own firm, The Pure Food Company, which would only use ingredients of unimpeachable quality.
Hassall took water that was “softened and purified” and combined it with the finest Smithfield beef to make the purest beef jelly and disgusting-sounding “fibrinous meat lozenges” – the energy balls of Victorian England. The Pure Food Company of 1881 sounds just like a hundred wellness food businesses today – except for the fact that it collapsed within a year due to lack of sales.
We are once again living in an environment where ordinary food, which should be something reliable and sustaining, has come to feel noxious. Unlike the Victorians, we do not fear that our coffee is fake so much as that our entire pattern of eating may be bad for us, in ways that we can’t fully identify. One of the things that makes the new wave of wellness cookbooks so appealing is that they assure the reader that they offer a new way of eating that comes without any fear or guilt.
The founding principle of these modern wellness regimes is that our current way of eating is slowly poisoning us. “Much of the food on offer to us today is nutritionally substandard,” write the Hemsley sisters, best-selling champions of “nutrient-dense” food. It’s hard to disagree with the proposition that modern diets are generally “substandard”, even if you don’t share the Hemsleys’ solution of going “grain-free”. “All of these diets have a kernel of truth that is spun out into some bigger fantasy,” Giles Yeo says – hence their huge appeal.
Clean eating – whether it is called that or not – is perhaps best seen as a dysfunctional response to a still more dysfunctional food supply: a dream of purity in a toxic world.
To walk into a modern western supermarket is to be assailed by aisle upon aisle of salty, oily snacks and sugary cereals, of “bread” that has been neither proved nor fermented, of cheap, sweetened drinks and meat from animals kept in inhumane conditions……