There's No Such Thing As "Clean" Food

This is not about the three-second rule.

Oct 15, 2013 at 3:00pm | Leave a comment

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This is not considered clean eating.

There's this trend in eating right now that is freaking me out and making it actively harder for me to eat food.

Have you heard about this clean eating thing? It's the way some folks are describing their commitment to eating food that is organic and local and healthy and nonprocessed and all of those other buzzwords we're hearing so much about at the moment. That doesn't sound so bad -- I'm all for organic and local and healthy and nonprocessed and all of that. It usually tastes pretty darn good. (The current certification and marketing of organic foods is also problematic for a whole lot of reasons -- I'm just trying to stay on topic.)

But the language of "clean" eating has pushed a lot of buttons for me and it finally coalesced into some conversation on Twitter a few weeks ago. 

Here's the simple version of my beef with clean eating: I think food moralizing often does incredible damage to the people. Not even the people eating any given way -- but to the people who are around the moralizing, eating in other ways, in whatever ways they can.

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Bread pudding with ham, asparagus, mushrooms, and hollandaise sauce -- fresh and local and probably not "clean" at all.

Prescriptivism is one of my hot buttons because I don't think any one person can tell any other person the best way to live that other person's life -- as much as it is a cliche to say that everyone is a unique snowflake, it's a cliche for a reason: really, everyone IS a unique snowflake.

(Note: I'm not talking about giving your friends advice when they ask for it. I'm not talking about your therapist that you pay to give you advice. I'm talking about the unsolicited opinion giving to which so many people feel entitled as they judge the lives of other people.)

Here's the implication of "clean" eating: Other ways of eating are "dirty." 

And as much as any given person might not mean to give the impression that they think this, intentions are not magical fairies with wands flitting about to undo all the damage that telling someone else their food is dirty can do.

Basically, unless you've dropped your food on the floor, it's clean. (And in that case, the three-second rule still applies.)

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Waffle House waffle -- definitely not a "clean" food, right? 

The really frustrating thing is that I understand what people are getting at when they say "clean" food -- fresh, local, whole foods that have been grown or raised without pesticides are great. But they also are not accessible to everyone, both because of straight up access (food deserts continue to be a thing that people ignore on the regs) and because of cost -- my friends don't call it Whole Paycheck for nothing.

Whole Foods and other grocery stores of that ilk aren't cheap and unless you have regular access to a farmer's market AND the ability to go to it all the time, well. Those canned green beans have a shelf life that will get you through the times when your budget and your timeframe just don't match up.

It also seems like people are confusing food ethics with food morality -- I support other people's efforts to eat without cruelty and I have enough privilege at this point that I can also work toward that, but I also eat the hell out of meat -- and, inevitably, anyone who tries to use morality to beat me up about my food choices has no idea why I made that choice.

And that goes for folks trying to shame folks for eating processed foods and easily available fast foods as well. You don't know anything about the people making those food choices. Everyone has to eat to live. Back off.

When you tell someone their food is dirty, even by implication, you shit all over their own body autonomy, issues of class and access, cultural food traditions, their own tastes and needs, and issues of health. When you tell someone their food is dirty, even with the best of intentions because you want them to make what you see as better choices, you are butting right up against their ability to keep themselves alive.

The "clean" food messaging just tells other people their food isn't good enough without making any effort to actually fix the myriad of issues wrong with our food system in the U.S. -- eating "clean" doesn't address big corporate farming or subsidies or even the increasingly corporate topic of school lunches. It's a way of framing a personal choice that automatically casts judgment on other people.

That's the problem -- not any individual's personal choice to eat "clean." So maybe, instead of using "clean" as a way to talk about how someone eats, we can actually just say, hey, "I'm eating organic, local produce and it's awesome," if we really need to talk about eating that way. Maybe we can just stop insisting our personal choices would be the best choices for everyone everywhere. Maybe that's how we can sit down and share a meal and listen to each other.