Market View

Market View: The Spurious Clean-Food Movement

According to our marketing expert, it looks like the food and beverage industry is catering to a few consumers and creating mass hysteria among the remainder.

By John Stanton, Contributing Editor

As Popeye said, “That’s all I can stands, I can’t stands no more.”

My personal mission is to never use the expression “healthy food.” Food is not healthy; food is nutritious. People are healthy. While I don’t blame consumers for their fickle behavior toward food, I do blame the food industry.

In the early years of my career, I was a nutritional epidemiologist. I published in journals such as Science and other medical academic journals. While I am unequivocally a food marketer now, I still have my “nutrition roots.”

I understand that we must give consumers what they want. But we need to understand it is the “loud” market segment that wants something in or out of food. Not everybody or even most of the consumers are asking for many of the attributes we are putting in or removing from our food. It looks to me like we are catering to a few consumers and creating mass hysteria among the remainder.

Elle Magazine ran a long article recently, claiming that the Clean Eating movement, (which embraces eating mainly organic fruits and vegetables, as well as gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan and natural foods) “can be dangerous” for several spurious reasons. Conde Nast, owner of Glamour UK, printed a piece called “Clean Eating? No Thanks,” claiming that it “muddles the truth about food.” Fox News Magazine stated that “processed foods can actually be good for you.” And vlogger Grace Victory made a TV show for the BBC called “Clean Eating’s Dirty Secrets,” which made such claims as “a lot of (clean eating lovers) have orthorexia,” an obsession with eating foods that are considered healthy.

Eliminating whole food groups from a diet can be bad for your health no matter what food group is eliminated. Going completely carb-free is harmful. Our bodies need carbs. In fact, the original USDA dietary guidelines had “Eat a variety of foods” as one of its most important guidelines. Consumers can’t eliminate food groups to be healthy.

Who is starting the hubbub every month on the new thing in food that’s bad for you? Television and internet insta-chefs, who generally have no nutritional training from accredited universities.

Not long ago, people had to rely on the mainstream media and trusted “experts” for all the information they got related to food safety, nutrition, health and farming. Today, with more diversity of information through the internet, alternative voices are increasingly heard, and are increasingly trusted, especially after mainstream sources of expertise and information are found to be enmeshed in thick layers of corruption, lobbying and self-interest.

The Clean Eating movement arose from dissatisfaction with alleged ubiquitous processed food and awareness of how many foods are genetically modified, sprayed with poisonous chemicals and irradiated. It arose from a belief in and empathy for allegedly overcrowded, unhealthy, pharmaceutical ridden livestock. Virtually no consumer knows what any of these things are or what they do to the body, and the food industry has made little a concerted effort to tell them.

There are some people out there trying to give unbiased advice. Alan Levinovitz explains in his book The Gluten Lie that there is no benefit to cutting out gluten unless it's medically required. If gluten is not a personal health risk — and that's for a medical professional to assess — a gluten-free diet won't necessarily help you at all. And this crusade against gluten might not just be fruitless and expensive (according to Levinovitz, gluten-free products average 242 percent more expensive than their gluten-containing versions) but actually harmful.

Nigella Lawson, whose guilt-free approach to eating helped to reconfigure attitudes on food, says, “I despair of the term ‘clean eating,’ though I actually like the food that comes under that banner. [Clean eating] necessarily implies that any other form of eating — and consequently the eater of it — is dirty or impure and thus bad. It's not simply a way of shaming and persecuting others, but leads to that self-shaming and self-persecution that is forcibly detrimental to true healthy eating.”

Another key factor in this whole mess is that nutrition studies, which so much advice is based on, aren’t perfect. Conflicting nutrition advice isn’t entirely the fault of the weight loss crowd or food industry. Many times it’s because the science surrounding nutrition is also extremely confusing.

Vox Media, a prestigious media company, asked eight researchers why the field of nutrition is so complicated. Researchers explained that it isn’t always practical to run randomized trials for most big nutrition questions, and instead researchers are left to rely on observational studies. The article continues to talk about how many nutrition studies rely on food surveys – that means people being honest about their lifestyle and what they ate.

While I like to believe in the honesty of humankind, we would have to put a ridiculous amount of trust in people to use their food surveys and diaries as scientific fact. In addition, we’re often relying on people’s memory of what they ate. And many people cannot remember exactly what they ate, how much they ate and when they ate it.
As an industry let’s try not to encourage the fringe eaters and food haters. Let’s make it clear that we make the best, cheapest and safest food in the world.