“I stick to just eating clean foods.”
“I decided to only eat whole foods. Everything else is processed stuff.”
“I read labels. If I can’t pronounce it, I don’t eat it.”
Sound familiar? They are to me, a registered dietitian-nutritionist. I hear them all the time in social occasions, from people I interact with daily, or just in conversations I overhear on the street. These reflect an eating ideology or philosophy that’s simple and uncomplicated.
The problem is that these guidelines are misleading and more about perception than reality. They foster an illusion about food, even a fear of certain foods unnecessarily.
Reading a food label and seeing chemicals like: pyridoxine hydrochloride, cyanocobalamin, and ergocalciferol might scare off people wanting simple ingredients. But these are just chemical names for vitamins B6, B12 and D! We need these nutrients daily.
There’s nothing wrong with eating a diet with fewer highly processed foods. Indeed, I’d like to see people eating more fruits and vegetables, most certainly, as well as whole grains, nuts, and beans, and less sugar. But foods don’t have to be fresh, raw, and “whole” to be healthful, even “clean.”
Is There a Negative to “Clean Eating”?
There can be a real downside to clean eating. Any eating style that’s restrictive can make it more difficult to get everything you need from your diet.
One example I heard someone talk about recently is how they switched from diary milk to oat milk, “because it’s just cleaner.” That’s misperception! Why? All plant milks have lots of added ingredients to make them look like real milk and carry some (but not all) of the nutrients of dairy milk. Oats are a great food, but oat milk is missing the fiber and most of the nutrients of whole oats, yet with lots of ingredients that give an appearance similar to that of dairy milk. Dairy milk, on the other hand, is just milk, plus vitamin D that’s required by law. It’s usually a local food as well. See what popular misperceptions can bring?
Beware of “The Spinach Effect”
Clean eating, or a so-called “clean diet,” doesn’t guarantee a balanced diet. A person who lived on only spinach, for example, would have a diet of only “clean foods,” but it would be missing a host of nutrients. Clean eating sounds good, but often it’s just marketing with a buzzword that fosters an illusion about a food or eating style.
“I Don’t Want Chemicals Like Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) in My Food”
I’ve heard this as well. And it’s too bad, because foods are made up of lots of “chemical-sounding” names – such as the vitamins noted above. As for monosodium glutamate, it’s made up of just two molecules: sodium and glutamate. Sodium is an important electrolyte your body needs, and glutamate is a “non-essential” amino acid, one of the building blocks of proteins. It’s non-essential because the body makes its own glutamate, most of which is in your gut, the epicenter of your immune system. You can’t avoid all sodium or glutamate if you wanted to, but you don’t have to. Indeed, you shouldn’t. Of course, some people have been advised to limit their sodium intake. MSG can be helpful here, too. Gram-for-gram, MSG has about 60% less sodium than regular salt.
The News Gets Better and More Delicious
Every chef and “foodie” knows the flavor value of “umami,” often referred to as the fifth taste, in addition to the four basic tastes of sweet, salty, bitter, and sour. Umami delivers flavor intensity, and even if you’ve never heard of umami, you love what it brings to foods. Some foods are already loaded with umami, including tomatoes, mushrooms, beef, soy sauce, black olives, and aged cheeses, such as parmesan – the ultimate “umami bomb,” which is why it enhances the flavor of so many foods!
What’s responsible for umami? Glutamate, the same glutamate in the MSG. There’s no difference in the structure of glutamate in these foods or the glutamate in MSG seasoning. None.
Bottom Line: Whether you define your eating style as “clean,” “whole,” or anything else, make sure it’s also balanced. That’s the only way it will meet your needs, no matter what your eating style is. And think of MSG as an additional “flavor-delivery” method, one that not only enhances the taste of foods, but can even do so with less sodium.