What’s clean eating?
While there’s no legal definition of clean eating, one of the most common definitions is:
choosing foods closest to their natural state. Other variations of the definition include:
“Steps toward real, wholesome, simpler, minimally-processed foods more often and
away from highly processed foods” – Wendy Bazillian, Dr. PH, MA, RD.
‘Filling your plate with minimally processed whole foods as close to how they’re found in
nature” – Kate Geagan, MS, RD
“Eat more whole foods. When you eat packaged foods, choose those made with
wholesome ingredients you’d use in your own kitchen.” – Michelle Dudash, RD
What can I look for on the front of the label?
Some companies may use the words “whole”, “real”, natural”, “fresh”, or “local” to entice
clean eaters, making it seem like the product is free of additives and preservatives.
Unfortunately, only claims about health, nutrient content, or function are regulated by the
FDA, so companies have a lot of wiggle room to make unsubstantiated claims on the
front of the package. This means we need to be our own food investigators and look at
the back of the package, especially the ingredient list, before putting the item in our cart.
What additives should I avoid?
One of the best resources for clean eating is the EWG’s Dirty Dozen Guide to Food
Additives: Here they review the biggest culprits that lead to serious health concerns,
such as endocrine disruptors and cancer.
1. Nitrites and nitrates are chemicals commonly used as flavoring, coloring agents
or preservatives in cured meats such as bacon, sausage, hotdogs, and lunch
meats. These additives react with naturally occurring amines in proteins, forming
nitrosamines in the meat or digestive tract, which studies have linked to multiple
2. Phosphates are found in over 20,000 foods and used to leaven baked goods,
decrease acid, improve moisture retention, and keep processed meats tender.
While the effect of phosphates on other health conditions is still being studied,
high phosphorus levels in the blood have been linked to heart disease, and in
those with chronic kidney disease can be fatal.
3. Aluminum (sodium aluminum phosphate, sodium aluminum sulfate) is
added as a stabilizer in food products such as baking powder. Research has
found neurological changes in animals who are exposed to aluminum as a fetus.
There is also an unknown association between aluminum and Alzheimer’s
4. Potassium Bromate is added to bread or cracker dough to help it rise during
baking. Unfortunately, it has been found to cause tumors in various areas in
animals, can cause acute kidney injury, and DNA damage. It is a known
carcinogen banned in the United Kingdom, Canada, and European Union.
5. Propyl gallate is a preservative used in foods that contain certain fats, such as
sausage. While there is no established causal link, there has been an association
with tumors in rats, and some evidence suggests it may be an endocrine
disruptor with estrogen effects.
6. Diacetyl is a butter flavoring for microwave popcorn, yogurt, and cheese as well
as making foods taste like butterscotch, maple, strawberry, or raspberry. What’s
scary about this chemical is that factory workers exposed to it have developed
an irreversible respiratory condition that leads to inflammation and permanent
scarring in their lungs.
7. Artificial colors are added to nutrient-deprived foods to improve their appeal. As
you probably could guess, many of these artificial colors are linked to health
concerns. Caramel colors III and IV (often labeled as “artificial color”) has been
shown to cause tumors, and there is an ongoing debate about the effect of
synthetic FD&C colors (such as Yellow 5 or blue 1) on a child’s behavior, such as
8. Natural and artificial flavors are, as the name says, added to foods to add
flavor. Interestingly, “natural flavors” are derived from plants and animals but can
be derived from GMOs and also contain synthetic chemicals such as propylene
glycol or BHA (which we already know causes issues). Luckily, if the flavor is
certified organic, it cannot contain synthetic or genetically modified ingredients.
9. BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) is a preservative added to flavoring and a
variety of foods, such as chips and processed meats. Though considered
generally recognized as safe (GRAS), several agencies have classified it as an
anticipated or possible human carcinogen because there is consistent evidence
that it causes tumors in animals. Additionally, the European Union classifies it as
an endocrine disruptor, and at higher doses can lower testosterone, sperm
quality, and thyroid hormone.
10. BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) is chemically similar to BHA and is often used
with BHA as a preservative. There is some data showing it causes lung and liver
tumors in rats, and there is additional research suggesting it is an endocrine
disruptor causing developmental effects and thyroid changes in animals.
11. Propyl Paraben is used as a preservative in foods like tortillas, muffins, and food
dyes, and contamination during processing or packaging has resulted in it being
found in other foods like dairy products, meat, vegetables, and beverages.
Unbelievably, this proven endocrine-disruptor, which is linked to decreased
sperm count and testosterone as well as accelerated growth of breast cancer
and infertility in women is GRAS.
12. Theobromine is an alkaloid added to chocolate, bread, cereal, and sports drinks.
One company requested the FDA list it as “GRAS”, despite animals developing
reproductive and developmental effects from exposure, and average human
consumption being five times the “reported” safe level. Somehow, the additive
was designated as GRAS without FDA approval.
What is GRAS?
Generally Recognized as Safe is a classification the government has given to additives
that are allegedly safe in food and are not required to receive review or approval. This
leaves manufacturers to decide whether compounds are safe without oversight by the
FDA or even notifying them at all. Talk about scary.
What about foods without a label?
The good news is that if the food doesn’t have a label, our work becomes a little easier.
There’s no drudging through the ingredient list, but instead looking for a few keywords,
including “organic”, “grass-fed”, “pasture-raised”, “wild-caught”, “no antibiotics” or “no
Choosing organic animal proteins means no antibiotics or hormones were added, and
farmers must document that no pesticides or fertilizers were used on their farm or land
for the past 3 years. As an added bonus, grass-fed beef has also been found to have
higher levels of omega-3 fats, which help fight inflammation. Similarly, research has
found that pasture-raised eggs have significantly more omega-3 fats than conventional.
Farm-raised fish have been found to contain higher levels of contaminants like PCBs,
which are carcinogenic or cancer-causing. Therefore, purchasing wild-caught fish can
avoid these undesirable contaminants while also providing us higher levels of omega-3
Any foods labeled certified organic cannot be grown with synthetic fertilizers or
pesticides and they cannot be genetically modified. While it would be ideal to fill our
whole cart with organically grown foods, it’s important to start purchasing organic
options for the EWG “dirty dozen”, as these have the highest levels of pesticides:
The key takeaway here is that food additives often are poorly regulated, so it’s important to read
food labels and avoid the “dirty dozen” food additives. Better yet, choose fresh foods without a
label and purchase organic whenever possible.
Navigating clean eating can seem overwhelming at times, so if you’re feeling lost, IC Wellness
is here to support you! Contact us at icwelness.org/services to get started on your clean eating
journey! If you’re ready to get started, join us for our 7-day healthy living challenge starting
January 24 – click here to join and kick start your journey.
Cassie Nankee says
Hi. Can you explain to me how I would go shopping for foods that are for clean eating? I’m new to this and trying to change my eating habits. Thank you for your time!!
Elisabeth Yaotani says
Of course! Clean eating centers around foods that are as close to their natural state as possible. You want to select whole organic foods and avoid processed foods when you can. So, grass-fed/grass-finished beef, organic eggs, organic free-range chicken, raw cheese (if you do dairy), nut milk, coconut aminos (instead of soy sauce), quinoa, wild rice, wild-caught Salmon, and lots of fruits and veggies. Many of the foods you eat can simply be swapped for healthier options. When snacking, I try to eat fruit, organic popcorn, a smoothie, an apple with almond butter, or medjool dates with organic peanut butter. It can be expensive to eat clean so do the best you can and enjoy your food!