Iowa State professor warns about 'clean eating' trend

'I'm not sure they know what they're asking for'

Ruth Litchfield

ISU professor
Ruth Litchfield ISU professor

So-called clean-eating tips and suggestions for diet cleanses are everywhere these days, but at what cost? Ruth Litchfield, an Iowa State University professor of food science and human nutrition who studies the topic, reports consequences can include more food waste, decreased safety and higher prices.

Q: What does the term “clean food” mean?

A: That really depends on the individual. There’s a lot of terminology being used, but it’s not been standardly defined and has different impressions to different people.

The most common interpretation of a clean label is it has five or less ingredients, or it has ingredients that you can actually pronounce, or it has limited amounts of additives.

Q: Is the clean food movement growing?

A: Right now, it is definitely a trending subject. There is definitely a consumer movement out there that they want what they consider as clean food …, but I think there’s a lack of information out there, too, because I’m not sure they know what they’re asking for.

Q: What could come from more consumers seeking “clean food?”

A: What is going to happen is we’re going to have a less-safe, more-costly food supply. If you look at what we’re using in our food supply today, we’re using things that are preservatives. So it promotes a longer shelf-life. It’s going to keep the food safe.

It’s going to keep it from spoiling. That’s going to keep costs down. We’re not wasting as much food.

Q: What impact do additives have on the taste of the food?


A: We have ingredients in there that are acting as emulsifiers or leavening agents or texturizes — so the types of food, the quality of food we have, the flavors, the textures would be different if we are taking those types of ingredients out.

Q: What else might consumers be giving up if they, for example, want to buy only locally grown products?

A: If we were to go to locally grown, we’re not going to be getting pineapple. We’re not going to be getting kiwi. We’re not going to be getting bananas.

So, again, do consumers understand what they’re demanding and how that would affect the availability, the safety and the cost of their current food supply? And are they willing to pay those prices?”

Q: Are some of the safety concerns about additives and preservatives legitimate?

A: I’m going to give you a few examples of some ingredients, or chemicals or additives, that would be used in food. So, for example, one might be ascorbic acid. Ascorbic acid is vitamin C. But it’s also used in foods because it’s an antioxidant — it actually can help prevent oxidation of the food.

Another one would be carrageenan. Carrageenan is a naturally occurring substance from seaweed. It thickens food. So it acts as a thickener.

Lecithin comes from eggs. It is an emulsifier. It allows us to blend water and oil items together. It emulsifies.


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Q: What about nitrates, which some studies have linked to cancer?

A: If you really look at the research, it’s very minimal. And nitrates also occur naturally in celery juice.

So in a meat that’s been cured with celery juice rather than the nitrates, it’s the same thing. Your body can’t tell if that nitrate came from celery or that nitrate came from the chemical compound that was generated in a laboratory setting.

Q: Are we starting to see any effects of these changes in food choices and purchasing?

A: I can tell you as a whole our food waste in this country has been increasing significantly over time. The amount of food we waste has grown exponentially.

Whether that’s due to this or some other matter I think it’s a number of affects that have probably led to the increased food waste, and this is just one of those contributing factors.

Q: Can you identify any additives or preservatives that consumers should avoid for safety and health reasons?

A: The FDA has what’s referred to as the GRAS list — generally regarded as safe All of the additives that are currently being used and are on the GRAS list have been tested for safety at various levels of exposure. And given the amounts of these that are used, the exposure, the risk is very small.

Q: What has propelled the clean food trend?


A: Consumers are very concerned and not trusting the science that is out there, which is a bit disconcerting.

And I do believe social media has contributed to that. Because on social media, the World Wide Web, you can post anything you want. There is no peer review process of what is posted on those sites and whether it’s true or not. So it’s a challenge.

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