Clean Eating

“Clean eating” is the name of a healthy eating movement associated with Tosca Reno, with Clean Eating magazine, and with a number of books. (A good one is Clean Eating for Dummies.)

Of course, the concept has been around for much longer than the name, but I like that “clean eating” is an excellent shorthand for “avoiding additives and contaminants,” or as Tosca Reno puts it, “avoiding chemicals.”

To avoid chemicals, we need to eat real food instead of processed food.

Real Food vs. Processed Food

Real food: “whole” foods, home-cooked, made from scratch, fruit, vegetables, home-cooked meat, home-made grains.

Processed food is made ahead of time in a factory, which requires (1) processing techniques that remove nutrition and (2) additives that add pain-causing chemicals.

Processed food: convenience food, frozen meals, junk food, fast food, most restaurant food.

Most restaurant food is prepared off site and shipped to restaurants for cooking or reheating; other restaurants, such as Chinese restaurants, may add additives when the food is made.

Let’s look at the why and the how of clean eating!



Clean eating was difficult for me to understand!

I have to tell you that when I first encountered the idea 25 years ago, it was incredibly difficult for me to understand, much less carry out!

Food additives–I just didn’t get the problem!

As you probably have–if you’ve eaten like other Americans–I had eaten food additives all my life. I couldn’t perceive that they were there.

Even when I looked at the side of the box and read the chemical names in the ingredient list! I mean, how bad could they be? And they’re in tiny quantities, right?

What could be so terrible about macaroni and cheese in a box? About a candy bar? Wonder Bread? Why would a fast food hamburger bun be so awful? What could they really put on a steak in a restaurant that would be so terrible?

We’d always gotten all our food from the supermarket. Surely everything in the supermarket is food?

So if this is how you feel—well, I can totally relate.



How much of this stuff do we eat?

The average American eats 14 pounds of food additives every year. That does not include sugar or salt. (The estimate comes from the International Food Additives Council, an industry group that represents food chemical companies.)

It’s as if we eat a quarter-pound patty of food chemicals every week! Yuck.

And that patty is made up of potentially thousands of different additives.

In 2013, the Pew Charitable Trusts Food Additive Project tried to estimate the number of food additives allowed for use in the U.S. They noted that there was no single list: they used four government databases plus manufacturer applications to the FDA to create their estimate.

They came up with a total of 10,787 additives. They believe about 5,000 of these are added directly to food. The other approximately 5,000 are used in packaging or on machinery—the FDA classifies them as additives because they come into contact with food and leave small amounts of residue.

Here’s how the International Food Information Council (that industry-supported non-profit) categorizes food additives: “Preservatives, sweeteners, color additives, flavors and spices, flavor enhancers, fat replacers (and components of formulations used to to replace fats), nutrients, emulsifiers, stabilizers and thickeners, binders, texturizers, leavening agents, anti-caking agents, humectants, yeast nutrients, dough strengtheners and conditioners, firming agents, enzyme preparations, gases.”



Why so many food additives?

Manufacturers add food additives for three main reasons: shelf life, “palatability,” and addictive potential.

Long shelf life

Food processing with additives makes long shelf life possible. In food processing, components of food that might spoil are removed. Additives that preserve food are added.

With processing, manufactures can produce their products in bulk; they can ship the products for long distances; they can sit in warehouses and grocery shelves for months or years.

When food products have a long shelf life, manufacturers make money.


Yet, the processing and preserving creates unappealing food, with loss of taste, texture, color, and nutrition. That’s the loss of palatability—the loss of your desire to eat it.

Additives replace the taste, texture, and color. Unfortunately, only a small fraction of the destroyed nutrition (which you can’t taste) is replaced.

It takes a lot of additives to make processed food tasty and appealing.

By making the unpalatable palatable, additives make food processing into a viable business model.

Addictive potential

Finally, many food additives have drug-like effects and addictive properties. Manufacturers don’t publicize this, or admit to it, but they certainly must have noticed it.

You can see it in advertising: “Can’t eat just one.”

Much has been made of how manufacturers engineer the sugar, salt, and fat content of processed food to make it addictive. But the drug-like nature of some food additives are the icing on the cake, so to speak.



Pain-causing food additives

The following additives and types of additives all have bad health effects, but they also are capable of causing pain.

  • Aspartame
  • MSG
  • Food colors
  • Flavor additives
  • Sodium nitrite in processed meat



As if that weren’t enough

There’s also the contamination of our food, with the byproducts of genetic modification, pesticide residue, and heavy metal contamination—to name just a few.

Non-GM diets—avoiding genetically modified food—reportedly relieve nonspecific health problems including pain.

Pesticides and herbicides are known to cause pain. There is significant pesticide residue in genetically modified crops, non-organic crops, and the milk and meat of animals that eat genetically modified and non-organic crops.

Heavy metal poisoning, by lead, mercury, or arsenic, is known to cause pain. Heavy metals contaminate our soil and waters, causing crops, fish, and animals to be contaminated.



Two practical reasons for clean eating

There are two practical reasons to eliminate or reduce food additives and chemical contaminants of food.

The first, best reason is that food additives and contaminants cause pain. Unfortunately for us, the human body is just not meant to chow down the amount of the chemicals currently in our food. Your body lets you know that through pain.

Maybe there are a few bad actors among the additives, or maybe the problem is from consuming too many food additives at once. The food industry isn’t interested in publicizing the effects of additives, so the exact story remains unknown or buried in industry files.

The second reason: since even a chemical-free, healthy food can cause pain if you are intolerant to it, it can be necessary to play detective with food intolerance. To do that, you need the option of additive-free food. You can run an experiment to see if a food causes you symptoms, but you can do that only if you can separate that food from all other ingredients (and chemicals).



And another reason

Cleaner food usually involves a certain amount of home preparation (another unfortunate fact). Of course, someone else can prepare it for you, and if you are too sick or disabled, that might be necessary. You also may be able to buy acceptable prepared food, with some shopping effort.

But there’s a good reason to prepare your own food. There’s something about doing it yourself that gives you extra ability to influence your own health.

When you take responsibility for your food, you take responsibility for your health. You send a message to your body that you can ultimately change your own pain.

Side Effects of Clean Eating

Almost everyone notices feeling much better when eating “real food!” It can come as a surprise–a much welcome surprise.



Action Steps

To help get yourself out of pain, here’s ideas to increase the amount of “real” food you eat and decrease the amount of processed food.


  • Increase the number of times per week that you eat a home-cooked meal or home-made lunch.
  • Explore new “real” foods that you don’t normally prepare.

Resource for cooking directions​

Try new homemade meals

Filling, non-processed foods

When switching away from processed food, you can feel like there’s nothing to eat or that nothing fills you up! ​To find something filling, try making each of these at home at least once, to see if you like it:

  • Brown rice
  • Quinoa
  • Baked potato
  • Baked sweet potato
  • Beans (of your choice)

Brown rice, quinoa, and dried beans can be found

  • ​In bags and boxes on supermarket shelves
  • From bins at natural food stores
  • Online

Home-cooked meat

Cook plain meat or plain fish at home without commercial breadings or adding commercial seasonings or sauces.​

Create your own seasoning

Create your own condiments, dressings, and sauces in place of additive-filled store-bought seasonings.

  • Try food plain, or with salt, pepper, butter, olive oil
  • Recommended additive-free high-mineral unrefined salt: Redmond RealSalt
  • Buy spices separately in small jars; add one, two, or more to make your own flavors.
  • Read ingredient lists of foods you enjoy and re-create the spice mixes!

Fruit and vegetables

All fresh fruit and vegetables are real foods!

Try new-to-you fruit and veg from the produce aisle. Pick out a new one every week.

Keep it simple–no need for recipes.​

​Check online how to clean, if it can be eaten raw, how to steam or sauté if desired.

Minimally processed “bulk foods”

Grains, beans, nuts, seeds, and dried fruit are storable, minimally processed foods that are available in bins in natural food stores, in bags on grocery store shelves, and online.

Examples of grains are oatmeal, grits, quinoa, millet, many different kinds of rice, popcorn, pasta , and many more.

Try snacking on nuts, seeds, and additive-free dried fruit, or make them part of your meals!​

Will you miss food additives at first?

Probably!  It can take a little while for your tastes to adjust.

Food addictions

Any time we change eating habits, food addictions can seem more obvious to us. Yet, increasing the amount of clean food is the only way out of food addiction.




Food Labels

Ingredient Lists
Food and Drug Administration

A Food Labeling Guide: Guidance for Industry (PDF)
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Food and Drug Administration
Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition
January 2013

How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label
Food and Drug Administration

Food Labeling Fact Sheets
United States Department of Agriculture
Food Safety and Inspection Service

Food Additives

Fixing the Oversight of Chemicals Added to Our Food: Findings and Recommendations of Pew’s Assessment of the U.S. Food Additives Program
The Pew Charitable Trusts
November 7, 2013

Navigating the U.S. Food Additive Regulatory Program
Thomas C. Neltner, Neesha R. Kulkarni, Heather M. Alger, Maricel V. Maffini, Erin D. Bongard, Neal D. Fortin, and Erik D. Olson
Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety Nov. 2011 10(6):342-368

Research Studies
The Feingold Association of the United States

Overview of Food Ingredients, Additives, and Colors
U.S. Food and Drug Administration

Food Additives Knowledge Center
Institute of Food Technologists

Chemical Cuisine: Learn About Food Additives
Center for Science in the Public Interest