Can Food Be Dirty (or Clean)?

Every six months or so it seems like a new fad word takes over the food scene and every diet, menu, and recipe tries to use it to drum up interest.

These days the word is “clean.”

Clean diets, clean detoxes, clean smoothies, clean cleanses? 

Then I saw this great article by L.V. Anderson at Slate asking people to please just stop. There’s really no such thing as “clean” food.

This one sentence sums up her point pretty clearly:

It implies that anyone who doesn’t eat in the way you deem ‘clean’ is eating ‘dirty.'”

As someone who writes a lot about food, I struggle with this. I don’t think that people who write a new clean diet mean to impose that kind of judgment on others.

I think what they really mean is healthy, but even that is kind of a loaded term if you think about it. If I were to describe a menu as “healthy” does that mean that your menu is unhealthy if it doesn’t equate?

Is Clean Dirty?

The real issue with using words like “clean” to describe a menu in my mind is twofold.

First, what’s clean for you is almost certainly not clean for everybody. Because of allergies, intolerances, or dietary restrictions what you think is clean might be very dirty for someone else.

Second, it might miss the problem with food in America. The problem is larger than that and includes nutrition education, access to affordable food, and many other complicated subjects.

Adjectives: Facts or Judgments?


I guess the way to avoid this problem is to describe recipes and menus using adjectives of fact instead of judgement.

So I could say something is “low fat” if it is, in fact, low in fat, but calling something healthy is completely relative.

Judgmental Recipe Title: Delicious Clean Sauteed Spinach (this would be made with water instead of oil and low salt, but plenty of spices and herbs)

Non judgmental Recipe: Low Fat, Low Sodium Green Sauteed Spinach (exact same recipe with fact adjectives)

The non-judgmental version is, well, kind of boring.

My Defense of Clean

At the end of the day, I actually think I’m okay with writers describing things as clean. Personally, I’m not sure what the hell it means, but I also read stuff every day like:

  • The Best Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe EVR
  • The Most Delicious Macaroni and Cheese
  • Killer Steak Sandwiches

As the reader, I have doubts that those are the best cookies, that is the most delicious mac & cheese, and if those sandwiches are actually killer sandwiches.

So, my defense of writers who use the word clean (maybe I have even?) is that you have to read it in context to decide whether or not that particular writer is worth their words.

On its own, clean means nothing. But, if a writer expands on that word and you learn that the writer is just using it as a placeholder for fruits and vegetables, then so what?

So, in conclusion, I do not believe that FOOD can be clean or dirty and you probably won’t see me use those words (unless I post a dirty rice recipe – note to self: post a dirty rice recipe).

But, a food writer should be able to use those words to describe food based on their goals and circumstances.

What do you think?

Does an adjective like “clean” help you or is it just a buzzword that you ignore? Can it be harmful?


Delicious dirty donut photo by camknows. Delicious dirty carrot photo by Melissa.

19 comments on “Can Food Be Dirty (or Clean)?

  1. Well Nick, I have to go with boring and not buzz words. As a person with heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes, finding things that are “good” for you is a chore. Low fat, low sodium is exactly what I am looking for. I will still check the labeling, but boring will help me find the “good” stuff faster.
    You hit it on the head with the “drumming up interest” , that’s what it is all about in the advertising business and adjectives tend to be used loosely and not necessarily factually.

  2. I agree, Bob, but I think words are used to create excitement and sell books! Everything in moderation. You can take a recipe and make it just for you by reducing, substituting and spicing it up. BTW, “clean” has been around for about 6 years, oh, wait, since the dawn of mankind, lol.

    1. Good point Helene. “Clean” has been around for awhile. I guess I’ve just noticed a huge uptick in its use lately and then I read the article dissing its use so it got me thinking. :)

  3. I think it’s just an excuse (and a lame one, at that) for someone to get their panties in a twist. This sort of hyper-offendedness drives me absolutely batty. Sure, I wouldn’t consider my diet to be “clean”, but I don’t think it’s “dirty” either, it’s simply what we like and so we eat it. ‘Nuff said.

    Also, everyone seems to focus on there being a “lack of education” about people’s diets…I have another theory. We eat what we like and we couldn’t care less about the nutrition content. Look at how many people still drink soda, knowing that it’s not good for you (myself included)? Or how many people go to McDonald’s even though everyone knows it’s terrible for you? I’m not a food statistician or whatever, but I’d guess at least 90% of the time it’s not a lack of education, it’s a lack of CARING. People have likes and dislikes, and they’re not going to go out of their way to eat something they dislike. /rant

    Anyway, I’m not open to debating it, it’s just my opinion for whatever it’s worth. ;-)

    1. That’s a great point. The day where the worst thing I have to complain about is someone else’s use of a word… well… that’s a pretty good day!

  4. Hey Nick-
    I’m really glad to see you take on this new “buzzword.” Several of my co-workers have been “eating clean” for the past few months and have lost weight doing it. Whenever someone asks them about their weight loss, they say, “I just changed my diet- started eating clean.” Well, I have also lost weight. I have lost 22 pounds. I didn’t eat “clean.” I didn’t do away with “white foods” or do a “cleanse” or drink a shake every morning. I simply stopped eating fast food every day (I was eating it 2-3 times a day), choose grilled over fried, drink water instead of sweet tea, etc- but you know what? When I want something, I eat it. When I want a donut, I have one. When I want an order of fries, I get them. I don’t eat these things every day, but I don’t wig out if I have it either. When food becomes a chore and an enemy, it ceases to be food!

  5. To me “clean”” means GMO free. I do not want anything a bug will not touch, or won’t eat it for it knows it won’t live long. All I know is that I get terribly sick from corn and non GMO corn is almost impossible to find. I carefully read the code on the veggies and fruit to make sure it is GMO free. Milk is another one……raw milk is no problem to my stomach but give be homognized and messed with and look out! I get lactose free, but all raw milk is fine. I read labels like crazy.

  6. Hi, Nick–
    I have a lot of friends who are on the lower end of the economic spectrum. For them, the priority is to get their family fed–period–and some weeks that means hot dogs and boxed mac and cheese. Truthfully, it costs time and money to eat “healthy.” I have no food allergies, and do my best to eat healthy when I can, but when I am with my friends, I eat what is served and I am grateful for it. I love your blog, and can’t wait for your dirty rice recipe!

  7. Can you call your dirty rice recipe ‘Clean Dirty Rice’? That makes me laugh. :)

    My idea of ‘clean eating’ is more of the whole foods idea – more fruits, veggies, whole grains, lean meats, etc., with less processing. ‘Clean’ being that less hands (or machines) have touched it before it gets to your mouth. But I suppose there are a million ways to interpret that, just like ‘organic’ equals healthy and ‘gluten-free’ is what everyone should be doing since that’s what ‘they’ say. My two cents…

  8. I’m not a big believer in banning words. Referring to food as “clean” sounds a little prissy to me, not to mention imprecise (does it include meat, and if so, really?), but you can tell a lot about people from their buzzwords, so if for no other reason I would keep it around.

  9. My problem with the use of “clean” is, I think, the same as yours – that it implies a black and white situation. No food is perfect – that’s why we need a variety to survive. If a food is “clean” in one respect, it may be “dirty” in another. Nobody should need to blacklist certain foods from their diet. Nothing is truly “dirty” if eaten in moderation. The notion of “clean eating,” to me, excludes the possibility of moderation.

  10. TBH I hate buzz words, both judgemental and non-judgemental. What’s wrong with just “Sauteed spinach”?

  11. Nick, great points!
    One little nitpick though. The word Sauté means to cook your food over high heat, with a small amount of oil, moving it quickly and not allowing it to stay in one place. (From the French verb sauter.)
    If you do not have any oil or fat, then you are in fact steaming the food, which is something different altogether.

    As for the “clean” moniker, us chefs started seeing this back around 2000, but the idea was to have your food item simply prepared, unadulterated with unnecessary ingredients that changed the flavor to a different profile. (For example, “clean” asparagus could be asparagus steamed, served with salt and pepper, maybe a squeeze of lemon, opposed to a more French style, dredged in melted butter – so much so that you would taste mostly butter.)
    Today it seems like we have moved away from this simplicity and now are labelling whole food groups as dirty or “not clean,” which missed the whole point.

  12. You make some great points, as I think about the use of the term clean, I can see a difference between ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ but it does depend on your goal. For lunch, if I have a chicken salad with an olive oil and vinegar dressing, well that’s a bit different than boxed mac and cheese which is full of (in my perception)edible chemicals as opposed. On the other hand, I’m not going to bash anyone for eating it, even if I won’t eat it. Of course, what we eat does have an impact on health, performance in the gym, performance in daily life, so it does pay to think about what we put into our bodies.

  13. Great article!!! I think there is also an intent with the word “clean” as to what the food does in our body. Is it something the body can easily process or possibly not, even leaving harmful reissues and/or damage. At least that is what I think of when I hear “clean diet”

    I wonder if you could make a clean dirty rice recipe?! Lol

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