Eating “clean” is all about avoiding foods with additives, preservatives or other chemicals on the label. While it may seem well intentioned, Ruth MacDonald and Ruth Litchfield, professors of food science and human nutrition at Iowa State University, warn of the consequences in terms of food waste, safety and cost. Clean food advocates suggest avoiding foods with ingredients you cannot pronounce. MacDonald says several food manufacturers, restaurants and grocery stores have responded by removing additives to fit the definition of clean.
In the recent article from ISU, the professors say just because an ingredient or additive has an unfamiliar name does not automatically make it bad for you. The decision to remove additives appears to be driven more by market demand than consideration of the benefits these additives provide and the potential food safety risk, they said. Removing nitrates from deli meats and hot dogs is just one example.
MacDonald, who has spent more than 25 years investigating links between diet and cancer, says nitrates play a necessary role in preventing the growth of Clostridium botulinum, a deadly bacterium that causes food poisoning. Therefore, completely removing nitrates would be problematic.
But decoding food labels and understanding food risk is tricky even for well-informed consumers. While there is plenty of reliable information online, Litchfield and MacDonald point to social media as the greatest culprit of confusion. “Social media has gotten us to this point. It is a big driver of distrust,” said Litchfield, an expert on food safety and health promotion. “The one thing I would tell consumers is do not believe everything they see on social media. If they read about research on social media, track down the original study to see if it even exists.”