Why “Clean” is a Dirty Adjective for Food

I’m immediately looking at you Panera.

And every Instagram “fitspo” account.

But this is more about the term “clean”, and using this word to describe food outside of providing a description of a food’s literal cleanliness.  

The term “clean”, or “eat clean” is extremely popular, and also extremely irritating.  Full disclosure, when it first started gaining popularity I initially liked it.  To me as a dietitian, it made sense, as I tend to  group foods as “nutrition providing”, or “nutrition lacking”.  For me it actually took a  perspective of a dietetic intern and a client to see how silly this phrase is, and actually how damaging it can be.   

Photo cred: Build Up Dietitians https://m.facebook.com/BuildupDietitians

Damaging in the sense of- if a food is “clean” that indicates that if some foods are “clean” other foods are “dirty”, or “bad”.  Giving foods this level of distinction, or even this level of power is not helpful or healthy- in a mental or physical   sense.  

People who are trying to lose weight, or adapt a healthier lifestyle tend to have a hard encough time as it is.  Discerning between foods that are “good”, or “clean” versus “bad” or “dirty” can send individuals with little nutrition knowledge down a rabbit hole that it hard to get out of.  

Except now individuals aren’t being exposed to this type of “marketing” on social media by some inept health coach, or fits pro fanatic, now that term clean is getting really mainstream.  

Restaurants like Panera (you too, Chipotle) have taken this vague term and birthed an entire marketing campaign out of it.  Which is why I really enjoyed this article.  

Full disclosure, I am a huge fan of the “Sassy Scientist” movement happening by the likes of Kavin Senapthy, Sci Babe, Chow Babe, & Farm Babe (to name a few).  I don’t say sassy in a demeaning way, I mean it in a way of they are all super smart, professionals that present evidence in a badass way, and will pull someone’s card in a heartbeat and using actual evidence as opposed to anecdotes to back up their “argument”.  

So when I saw this article title I was already intrigued, and then when I saw who wrote it, I was excited.  

Another point I will happily disclose- I probably eat at Panera once a week- at least.  I spend a lot of time in my car, and traveling, and I use them a lot to cater lunches.  I did this prior to Panera launching their most recent campaign, that as pointed out by Kavin, if fraught with pseudoscience.  Despite the fact that I don’t like their campaign I still frequent them quite a bit, albeit somewhat begrudgingly.  

I like Panera, because if you know what/how to order, you can actually have a pretty nutritious meal, maybe a bit a heavy on salt, but it beats a Big Mac when you’re trying to make the more nutritious choice.  

Where the confusion comes in is, with this current marketing, it lays really good groundwork for people to just make assumptions that whatever they choose is a “healthy” or nutritious choice because of “everything is clean”.  Well, I’m sorry, but I am here to tell you that 700 calories for a sandwich is still 700 flipping calories for a sandwich.  

My point here is to not let clever marketing get in the way of making nutritious choices.  Clean doesn’t necessarily equate to nutritious, sorry but it’s true.  Just because they’re using “real” ingredients doesn’t mean that portion sizes no longer matter- because hey, they definitely still do!!!  If you really pay attention to the nutrition information (and portion sizes) you will find in many cases that a lot of their entree options are quite high in calories and all macronutrients (as well as sodium) because the portion sizes are so large.  


My issue is not with the food Panera makes, but rather their marketing strategy to make foods seem “better” than other foods, while what they are serving is still in an unacceptable portion sizes.  My other issue is that they kind of seem to be turning their backs on science/evidence.  While I appreciate that they are using more herbs I just don’t appreciate ambiguous marketings that masks portion sizes that are still too large , and in doing so doesn’t exactly support science. 

Just some food for thought while you indulge in 900 calories and 2000 mg of sodium from your broccoli and cheddar soup in a bread bowl….

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