Folta: ‘Clean Food’ — The deeply offensive marketing ploy

Dr. Kevin Folta | AGDAILY


When the commercial says that I should select clean food it makes my blood boil.

At a time when all of our affluent-world food is produced with tremendous care and regulation, and 21,000 people will die today from lack of nutrition, it is disgusting to see safe food demonized in a cheap marketing gimmick.

When I sit down with any meal I am grateful for what I have. Every calorie represents tremendous time, labor, fuel, water, fertilizer, crop protection  —  safe, affordable, and abundant. This is why each morsel is prized and special to me. I always clean a plate, and usually someone else’s.

When appeals are made to entice dollars away from the affluent consumer using the bait of a foodie health halo, there is tremendous collateral damage.

I know the scientists who create the new varieties. I work with the folks that study ways to conserve water and limit fertilizers. I see the teams of migrant workers toil in fields, harvesting and grading crops on the fly at great speed and with endless repetition. I know the farmers that get moving before the sun is in the sky, hoping to catch more time in the field before an advancing storm. Each piece of food has a great cost in resources and substantial human effort.

And this is why I find the divisive marketing ploy of clean food so unbelievably offensive.

By default their words imply that the unclean detritus others prepare must be dangerous. After all, if it is not clean, it must be dirty. Filthy dirty.

Is that a fair distinction? Many promoting this false claim center it on the fact that the products are clean because they don’t use artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives. Do such compounds make something unclean, or increase its risk when consumed?

No. And in fact, they may make them cleaner, more likely to be eaten, more likely to be enjoyed.

Artificial colors can be used to make food more attractive. The experience of enjoying a meal begins with visual cues, and the brain sets up a cascade of chemistry to prep the body for the experience. How much we enjoy eating something is influenced by sensory stimuli before the food item ever passes the lips.

Artificial flavors enhance the native balance of sensory compounds in food. Many of them are identical to natural flavor compounds, just produced in more efficient ways. Others enhance food flavor and aroma, heightening the experience.

Preservatives are trace compounds that retard spoilage, maintain product quality, and retain color and texture. They slow the degradation that begins immediately after fruits and vegetables are picked. Meats and dairy products begin a similar path, breaking down with time and temperature. All become hosts to bacteria and fungi that participate in the breakdown process, and may pose threats to human health. To combat these processes, humans control temperatures and microbial growth. But before there was refrigeration chemical preservation and drying were the only games in town. The addition of safe, reliable preservatives means food is indeed cleaner and of higher quality.

Should we support marketing claims that define an elite upper crust of products to capture the dollars of the affluent if they hurt others?

Boutique product labels proudly extol what is not inside the container. Clean food claims no artificial flavors, colors or preservatives  —  no antibiotics, hormones or products from plants genetically engineered. Consumers are not sure what these things are, but they know they can’t be good, because someone told them they were bad. Many consumers must make purchase decisions based on financial constraints, and face hardship having to afford a clean product to avoid the perfectly safe, less expensive “unclean” alternative.

Restaurant marketing should not spotlight clean food, it should promote diets of the right kinds of foods, like ensuring that fruits and vegetables are regular part of the diet. Proper nutrition in a nation suffering from the wrong kinds of nutrition needs to be a priority.

At the same time we need to be constantly cognizant of those that live on the edge of food insecurity. How do you think they’d feel about separating the self-anointed clean food from the rest of the abundance we have access to? The perfectly healthy soups, meats, or other products enhanced with a touch of color or flavor would be welcome in the stomachs of the perpetually hungry. The dash of a safe preservative to maintain product quality would not even be an afterthought to a mother giving up a meal so that her children could have enough calories to make it through a school day.

In the industrialized world, inner city food deserts present scant selections to local patrons. For many the best access to groceries is the neighborhood convenience store. If fruits, vegetables, and their combined products are available, they are typically not in the boutique forms claimed as clean and superior for consumption. The choice of spending a dollar on a presumably dirty apple or a bag of cool ranch Doritos is an easy one, as everyone from the website to the television commercial has said that the apple is a pesticide bomb covered in chemistry.

So who is hurt by the rhetoric? When appeals are made to entice dollars away from the affluent consumer using the bait of a foodie health halo, there is tremendous collateral damage. In reality, there is not clean food and dirty food. There is food that is planted, grown, harvested, and handled with great care, and respecting strict regulations. Each piece is an investment of water, soil, labor, fuel. and other resources. Each piece is safe, with rare exception.

We live in an amazing time of clean, safe, affordable and abundant food.

Should we support marketing claims that define an elite upper crust of products to capture the dollars of the affluent if they hurt others? Instead of scaring consumers with false dichotomies and baseless claims, we should be celebrating the safest, most available food supply in human history.

We should be focusing our efforts to place a bigger part of that abundance onto the plates of those that desperately need it, not manufacturing a non-existent risk to improve a company’s profits.


Kevin Folta is a land-grant scientist exploring ways to make better food with less input, and how to communicate science. This article was published with his permission. All of Dr. Folta’s funding can be found at

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