Fast food marketing itself as “clean eating” has got to be one of the more curious phenomena of our brave new world. A descendant of the American organic movement from the 1970s, it is now being sold with particular gusto by “fast casuals” like Panera and Chipotle as a way for consumers to forego factory foods, which are increasingly seen unhealthy, undesirable “poor people’s” food.
“Clean eating” is derived from marketing originally developed by small, idealistic food producers and aimed at well-heeled consumers who could afford their expensive alternatives to industrial, factory farms. Simply put, “clean food” (a.k.a “whole food”) has been positioned as rich people food, and an aspirational American middle class wants in, none of which has been lost on the fast food industry.
But “clean eating” is, at its best, a marketing tactic that spreads awareness about the connection between diet and health; and, at its worst, “clean eating” pushes the movement’s anti-science and regressive ethos (which is similar to the anti-vaccination movement, another brain child of the coastal elites).
For instance, you can’t walk into Chipotle and miss their signs declaring that nothing on the premises is produced with GMOs. But even if we leave aside the truthiness of the assertion, who cares? The argument against GMOs has been as thoroughly debunked as the anti-vaxxer mantra that vaccination causes autism. (It certainly is no antidote for E. coli.)
Clean eating adherents can also seem willfully blind to the reality of how most Americans live, unable to comprehend that one cannot simply divide Americans into those who are “willing and able to pay for things made with integrity” and those who follow a “buy cheap crap approach.” The economic reality of the movement — most folks simply cannot afford organically-grown, locally sourced, certified non-GMO food — is not one that gets a lot of attention.
And when clean food’s thought leaders do respond to the very real issue of American hunger, their solutions are usually as laughable and as tone deaf as Marie Antoinette’s infamous food policy suggestions: Shall we not teach chronically hungry and malnourished children to plant vegetables? Or show the urban poor how easy it is to forage for edible, nutritious weeds on city streets?
No matter that study after study has shown that access to green markets, organically grown, artisanally-produced food and supermarkets stocked with fresh produce does not fix — or even impact — the epidemic rates of adult and childhood obesity, malnutrition and diabetes in our country. The unpleasant fact is that, statistically speaking, if you are born poor in America, you are more much likely to be obese, suffer from malnutrition, experience hunger and develop diabetes than if you are born to affluent parents.
In fact, the rare success stories suggest that the solution to obesity (which is considered the flip side of hunger) is massive government intervention, often in collaboration with private, dedicated foundations. It is when childcare centers and schools are required by law to provide nutritious meals and snacks throughout the day, limit sugary drinks, screen time and to engage children in frequent physical activity that obesity and malnutrition rates begin to go down.
Still “clean food” is being sold as a solution to our country’s food-and-poverty crisis, despite its rigid orthodoxy: GMOs, factory farms, and fast food — all of which often allow poor people to avoid hunger — are demonized. Produce must have integrity, defined as organically grown, certified non-GMO and produced within a 200-mile radius of your fork.
Amazon-owned Whole Foods notwithstanding, clean food people valorize shopping from green markets, buying directly from independent, small farmers, dairies, beekeepers, bakers and artisanal butchers. Raw, unpasteurized milk is considered a kind of gourmet health tonic while preservatives, antibiotics, pesticides and food additives are regarded as toxic.
And if all of that sounds expensive, it is.
So how does the fast food industry (the opposite of local, small and artisanal, existentially defined by selling food as cheaply as possible) get in on the “clean eating” trend? They can’t — not with a straight face, anyway.
Take, for example, Panera, which calls itself a “pioneer in serving ‘clean’ restaurant food.” Founded by Ron Shaich, the company’s current CEO, Panera has bet large that fast food consumer of the future will act a lot more like a Whole Foods customer than a Dollar Menu devotee. And Shaich may be onto something: In 2016, Panera outsold Chipotle by over a billion dollars. And, in 2017, JAB, a private German conglomerate, bought Panera to add to its portfolio of companies which include Peets, Keurig Green Mountain and, as of a few days ago, Snapple Dr. Pepper.
Yet Panera and other ambitious “fast casuals” are relatively tiny players in a very price-competitive industry, and so they are trying to use what advantages they can in the knife fight over America’s billions of fast food dollars with the big boys.
And thus “clean eating” becomes the fast food industry’s new frontier, and corporate-owned Panera insists that it serves “food as it should be” and petitions the FDA to help their competitors’ customers avoid confusion over what they want (or can afford to) eat. The FDA, according to Panera, needs to step in and clarify, via regulation, who is serving “real eggs” (i.e., them) and who needs to 'fess up to putting “egg products” (like, frozen, pre-cooked egg patties) in their breakfast sandwiches (McDonalds, Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts, among others).
Perhaps it’s ironic that just as those within “clean food” begin to question some of its inherently elitist and contradictory premises, many of movements’ best qualities — its encouragement of a sense of both connectedness to and responsibility for our natural environment and its finite resources — are becoming completely lost in mass market translation.
None of the original aggressive, judgmental pitches of the “clean eating” movement to the wealthy — that its food is healthier, better, purer or more nutritious than what is cheaper and mass-produced — have ever been definitively proved. What “clean food” indisputably has proven is its association with the American economic elite, and its resulting formidable marketing power as a brand.
For what its worth, the FDA may want to take a look at the egg sandwich question. Because fast food chains marketing themselves as “clean food” is every bit as confusing as putting “egg products” in a breakfast sandwich.
Samantha Gillison writes about food, hunger and sustainable development. She is based in the Bay Area and the author of "The Undiscovered Country."