By Jan Hales, The Nutrition Bureau

In recent years, ‘clean eating’, ‘clean ingredients’ and ‘clean food’ are all terms that have found their way into our vocabulary. Whether it’s on food labels, in magazine articles or hash tagged on a social media post (#freefrom), the trend of clean eating is on the rise. So, it was no surprise to see clean eating feature at FNCE this year both in the Expo Hall and as a popular topic in one of the education sessions, in particular.

Led by registered dietitian Kris Sollid, from the International Food Information Council and Kavin Senepathy, a freelance health and food science writer, this session provided insights into what clean eating actually is and what it means for today’s dietitian.

Clean Eating is a term coined by the food industry, and is more or less a proxy for the important stuff people care about – what’s in the food, what impact does the food have on their health, and how might it impact the environment? It has no basis in dietary guidelines, food regulations or science, so for dietitians or nutritionists, it’s merely a marketing concept. However, it’s a trend growing in momentum within society and the media, so it’s important dietitians find a way to appropriately respond.

The speakers conceded that when it comes to the consumer, the definition of clean eating varies according to whom you ask – for some it might mean “free from potentially harmful substances or allergens”, for others it’ll mean “less processed and more natural”, and then for others again, it might mean “organically produced and good for the environment”.

Irrespective of the interpretation, a person’s definition of ‘clean eating’ is closely linked to their values, and is often linked to the perception that it’s a healthier way of eating – despite the science not always supporting this notion. With no clear definition of the regularly used terms ‘clean food’, ‘clean eating’ or even ‘clean label’, there will likely be potential for greater confusion (and maybe even distrust) in the future. For this reason, Kris Sollid suggested it is probably wise to stay clear of the word ‘clean’ wherever possible and instead be specific about the ingredients in a product, where it might come from, how it’s produced, and what potential it has to impact health.

For most dietitians, it’ll be about refocusing conversations, continuing to educate and understanding individual client values to ensure we’re helping them meet their nutritional needs, but also feel heard when they voice ‘clean eating’ or ‘free-from’ when discussing certain foods and/or brands. As evidence-based professionals, our approach won’t change, but knowing these terms are trending on food labels will certainly make our lives easier.

Despite all the above, in some circumstances a push for more of these products will be beneficial – for example, minimally processed foods are likely to be richer in valuable nutrients, and lower in saturated fat, sodium and added sugar, than highly processed products. As dietitians, our role is best placed in continuing to work with clients and food industry alike, to encourage adequately meeting dietary needs with consideration to ever-changing values in society.