Why Clean Eating May Not Be So Clean

Following this cheat sheet can help you choose healthier foods

African American woman enjoying a green smoothie with a bowl of green fruits and vegetables in front of her

Medically reviewed in June 2022

Updated on June 14, 2022

When you’re trying to eat nutritiously, it may come as a shock that some “healthy” foods can come with a side dish of potentially harmful substances. Among all the choices at the supermarket, trying to figure out what to pick and what to avoid can feel overwhelming. Inconsistent labeling can add another layer of complexity.

Here’s a cheat sheet that can help take the guesswork out of what to buy next time you go grocery shopping.

Minimize antibiotics
Many farms feed antibiotics to livestock to increase the animals’ size and meat production. This can be a problem because antibiotic-resistant infections are becoming more widespread across society. Giving antibiotics to animals when they aren’t sick promotes the development of resistance to these medicines, meaning they are less effective against infections when they’re needed most.

Why does this matter for you? Animals can carry antibiotic-resistant bacteria in their guts, which can be spread to humans in food. Curbing antibiotic-resistance in animals can help ensure that healthcare providers (HCPs) have antibiotics at their disposal to effectively treat these “superbug” infections in humans, should you or someone you know ever catch one.

What to buy: There are multiple antibiotic-related labels to sift through. Look for phrases such as “raised without antibiotics” or “no added antibiotics.” If a package has that label plus a “USDA Process Verified” logo, the USDA has verified the no-antibiotic claims.

Eat organic—and avoid synthetic pesticides—when you can
While eating organic produce may have some benefits, such as overall sustainability and global impact, their potential benefits for human health is still under debate. Some studies have shown that certain organic foods may contain slightly higher levels of nutrients like omega fatty acids and lower levels of certain toxins like cadmium (a metal found in synthetic fertilizers that has been linked to kidney damage and some types of cancer).

The main reason that many folks tend to buy organic foods is to avoid consuming foods grown or made using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. (Note that while organic foods are not grown using synthetic fertilizers, producers may still use natural pesticides and certain synthetic pesticides that are approved for organic farming. Many organic pesticides are less toxic than synthetic versions but they are not necessarily harm-free.)

What to buy: At the supermarket, you’ll see various versions of “organic” labels. If a food is labeled as organic, it means that it’s been USDA certified. Beyond that, here’s how to make sense of what you see on the label:

  • “100 percent organic” foods may have a USDA seal, and they’re usually single ingredient products like eggs, fruits, or vegetables. If a product has more than one ingredient, all ingredients must be organic to earn the 100 percent label.
  • “Organic” means that at least 95 percent of ingredients are certified organic.
  • “Made with organic” means that at least 70 percent of ingredients are organic.
  • “Organic ingredients” means that less than 70 percent of ingredients are organic, although the product may contain some organic ingredients.

Also note that “natural” is not the same as organic. Natural means the product does not have artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives, but it still may have been produced conventionally.

Keep in mind that eating a varied diet rich in fruits and vegetables is always healthier than loading up on processed foods. If organic is too expensive, eating a wide range of foods can minimize your chances of exposure to a single type of pesticide. Also, some types of produce have lower pesticide levels, such as mangoes, pineapples, and other fruits with thick peels. Other types of produce—like cabbage and cauliflower—require less pesticide because they naturally repel pests.

Seafood is good; mercury is bad
Some fish contain high amounts of mercury in the form of methylmercury. This can cause neurological damage, especially in fetuses and young children. But fish is a great source of protein, healthy fats like omega-3s, and other nutrients, so you do want to incorporate them into your diet.

What to buy: Aim for fish with lower mercury levels like wild salmon, sardines, mussels, rainbow trout, and Atlantic mackerel, and minimize or avoid those with consistently high levels, like shark, swordfish, tilefish, and king mackerel.

Your food containers may have potentially harmful chemicals
How you store your food makes a difference, particularly for plastics. While many companies are now producing containers free of bisphenol A (BPA), this chemical may be found in a wide range of plastic items, including the internal coating of canned foods, plastic water bottles, baby bottles, and food storage containers. While BPA has been linked to type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and fertility problems, its direct effect on human health has not been proven.

What to buy: The main route of exposure to BPA is through your diet. Minimizing the use of canned or processed foods or buying cans labeled “BPA-free” may lower your exposure to it. Store your food in BPA-free containers, such as glass, porcelain, stainless steel, or those labeled “BPA-free.” Because heat may break down containers that contain BPA and allow it to leach into your food, do not microwave food in plastic or put plastic in the dishwasher.

Article sources open article sources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Where resistance spreads: Food Supply. Last updated November 22, 2021.
Mie A, Andersen HR, Gunnarsson S, et al. Human health implications of organic food and organic agriculture: a comprehensive review. Environ Health. 2017 Oct 27;16(1):111.
Vigar V, Myers S, Oliver C, et al. A Systematic Review of Organic Versus Conventional Food Consumption: Is There a Measurable Benefit on Human Health? Nutrients. 2019 Dec 18;12(1):7.
Mayo Clinic. Nutrition and healthy eating. Last updated April 22, 2022.
Miles McEvoy. US Department of Agriculture. Organic 101: What the USDA Organic Label Means. Last updated March 13, 2019.
University of New Hampshire. Are organic pesticides safer for my garden? Last updated July 19, 2019.
National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Bisphenol A (BPA). Last updated November 26, 2021.
Mayo Clinic. What is BPA, and what are the concerns about BPA? Last updated March 8, 2022.

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