Is it #eatclean or merely green sludge? How to sort the very best from the fad

Kale smoothies, homemade nut butters, lots of self-denial: a clean-eating furor has swept the western world in recent years with questionable health claims and expensive ingredients. But do the detox divas deserve the backlash?

Im standing in the kitchen, staring at a blender full of brown sludge with my name on it. Expensive brown sludge at that: the worktop is scattered with about 20 worth of ingredients, all impeccably sourced and beautifully packaged, yet somehow they have combined to create something that looks like newborn poo. Towering nearby, a piling of bright volumes mock my attempts: Clean Cakes, by Henrietta Inman; The Naked Diet by Tess Ward; Coconut Oil( Natures Perfect Ingredient) from Lucy Bee; Sarah Wilsons Simplicious; and, at the top, new volumes from the goddesses of the clean-eating movement Deliciously Ella Everyday by publishing phenomenon Ella Woodward, and Good+ Simple from sisters Jasmine and Melissa Hemsley.

It ten-strikes me, as I grimly scrape the sludge into a glass, that if you wanted a metaphor for the clean-eating furor that has swept the western world in recent years, you could do a lot worse than the kale and cacao smoothie in Woodwards new book. On the page, a tempting vibrant green; in reality, a dull beige letdown. Should you have been lucky enough to have dodged the torrent of green juice and nut milk that has inundated the media since the turning of the decade, here is the skinny on clean eating: its not a diet, its a way of life a line you may remember from the Atkins, the 5:2 and just about every other fad diet that has been and gone. Unlike its predecessors, however, it doesnt come with a strict define of rules. Its adherents might advocate largely plant-based, minimally processed foods, but, as associate editor of Slate magazine LV Anderson perspicaciously observed, in practice clean eating can entail pretty much anything you want it to mean.

Clean-living
Clean-living Cloake prepares a smoothie. Photograph: Jill Mead for the Guardian

What all the various clean regimes have in common, however, is a hefty helping of self-denial: Gwyneth Paltrows Clean programme, which, the actor-turned-lifestyle-coach reports, builds her feel pure and happy and much lighter, requires its victims to cut out dairy, gluten, meat, shellfish, soy, fatty nuts, nightshades such as potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and aubergines, seasonings, sugar, processed foods, and, just to actually twist the knife, alcohol and caffeine too. Though such details generally attain me wishes to mainline a sackful of pork rubs, the unbelievable popularity of the kale smoothie has convinced me to seem more closely at this newest crop of clean-eating bibles and even brave the odd brown breakfast myself.

Paltrows amazing cleanse lasts three weeks( 21 days that, I suspect, feel like a lifetime ), so Im pleased to discover that these proponents tend to be a little less extreme. Though some, such as Woodward, follow a vegan diet, others, including the Hemsley sisters and Ward, positively relish a little bit of meat, as long as it comes from pasture-raised, hormone- and antibiotic-free animals that have been raised on a diet that is natural to them. Indeed, the Hemsleys attribute near magical powers to what they call bone broth, more commonly known as stock, which they dub an elixir to cure ailments and fostering the sick.

They are, to a woman( paleo aside, men are thin on the ground in the clean-eating world ), big fans of what Ward calls naked foods stripped back, unprocessed and bare-faced. Happily for those of us who have taken it upon ourselves to cook clean, processing seems a fairly elastic notion for all concerned. Miso paste, tofu and coconut sugar, rice noodles and spirulina powder all pass the clean exam, and while Paltrow has a horror of fatty nuts, Woodward cant get enough of her homemade nut butters, admitting: I can, and often do, sit with a teaspoon and eat a whole jar at once!

As someone known to come home a little bit drunk and demolish half a loaf of bread and a jar of Skippy, to say Im unconvinced by the clean-eating argument is an understatement. I have just been to hear the words clean, detox or, God forbid, spiraliser at a party to march over, glass charged with filthy liquor, and begin demolishing the dearly held notions of people I barely know. The only thing Ive get in common with Woodward is a dog, and mine is nowhere near as glossy and gorgeous as hers, though he does prove astonishingly keen on her blueberry chia seed pudding when I lose my own appetite for it.

My
My body is a temple the ingredients. Photograph: Jill Mead for the Guardian

Im far from alone in my reaction there has been something of a backlash against the detox divas. The Observer restaurant critic Jay Rayner has rejected clean eating as a pseudonym for joylessness, piety, self-regard, self-delusion and staggering pomposity. Meanwhile, Nigella Lawson, a woman who has always celebrated the pleasures of food of all types, gently suggests that people are using certain diets as a way to hide an eating disorder or a great sense of unhappiness and unease with their own body. My favourite takedown, however, is by American comedian Jarrett Sleeper, whose YouTube performance of the actual daily food diary of LA Moon juice bar magnate Amanda Chantal Bacon has been viewed more than 39,000 periods in the past month. To whet your appetite, after Kundalini meditation and a 23 -minute breath set, the poorly named Bacon starts the day with a warm, morning chi drinking it contains more than 25 grams of plant protein, thanks to vanilla mushroom protein and stoneground almond butter, and also has the super endocrine, brain, immunity, and libido-boosting the terms of reference of Brain Dust, cordyceps, reishi, maca, and Shilajit resin. I throw ho shou wu and pearl in as part of my beauty regime.

Melissa
Melissa and Jasmine Hemsley. Photograph: Nick Hopper

In comparison, Woodwards list of essentials, which include chia seeds and Japanese tamari sauce, seems fairly modest though it hasnt stopped her getting her own personal parodist in the form of Deliciously Stella, the alter-ego of comedian Bella Younger, whose notion of a nourishing green juice is sticking a mint Viennetta in a blender. Younger says she was inspired to make Stella because she was tired of being made to feel guilty and inferior by everyones perfect living on Instagram. My own objections to clean eating operate somewhat deeper. I love the carefully staged social media shots of Gwyneth relaxing with a matcha latte, but some of the myths she and her fellow clean-eaters are peddling are less amusing.

Woodwards wide-eyed assert that microwaves are very damaging to the nutrient high levels of food may be laughable, but she is on to something when she says that eating healthily can become obsessive and compulsive in the way that lots of diets can. As Heston Blumenthal observed when asked for his views on clean eating lately: Isolating and excluding certain food groups often does more harm than good. Gluten, for example: though none of the big names mentioned are, as far as Im aware, coeliac, all of them avoid it, and the Hemsleys prefer to eschew grains altogether on the basis that modern commercial assortments are not what our ancestors would have consumed.

Ella
Ella Woodward. Photograph: Sophia Spring

Many of these volumes also propagate the myth that a diet of alkaline food is necessary to maintain a healthy pH level in fact, the body is perfectly capable of regulating it on its own, and nothing you eat will change this. Legumes get the heave-ho because they cause bloating, while quite a few of the authors seem to believe that eating peanuts including with regard to will give you cancer, though, they helpfully point out, other nut butters make an excellent replace, for three times the price.

Such claims, as well as outrageously expensive ingredients, stimulated the early clean movement an easy target, and with their second volumes, the Hemsleys and Woodward seem to have taken some of the criticism on board. Woodward has been keen to point out that the point of this new book is to demonstrate that healthy eating doesnt have to be expensive or time-consuming or feature obscure ingredients( though her store-cupboard essentials still include raw cacao powder, buckwheat groats, coconut petroleum and raw honey ), and the Hemsleys Good+ Simple have committed themselves to attain eating well even simpler.

Have they succeeded? Well, to an extent. Having cooked( and ground, and mixed) from all of them in the past few days, I think there is some good stuff we should all be eating more vegetables and wholegrains, less heavily processed foods, and less, but better-quality, meat and fat. Crucially, though, one thing thats missing from a lot of the clean-eating volumes is the message that we need to reduce our sugar uptake. As the Australian journalist Sarah Wilson, founder of the hugely successful I Discontinue Sugar campaign, says in her latest book, Simplicious, she has no time for the natural sugars used in abundance in many clean recipes. Honey, maple syrup, agave all contain high levels of fructose, the sugar increasingly linked to the current epidemic of diabetes, obesity and fatty liver illnes.( Oh, Deliciously Ella, why did you introduce me to the caramelised delights of the evil Medjool date ?) Though I can see many ideas from these volumes sneaking into my life, its Wilson who might just stop me reaching for that second slice of cake. So heres what you need to know: no food is clean. No food is dirty. Eat more whole fruit, and especially vegetables, more wholegrains and less sugar, whether it comes in crumbly white cubes or from a beehive. Make sure you enjoy your food, whatever youre eating. It may be unfashionable to say it, but the occasional doughnut really isnt going to kill you.

Arriving clean: the recipes

For those tempted to dip their toe into clean water, the following recipes are great examples of the best use of clean cooking a vibrant, vegetable-packed noodle salad from the Hemsleys, and Wilsons bitter chocolate tart that savor sophisticated, rather than virtually sugar-free( NB use a small, shallow tin with a removable base I found it advisable to grease it liberally, despite her instructions ). And Woodwards mango and berry smoothie is as gorgeous as the ingredients indicate( though I would make it with live yoghurt and water, rather than nut milk ). Her other smoothie? Well, in the sunny, positive spirit of the clean movement, Ill say it savoured as it looked, and leave it at that.

Cardamom
Cardamom and sea salt ganache tart. Photograph: Jill Mead for the Guardian

Cardamom and sea salt ganache tart
( serves 16 )

270 ml can coconut cream
2tbsp cardamom pods, gently crushed with a flat blade until the outer husks crack
tsp pure vanilla powder or 1tsp pure vanilla extract
100 g dark (8 590% chocolate) chocolate, chopped
Pinch of sea salt, plus coarse sea salt, to garnish
Berries, edible petals to garnish( optional)

For the crust
75 g coconut oil
4 tbsp rice malt syrup
150 g unsweetened desiccated coconut
1 tbsp raw cacao powder

Preheat the oven to 180 C( gas mark 4 ). To attain the crust, melt the coconut petroleum and rice malt syrup in a saucepan. Remove from the heat, add the shredded coconut and cacao powder and mixture well. Press the mixture into the base and up the side of a quiche or tart tin no need to grease it so that the mixture is approximately 5mm thick all over. Bake the crust for around 1520 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool and firm up.

Meanwhile, heat the coconut cream, cardamom pods and vanilla in a saucepan to a simmer, then turn off the heat and encompas with a eyelid. Allow to steep for 10 minutes. Strain the coconut cream mixture into a bowl, reserving 4 tablespoons in the pan for emergency use later, if needed. Discard the cardamom pods( or save to spice up chai tea ). Add the chocolate and salt to the bowl, whisking it through until silky and melted. If the fats separate and your ganache develops a chocolatey cottage-cheese appearance, just add the reserved coconut cream, whisking swiftly to bring it all back together.

Once silky, pour into the tart shell and refrigerate until the ganache situateds( at the least 2 hours ). Garnish with a pinch of coarse sea salt, berries and petals.

From I Discontinue Sugar: Simplicious by Sarah Wilson( Macmillan, 20 )

Green
Green goddess noodle salad. Photograph: Jill Mead for the Guardian

Green goddess noodle salad
( serves 4 )

300 g buckwheat( soba) noodles
1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
300 g broccoli florets or purple-sprouting broccoli, asparagus or green beans
1 medium green cabbage or pak choi, leaves finely shredded
1 medium fennel bulb, finely sliced
1 cucumber, halved lengthways, seeds scooped out with a spoonful and flesh chopped
4 spring onions, finely sliced
1 big ripe avocado, sliced
2 handfuls of fresh greens( such as watercress, newborn spinach, sliced lettuce or leftover cooked kale)
1 small handful of nuts( such as cashew nuts, peanuts or almonds) or seeds( such as sesame, sunflower or poppy seeds)
4 big handfuls of fresh herbs( such as coriander, mint or basil, or a mix ), approximately chopped

Cook the buckwheat noodles in a large pan of boiling water according to the packet instructions( about 7 minutes ). Use two forks to pester the noodles apart during the first minute of cook. When “they il be” tender, drainage and rinse under cold water for 15 seconds. Drain again and then toss in the petroleum in a large serving bowl to stop the noodles sticking together. Set aside.

Using the same pan, after a quick rinse, steam the broccoli( or other vegetables ), covered with a eyelid, in 4 tablespoons of boiling water for four minutes until tender.

Whisk all the dressing ingredients together in a bowl or shake in a jam jar with the eyelid on. Season to taste with salt and pepper, then drain.

Add the raw vegetables, spring onions and avocado to the noodles with the greens and steamed broccoli. Pour over the dressing and mixture everything together. Top with the nuts or seeds, toasted in a dry pan for a minute if you like, and the fresh herbs.

From Good+ Simple by Melissa and Jasmine Hemsley( Ebury Press, 25) Photography by Nick Hopper .

Mango
Mango and honey smoothie. Photograph: Jill Mead for the Guardian

Mango and honey smoothie

( serves 1)
mango, peeled and pitted handful of frozen berries
150 ml plant-based milk
1 banana, peeled
1tsp honey

Put all the ingredients in a powerful blender and mix until smooth.

From Deliciously Ella Every Day by Ella Woodward( Yellow Kite, 20 ).

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