You asked, we answered! Find out which staple items are clean and which are not—and where to buy them. Making over your diet can be hard, so we're here to help you find the best clean ingredients to stock your pantry and fridge with. While some common foods might be a big no-no while clean eating, there are plenty of suggestions and alternatives to help you enjoy your favorites without ruining your diet.
When you’re following a clean eating diet, you’re aiming to eat foods that are as close to their natural state as possible—meaning little to no processing. Naturally (pun intended), as your plate gets cleaner, you’re bound to start cutting out added sugars from your diet, which is always a good thing. But, there’s nothing wrong with adding a little sweetness to your cooking from time to time, whether to soften the bite from a homemade vinaigrette or add a glaze to salmon. With all the confusion around natural sweeteners and types of sugar out there (stevia, brown rice syrup, turbinado sugar, ahh!), we're going to make it real simple for you: There are two sweeteners that we recommend when following a Clean Eating diet: raw honey and pure 100% maple syrup.
Credit: Photo: Brian Woodcock; Styling: Blakeslee Wright Giles
Unfortunately, bread can be a tricky food for determining “cleanliness.” Most of the bread on grocery store shelves isn’t clean. Those breads are filled with preservatives and chemicals that help them maintain freshness for longer than a loaf of bread should ever be edible. Think about it: Why do they last more than a month?
Good news! There are options out there. You need to buy good bread from your local bakery (or from the bakery in your grocery store) for it to be truly clean. And don’t forget about the freezer section. Some great, whole-grain, clean breads live in the freezer section, because they don’t have the preservatives to sit at room temp very long. One of our favorite clean-eating breads: Food for Life’s Ezekiel 4:9.
Grains: They’re not inherently bad for you, we promise. The right ones are actually very good for you. The trick to eating clean whole grains though is to stick to whole grains such as quinoa, brown rice, farro, and oats. Shop the bulk section at stores such as Whole Foods or Sprouts. If your store doesn’t have a bulk section, find the packages that contain one ingredient—the grain itself. Avoid any flavoring packets, added sodium, preservatives, or sugars.
We love canned beans for their ability to punch up busy weeknight meals, add protein and fiber to salads and soups, and, simply, for the convenience factor. But are canned beans clean?
Yes, when you opt for the no-salt-added, organic versions. Those two factors means it’s likely that the ingredient list will be simple and more straightforward than canned varieties that are heavily laden with sodium or swimming in a mysterious flavored sauce.
When it comes to eating clean yogurt, cheese, milk, and other dairy foods, it’s extremely helpful to know how to navigate the dairy section in a grocery store. Avoid all low-fat, 1/3-less-fat, and pre-shredded cheeses. Processed cheese products are a no-go, clearly. And you probably want to steer clear of any flavored cheese products, such as herbed goat cheese spreads or honey-swirled cream cheese.
Turn to your local farmers’ market instead. For the cleanest cheese varieties, seek out local dairy farmers who sell products made with locally-raised cow, sheep, and goat milk.
Agave syrup is a highly-processed sugar alternative. It’s about 1.5 times sweeter than sugar, and it is made from the same plant as tequila. If we were all just buying sap from the agave plant, then we’d have a different story. Instead, agave goes through an enzymatic process that converts starches to fructose. It has a similar profile to high fructose corn syrup but is actually much sweeter than table sugar. If you plan to cook with it, use less. It also has more calories per tablespoon than sugar (60 calories versus 49 calories in sugar), but because it has a more concentrated level of sweetness you often don’t have to use as much.
Bottom line: Agave is a sweetener, and like all sweeteners, it should be consumed in moderation. If you’re looking for a clean sugar option, we suggest raw honey or 100% maple syrup.
Look: We want badly to tell you that yes, alcohol is clean. But it isn’t. It isn’t exactly dirty (though maybe it is a little dirty when we’re talking frozen daiquiris on Bourbon Street), but it can’t be considered clean. One of our core principles to clean eating is to make sure you’re drinking enough water and are properly hydrated, and alcohol sort of defeats this. Plus, don’t forget the empty calories.
That doesn’t mean alcohol can’t be a part of an overall clean approach to eating, however. It just means it needs to be enjoyed in moderation and that you can make smarter choices in the spectrum: Wine would be on the cleaner end of the clean eating scale versus something like, say, beer or a cocktail.
Canola oil is a versatile, heart-healthy fat. We utilize it in the Cooking Light Test Kitchen for many reasons: its high smoke point makes it good for sautéing; its neutral flavor and light body make it great as a partial sub for butter in baking.
Canola oil is highly processed though—but most cooking fats undergo at least minimal processing before finding their way into your kitchen. Butter doesn’t come straight from the cow; it has to be milked, strained, and churned. Coconuts, olives, almonds, peanuts—these all have to be pressed and extracted. Refined versions of these go through even more processing to remove impurities, making them more stable and suitable for high-heat cooking.
When shopping for canola oil, look for the non-GMO verified stamp, or buy organic.