People already on the clean eating train rejoiced at last week’s news that Amazon lowered Whole Foods’ prices by as much as 43 percent on its first day as owner.
Organic Fuji apples dropped from $3.49 to $1.99 per pound.
Responsibly farmed Atlantic salmon was reduced from $14.99 to $11.99 per pound.
For middle class families, that news might matter.
But for low-income households, who don’t have the resources to make clean eating a priority, the rolled back prices won’t affect them.
The definition of clean eating, popular with a high class contingent of thin celebrities and lifestyle bloggers, is constantly in flux.
But at its core, clean eating means consuming whole foods as close to their natural state as possible.
That means little processing and minimal additives.
In a recent Vice article, Michael Easter writes that clean eating is a “wholly classist phenomenon,” or, in the words of his student, “rich white people shit.”
I agree that the term is problematic and judgmental because it implies that people who aren’t eating clean are eating dirty — including communities that don’t have the same food budget as Gwyneth Paltrow.
A self-proclaimed Lucky Charms aficionado, Easter also states that eating organic isn’t even healthier for people in the first place. He adds it’s practically impossible on a budget.
I think he’s wrong.
I visited four Walmart stores — the largest grocer in the United States by far — to find out if clean eating can actually be done on a budget.
Walmart is more of the everyday people’s grocery store, compared with a higher end and expensive shopping experience like Whole Foods.
Anna Mason, RDN, who has worked with both low-income and middle class communities, told Healthline: “My low-income clients would be intimidated by Whole Foods. I teach them how to make healthy choices at the places they’re already shopping, like Walmart and the 99 Cents Only Store.”
My $5 per meal Walmart challenge
Americans spend $151 on food per week, on average, according to a Gallup poll. That works out to $7 per meal, not including snacks or beverages.
While Americans are spending more money than ever eating out, most Americans — 77 percent — still eat dinner at home.
I attempted to create clean meals from Walmart ingredients for under $5 per person, which allows some money for a weekly meal out or snacks.
Walmart’s online flier for the two closest stores to the Healthline office in San Francisco, both in nearby San Leandro, was promising.
The second page of the flier led with the headline Farmers Know Fresh, and featured bright, plump produce grown in California.
Two smiling men from the Nunes Company in Salinas stood in their crops, holding a massive head of perfect romaine lettuce.
The third page was all “organically appealing” produce. Page four featured antibiotic-free chicken tenders.
It seemed like this was going to be even easier than I expected.
Zero to plentiful options
The first Walmart was a bust.
Packed with 10 aisles of packaged food, the limp, non-organic produce was squeezed in as an afterthought.
I shuttled to the second Walmart in San Leandro, where I found one sustainable frozen fish brand with no additives and locally sourced red potatoes.
I knew I could start to build a meal from those two clean staples, but still — only half of a clean meal for my two hours of effort?
The selection was vastly different at the Walmart in Mountain View and the Walmart Neighborhood Market in Santa Clara, both cities known more as being part of Silicon Valley rather than associated with Walmart shoppers.
The Walmart Neighborhood Market was a gold mine with plentiful fresh, locally sourced, organic ingredients displayed under large signs declaring them “organic” and “fresh and delicious.”
I slowly perused the store, tossing organic foods into my grocery cart and adding up totals on my calculator app.
I ended up putting some more expensive organic ingredients, like organic wheat flour, back on the shelf.
It was time-consuming yet simple to put together a handful of appetizing clean meals at the Silicon Valley Walmart stores that cost less than $5 per person.
Here are two meals and a dessert I put together with almost completely organic or locally sourced ingredients.
The foods that didn’t fall into this category — the mushrooms, onion, and avocado — are unprocessed, whole foods in their natural form.
The spinach was located in the organic section, but I couldn’t confirm it was organic or locally sourced.
Salmon hash: $4.94 per person
Roasted whole chicken with rice: $4.66 per person
Chocolate almond bark: $1.53 per person
This chocolate bar regularly makes lists of the healthiest chocolate bar options with minimal additives, but it’s not organic.
There were plenty of organic baking ingredients at Walmart, but they were more expensive options than the almond bark.
As a non-meal, I wanted to keep the price significantly lower than $5.
Clean eating is (likely) worth it
While certainly a challenge for the average consumer, our experiment demonstrated that it’s technically possible to eat clean on a modest budget.
But should you?
Easter dismissed the organic label, but according to research on pesticides and our conversations with experts, eating clean — whole, organic foods — is likely healthier than eating non-organic food.
How much healthier is still up for debate.
“Whole, less processed foods are more nutritious — period,” stated Dr. Fiola Sowemimo of CentraState, who specializes in weight loss.
“There is a distinction between the nutritious content of food and the way it was processed or grown — which is what the organic label means. The organic definition doesn’t tell you anything about the nutritious content of the food,” Sowemimo told Healthline.
There are studies linking pesticides to cancer and neurodegenerative diseases. However, there’s not enough science to definitively say that eating organic or clean is better than eating conventionally grown produce or antibiotic-free livestock.
However, that doesn’t mean all of the top minds in the country think organic is overblown.
Under President Obama, the President’s Cancer Panel released a report on reducing environmental cancer risk.
It urged Americans to avoid pesticides and other toxic additives in food by, basically, buying organic.
“Exposure to pesticides can be decreased by choosing, to the extent possible, food grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers... Similarly, exposure to antibiotics, growth hormones, and toxic run-off from livestock feed lots can be minimized by eating free-range meat raised without these medications if it is available,” the authors wrote.
The panel noted that while available evidence is insufficient to provide “irrefutable proof of harm,” “the burgeoning number and complexity of known or suspected environmental carcinogens compel us to act to protect public health.”
A report from the American Academy of Pediatrics, and supported by the Councils on Nutrition and Environmental Health found, “In terms of health advantages, organic diets have been convincingly demonstrated to expose consumers to fewer pesticides associated with human disease.”
“Pesticides are pervasive in this country,” Dr. Aly Cohen, a rheumatologist as well as an integrative medicine and environmental health specialist, said on the Intelligent Medicine podcast.
She encourages people to lower their pesticide exposure, since pesticides are linked to a whole host of issues.
“Buy organic produce and foods,” she recommended. “There are many harmful pesticides used in production of conventional vegetables.”
Cohen’s referring to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)’s insufficient testing, regulating, and policing of toxic chemicals that Americans are exposed to. While the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) limits the amount of the most commonly used agricultural pesticide, glyphosate, residue in food, the FDA’s job is to enforce the limits.
The Government Accountability Office found that the FDA doesn’t test “for several commonly used pesticides,” including glyphosate.
Sowemimo does trust the FDA to make sure that pesticides are limited to ensure there aren’t any gross health outcomes for Americans. Yet she noted that “exposure to pesticides may be more important in children vs. adults.”
She also pointed out that some studies found that kids who are fed organic food have fewer allergies and fewer food intolerances than those who aren’t, but there could be many other variables that are actually more responsible for that health outcome.
While Mason coaches her low-income clients on nutritious eating where organic isn’t critical, but integrating more whole, unprocessed foods are, she told Healthline: “Anytime that you can get as close to the natural source of things that you can, it’s going to pay off in the long run. Moving away from additives and extra chemicals — things we don’t consider food, is a wise choice. But is it more important than the vitamins in fruit? No.”
Clean eating isn’t “rich white people shit.” Clean eating is healthier, since you avoid pesticides and consume whole foods, and it’s possible for someone in the middle class on a tight budget.
But it’s still really tough to do depending on where you live, especially for lower-income households that live in a food desert or over a mile away from a grocery store with fresh produce.