With lifestyle diseases so rampant today, shouldn’t we turn our attention to clean and safe eating practices, asks GEETA PADMANABHAN

Watch carefully what you eat, said Anantha Sayanam, coordinator, Safe Food Alliance and founder-volunteer, Restore — a not-for-profit organic retail outlet. That's “clean eating”, right? Call it “safe eating”, he corrected me. But “clean eating” is the current buzzword — routinely tagged to tweets, found in blogs, posted on Instagram and Facebook, and seen on television screens. Is it a diet? A trendy lifestyle? A passing fancy?

Clean food is a simple concept; it's what eating was always about, said Dr. David Katz, Director, Yale University Prevention Research Centre. “Food that's clean is food that's for the most part real, not encumbered with things that compromise health: artificial flavourings, artificial colourings, sugar substitutes.”

Eat locally-grown, organic food, says clean eating pioneer, chef Ric Orlando in his book We Want Clean Food. This food doesn't need long commutes, so is less cruel on the environment. Look for natural chicken, sustainable seafood, grass-fed cow's milk. Fry food with non-genetically modified oils.

Ingredient awareness

Clean eating is also seen as ingredient awareness. It is the antidote to the argument that population is increasing, land for growing food is shrinking; therefore walk into labs to “create” food, or “augment” food that is average in nutrients. So you have cornflakes with calcium, biscuits with protein, beverages with vitamins A-Z, bread with probiotics. We get packaged food with a list of ingredients we have no clue about. Books such as Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, the documentary Food, Inc. and the wide coverage given to Michelle Obama's healthy eating campaign (grow your own food, buy food at the local farmers' markets) have tried to check this trend.

You can't deny clean eating equals good health. Heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes have all been traced to what goes into what we eat. Ivy Larson, co-author of Clean Cuisine claims her multiple sclerosis symptoms were lessened when she went on a clean diet of whole foods and no packaged items. Start with one “clean” meal a day, she writes. Stock fruits and vegetables — even frozen ones — for a quick and safe meal. Buy food that has the shortest “ingredients” list.

Not a new thought

“Safe eating is a lifestyle, rather lifestyle correction,” is Ananthoo's explanation. New age, non-communicable diseases are called lifestyle diseases (NCD). Safe eating is correcting one's alienation and understanding of food and food habits. It is getting close to the production, processing and consumption of food. When you do that, you automatically set right your diet. Not a new thought at all, he points out. Full-length epic books were written about safe eating 3000 years ago. Ashtanga Hrudaya by Vaag Bhatt was one. Ayurveda has dincharyam, ritucharyam and diets for various ailments. Treatment and medication through food was tried by our civilisation long ago.

For forty-five minutes this self-health promoter shocked the audience at a Residents' Association meet with details of what goes into the processed foods we buy, what is done to keep imported fruits fresh, how fruit/vegetable growers poison their produce to increase shelf life. “I once distributed magnifying glasses,” he said, “and asked the audience to read the ingredients list on packaged food. I try to bring a quick insight into food, diet habits and how industrialisation of food is spinning out of control.” Safe food is a win-win proposition, he said. “Your insistence on healthy nutritious food results in best production practices and better livelihoods for farmers.”

Eat traditional food, go organic, do what you can to consume safe food, was Anantha's mantra to the crowd. High residues of toxic chemicals in fertilizers and pesticides are left over in the produce. More harm is added through additives, carcinogenic colours and un-named preservatives. “Both sugar and jaggery come from the same cane, but the process makes one harmful, the other safe.”

At the end of the meet, a complete meal of millet dishes — Saamai Kootanchoru, Thinai sweet (jaggery) pongal, Varagu sambar rice, Samai curd rice, Keerai masiyal and paanagam — was served by Nalla Keerai volunteers. Yummy!