In recent years, there’s been a significant media backlash against clean eating, a health trend that involves excluding certain foods from your diet. Although there have been accusations from specialists that the movement has a dark side, clean eating influencers like Ella Mills and Jasmine and Melissa Hemsley reach hundreds of thousands of people across the UK.
Despite scrutiny from the press, clean eating has proven resistant to criticism. Not all media organisations present the same view of clean eating – some, like The Guardian, moved from positive to highly negative coverage over the last three years. Others like the Daily Mail presented a mixture of positive and negative coverage of clean eating stars during 2017. The ambiguity of mainstream opinion on clean eating is perhaps part of what has sustained it.
Individual articles have successfully critiqued aspects of clean eating philosophies. Yet reports on the inconclusive evidence behind staples like coconut oil and bone broth haven’t stopped influencers from making overblown claims about their health benefits. The media has had little success in holding clean eaters to account.
The press has highlighted inconsistencies in clean eating philosophies, but has failed to provoke significant change. For example, despite claiming that her diets aren’t about excluding particular foods when she appeared on BBC documentary Clean Eating: The Dirty Truth, Ella Mills still lists dairy, gluten, and refined sugar as foods to “say goodbye to” on her FAQ page. Although food blogger Anthony Warner and journalist Hadley Freeman have both highlighted Mills’s conflicting messages, the advice has remained unchanged.
Press criticism has mostly just altered clean eating’s branding, rather than its content. Prominent clean eating influencers are now distancing themselves from the trend – Ella Mills, Hemsley & Hemsley, and Alice Liveing have publicly denounced the term “clean eating”.
However, the diets promoted by them have not been altered. The rehabilitation of clean eaters under the “wellness” movement has not gone unnoticed by journalists, a skin-shedding transformation in which the core beliefs of restriction and misinformation remain intact.
Clean eating influencers have not experienced significant consequences following media criticism. Mills has retained 1.2 million followers on Instagram, whilst the Hemsleys have expanded into cookbooks and pop-up cafés.
Both Mills and the Hemsley sisters fronted a Red Nose Day campaign in 2017, suggesting their mainstream appeal has not abated. Moreover, the backlash directed at critics on social media indicates that clean eating still has an impassioned following.
Journalists’ ability to meaningfully critique clean eating therefore seems to be limited. Hadley Freeman has connected clean eating to the post-truth era; in a 2017 article, she suggested that the vilification of experts and the media has allowed the rise of food philosophies that are at best unproven, at worst harmful.
Until trust in expertise and journalism is regained, the media may only be capable of forcing rebrands and not material change.