By Harrison Liao
For today’s health-conscious eaters, it is all too easy to get lost within the maze of contradictory nutritional advice.
Nearly 80% of Americans surveyed “come across conflicting information about food and nutrition,” and 59% reported that “conflicting information makes them doubt their choices,” according to a 2018 study conducted by the International Food Information Council (IFIC). Although more people believe they are eating healthier now, what that really means is more confusing than ever, according to the same study.
That’s where Mareya Ibrahim — author, TV Chef and inventor of Eat Cleaner products – hopes to enter the fray. Her products are designed to wash fruits and vegetables more effectively than water, removing potentially harmful particulates and keeping produces fresh longer, according to Ibrahim.
“The only all natural, patented produce wash, Eat Cleaner® is the tasteless, odorless and lab-tested line of food wash and wipes that is up to 99.9% more effective than water in cleaning wax, pesticide residues and soil from commercially and organically grown produce,” according to the Eat Cleaner website.
She has been featured in segments on ABC, Fox News, the Food Network, https://eatcleaner.com/USA Today and other media as “The Fit Foodie” chef. She also has a new free Thanksgiving recipe book available to everyone.
Mindfully-sourced fruits and vegetables are a foundation of Ibrahim’s diet, and her new book, Eat Like you Give a Fork: The Real Dish on Eating to Thrive, shares the tenets of her nutritional strategies with the public.
Here’s what she had to say.
How did you get your start?
My family is from Egypt. I was born there. We immigrated when I was two, landed in New York, then moved to Colorado where my dad became a professor of environmental health sciences at Colorado State University.
That’s where I went to college and started my career in the food industry. I took a little hiatus and went to Europe to go to culinary school for a little bit, but I decided that wasn’t the way I wanted to eat or cook, so I came back and worked in the food industry.
I started my new career in Colorado, then moved to San Francisco, and I got my certificate to teach English as a foreign language. So, I went back to Egypt and lived with my grandfather for a year and a half and had an amazing time – just learned a lot about life.
Then, I jumped back in the food industry and moved back to California, where I’ve been for about 18 years now.
So, you’ve been around the block a few times.
Yeah, definitely. But I think the recurring theme has always kind of brought me back to the table (laughs).
When did you invent your food-safety cleaning product line, Eat Cleaner?
I started inventing almost 13 years ago now. I had just had my son, and my dad had gotten bladder and prostate cancer.
It was pretty devastating, and (his illness) came out of nowhere. We were all very concerned about what was going to happen next, and in his rehabilitation process, he had to have his bladder removed. It put him at very high risk of getting infection, and food-borne illnesses can be really devastating.
It’s also something my dad studied a lot in his own work, so when we got the diagnosis, and the doctor was giving him advice on what to avoid, he said, “Avoid all raw food.”
So, we were like, “Wait, what does that mean? Even a salad.” And he’s like, “Yeah, leafy greens are the biggest cause of food-borne illness.”
And that was like a rock dropping on my head. I’m thinking, “Well, shoot, these are the foods he needs to eat. He eats a salad every day, and now you’re saying he needs to not eat a salad?”
My dad had done research in the early years on the effects of pesticides on human health, and knew that there was something there, something potentially very dangerous. So, we applied that to our testing, and then as a chef I wanted to make sure that it wouldn’t leave an impact on flavor and pass onto your food. I had tried some other products out there, and it left a really nasty, horrible flavor. And I wanted to see if we can make produce last longer, because produce waste is such an issue.
It took us a while to get the patent and finish our testing, and my dad, as a scientist, was like, “We have to do our due diligence.” That’s really what sets us apart, you know, we have the data to back up our claims.
When you look at our products compared to others, it’s formulated in such a unique way that you get an added shelf life to your produce that literally pays for the product tenfold. I think that’s what makes Eat Cleaner so unique.
Did you grow up around cooking?
For me, food was kind of just part of my upbringing.
Being Middle Eastern, you know, food is very much the bonding thing between a family. So, shopping and eating was a daily thing. You know, you’d have your daily run to the market and prepare what you’re going to eat that day, instead of thinking days and days in advance. I mean, (there were certain) staples, yes, but not what the main meal would be.
And we were never just cooking for our family, there was always extended family. There were never less than 10 people at the table. Eating was an event.
That sounds fun.
Yeah! That’s exactly what I was going to say. It was the most fun part of the day. And I really feel like that imprinted on me to have a different attitude and approach to food, where you’re not just eating because you’re hungry. You eat because you’re feeding others, and you’re bringing people to the table, together.
Are eating disorders an issue with what seems like an intensifying focus on food?
I had some personal issues with food.
I think when you grow up with food as the centerpiece, and people constantly tell you, “Eat! Eat! Eat!” sometimes that can create problems. And it did for me. I struggled with an eating disorder for about 10 years.
It was interesting because, in that time, you know, it’s when I went to cooking school. It’s when I started my career in the food industry, and I really figured out a lot. I kind of used myself as my own human guinea pig to figure out, you know, what is it that’s triggering these things?
When I figured it out, and really started to focus more on fresh produce at the core of what I was eating, everything worked itself out. All of the gut issues went away, all of the anxiety around, you know, overeating or undereating.
It all just evened out on its own.
And that’s really what then lead me on the path of not just cooking to cook, but cooking to heal, and cooking to build health and a vibrant life. I think you can have all that without feeling sacrificed, or without feeling like food is the enemy.
Do you avoid certain foods?
My approach in general is really more focused on “what to eat” versus “what not to eat,” which I think is a little different and unconventional, because most diets nowadays are associated with what to exclude. So, if you’re vegan (for instance), you don’t eat any animal products. If you’re paleo, you don’t eat beans, and you don’t eat sugar, or anything with wheat in it.
All of these different diets are about exclusion, and my approach is more about what are you eating.
I came up with a strategy in my book, Eat Like You Give a Fork, that really focuses on what you’re leaving in.
I find that the Mediterranean diet is one of the best diets around. It’s proven for its longevity. It’s proven to lower inflammation. It’s also low in meat or animal-product consumption, really high in vegetable consumption, good fats that come from plants, and starches that come from single-ingredient grains like couscous, rice and farro.
I personally try to avoid a lot of fried food. Frying food is acidifying, and it’s not good for your gut at all. And I try and avoid anything with white ingredients, so that’d be bleached flour, refined sugar, that sort of thing.
I definitely steer clear of anything that’s an artificial additive or color. I sort of have this “Steer Clear” list, and that’s anything that’s hydrogenated or ultra-refined. I really steer clear of genetically modified soy. I think that’s a real growing problem right now with all of the plant-based meats that are out there.
I think this proliferation of GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) products is really dangerous and harmful to the environment.
What would you say is your food philosophy?
My food philosophy is to fill your plate with at least half of it coming from non-starchy produce.
If you start there, and you really eat the rainbow, it’s amazing how you can heal so many issues.
And if you can visualize your plate, I think the other half should be a quarter of good-quality protein — which can come from plants or from a high-quality animal protein — and a quarter of good-quality fats.
Fat is extremely important for brain function, for muscle tissue, to help prevent degenerative disease and to help with heart health. So, eat the avocados, eat the nuts, eat the hemp, eat the flax, all kinds of different seeds.
If you think about your plate, and those three sections, you kind of have the formula down.
What about the potential scientific benefits of GMO foods? Like in Pisa, Italy, where researchers found “genetically engineered corn has a significantly higher yield than non-genetically modified varieties and contains lower amounts of toxins commonly produced by fungi,” according to a New York Times article.
I’m very scientifically based, and I’d like to see that study you’re referencing.
Research is one of those things where — and I learned this from my dad who was a research scientist his whole career — you can dissect it a lot of different ways to prove your point. So, I never look at one study, I look at anecdotal evidence across different studies, and if I’m only seeing one study, I don’t think that’s enough to rest on.
I will tell you that food practices vary from country to country. So, if you’re talking about Italy, the approach to agriculture could be significantly different.
And I’m not saying that all GMOs — I mean, some things where you’re creating a more helpful product that could potentially be, you know, something that allows regenerative agriculture — I have no problem with that. I just haven’t seen it yet.
So, I think as we work toward taking care of the soil more, and regenerative agriculture becomes, you know it’s a buzz word right now, I want to see it put into practice.
If a GMO can fit into that paradigm, I’m all for it. I just haven’t seen it done yet.
Is it fair to say, then, that if we could “fix” the way we genetically modify crops, so to speak, that you would be willing to use and promote GMO products?
Yeah, I would. I would definitely do that.
Again, I don’t necessarily have an issue with genetic modification as a way to feed more people, and potentially sustain the soil. It just hasn’t done that to date.
If we can figure out a way to do that, and it doesn’t hurt human health — that’s another thing, I haven’t seen enough consistent data over the course of several decades to prove health effects one way or the other, so I think we need to do a better job with seeing how this affects people.
Are health buzzwords like “clean eating,” “GMOs” and “preservatives” problematic in the way we talk about them?
Yeah, they can be. A situation recently came up, actually, that made me laugh.
A blogger was all upset because we were using “acid” in our products.
It’s citric acid. Citric acid naturally occurs in almost every living thing, and especially in fruits and vegetables. And I think it’s very dangerous when you have somebody that doesn’t have any scientific background or food knowledge that’s blogging and miseducating people.
It’s very, very dangerous because people are using half-truths.
But also, you could ask 10 different people what “clean eating” means, and nobody would have the same opinion. By the same point, I think there are terms that are used that people think they understand but they don’t, like “organic.”
I think it is one of those loaded terms, where people are like, “I only eat organic foods,” then you tell them, “Well, “organic” doesn’t mean no pesticides,” and they look at you like you just committed blasphemy.
There is this incredible shift that’s happened, where people want to know more about their food source, and people want to be involved in that process. The problem is most people don’t have a scientific background, so they’re listening to marketing, and they’re getting half-truths.
So, I don’t know what to say about that. I think the best thing we can do is continue to educate ourselves but get it from sources that give the story plain and clear.
I think that’s where we have a little bit of an agenda happening. People in the private sector want people to listen to them, and then the USDA has an opinion, and the EPA has an opinion, but whose opinion is right? It can be daunting.
Can you tell us about the 90/10 Rule?
In my book, I talk about the “90/10 Rule,” which basically means that, if you follow my guideline for how to eat well 90% of the time, 10% of the time you can eat really whatever you want.
And that metabolic flexibility is important, because it’s like working out: You do the same thing over and over again, you’re never really going to peak. The same happens with your food. If you’re eating a little more throughout the week, you’re going to stretch your metabolism, and make it work harder.
So, be human. Eat the cake. Eat the pie. You know, eat the meatloaf that your mom makes. This idea that certain foods are wrong or bad or evil, it just needs to get out of our lexicon completely, because it’s hurting people.