Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Nutritionism, Your Health, and Your Money

You’ve heard of it. Maybe in a magazine. Maybe in a Michael Pollan or Marion Nestle talk. Maybe on a recent newscast about the lawsuit leveled at Coca-Cola over VitaminWater.

But what is Nutritionism? Why does it get a bad rap? Who is affected by it? What does it cost us? How does it affect our health?

There are many answers to these questions, and we'll try to address them as best we can here. As always, if you have more to say or I get something wrong, the comment section is wide open.

WHAT is Nutritionism?

According to food guru/Omnivore’s Dilemma author Michael Pollan, who picked up the term from scientist Gyorgy Scrinis, Nutritionism is, “the widely shared but unexamined assumption that the key to understanding food is indeed the nutrient.”

In other words, it dismisses a whole food’s composition to focus on its individual components, which are assumed to be most important to your body. A tomato isn’t necessarily valuable because it’s a tomato. It’s valuable because it’s a vessel for lycopene.

WHY is Nutritionism a not-so-good thing?

In many cases, there’s little research showing these nutrients are beneficial when found outside their native whole foods. The tomato is a complex structure, see, with its own biology and ways of interacting with other produce, grains, and meats. Take the lycopene out, stick it in a supplement, and there's scant evidence to show how it might affect you.

Have doubts? It’s understandable. Billions of dollars are spent telling us how wonderful certain nutrients are, no matter the form. Just remember, as Pollan highlights: “Indeed, in the case of beta carotene ingested as a supplement, scientists have discovered that it actually increases the risk of certain cancers.” Yikes.

Beyond that, there’s another issue. Manufacturers add nutrients to otherwise nutritionally bereft foods, which entice buyers to believe those products are healthier. The Lucky Charms with Calcium and Vitamin D? Likely do jack-all for your wellbeing. In fact, now that you’re eating Lucky Charms every morning, you’re probably worse off.

[Apropos of nothing, as much as I dig Jamie Lee Curtis for A Fish Called Wanda (and adore her husband), I’m pretty sure Activia is just yogurt with a weak laxative.]

WHERE can I find evidence of Nutritionism?

All over the supermarket, man. Specifically in the center aisles. More specifically, on the labels of processed food: “probiotic yogurts; whole grain cookies that are high in fiber; orange juice with added calcium, and so on,” as Kerry Trueman of The Green Fork puts it.

WHO’S pushing Nutritionism?

With apologies to Don Draper, marketers and advertisers.

Why? Well, buyers will pay more for processed food they believe to be healthy, whether or not it’s actually so. The food industry takes advantage of this like you wouldn’t believe.

Consider the granola bar.

Your everyday Kellogg’s Nutri-Grain bar, no health promises included, costs $3 for a box of eight. The ingredient list is gigantic, and four of the top seven are some form of modified sugar.

Across the aisle, Kellogg’s Fiber Plus Antioxidants Chewy Bars costs $2.50 for a box of five. With a name like that – all those nutrients! – you’d expect a healthier snack, right? Here’s what you’re paying 33% more for:

Chicory Root Fiber, Rolled Oats, Crisp Rice Cereal (Rice Flour, Sugar, Malt Extract, Salt, Caramel Color, Mixed Tocopherols for Freshness), Sugar, Semisweet Chocolate Drops (Sugar, Chocolate, Cocoa Butter, Dextrose, Milk Fat, Soy Lecithin, Confectioner's Glaze [Shellac, Hydrogenated Coconut Oil]), Inulin from Chicory Root, Vegetable Oil (Hydrogenated Palm Kernel, Coconut and Palm Oil), Canola Oil, Fructose, Contains Two Percent or Less of Honey, Cocoa (Processed with Alkali), Glycerin, Tricalcium Phosphate, Whey, Chocolate, Salt, Gum Arabic, Baking Soda, Soy Lecithin, Sorbitan Monostearate, Polysorbate 60, Vitamin E Acetate, Natural And Artificial Flavor, Zinc Oxide, Almond Flour, Nonfat Dry Milk, Whole Wheat Flour, Partially Defatted Peanut Flour, Soy Protein Isolate, BHT (for Freshness).

Mmm … Partially defatted peanut flour.

(All prices and ingredient lists taken from on 8/11/10.)

HOW are they getting away with this?

Federal regulation of food labels is misguided at best, and at worst, damn negligent. Otherwise, how can you explain VitaminWater?

Essentially, it boils down to this: while the FDA is a little cautious about labels making outright health claims (i.e. “Cheerios prevents cancer!”), it’s generally okay with labels that list food contents (i.e. “Pop Tarts! 20% Daily Value of Fiber!”). So consumers are tricked into thinking an item is healthy, when really it’s the nutritional equivalent of wall insulation.

Not to mention, according to Pollan, “The American Heart Association charges food makers for their endorsement.” So there’s that.

WHEN will Nutritionism change?

I don’t know.

I’m not trying to be flip there. Awareness is on the rise, MObama’s programs are receiving a lot of positive attention, and the FDA is trying to do better. So labeling changes may occur in the near future.

How effective will they be? Will they help spawn greater initiatives? Can concern for the greater good overcome the money thrown into advertising? Those questions are harder to answer.

HOW can I avoid being snowed by Nutritionism?

There are three big ways you can avoid the dubious health claims and high prices associated with Nutritionism:
  1. Buy whole foods. They’re healthier and cost way less.
  2. Read a product’s ingredient list, rather than the flashy claims on the front of the box.
  3. Enact change in a positive way. Cook for your friends. Talk to your school boards. Start sentences with, “Oh! You know what I read about CalciPuffs? They’re 0.1% added calcium and 99.9% recycled atomic cardboard.”

HOW can I learn more about Nutritionism?

First, read Michael Pollan’s "Unhappy Meals" article in the New York Times. He explains things far, far more thoroughly than I ever could. Then, check out any of the journal pieces written by Gyorgy Scrinis, a huge influence on Pollan, and the originator of this whole Nutritionism thing. Finally, head over to Marion Nestle’s Food Politics blog, which discusses the relationship between advertising, Nutritionism, and our health almost everyday.

And that’s it. Readers, what do you think? Did I miss anything or make any errors? (Please tell me if it’s the latter.) I’d love read comments.


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