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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Cristie said...

So many great points you make in this post. I especially appreciate the specific examples you gave of the lack of nutritional value some nutrients have in isolation. Gave me food for thought.

chacha1 said...

This was very interesting and I appreciate the links, although I don't have time to go and read all the source material right now. Later!

I think that food marketers are among the most inventive people on earth. They are constantly coming up with new ways to sell us processed food. And we let them do it because it seems easier, or more convenient, or cheaper, than just buying natural ingredients and making our own.

I'll stand right up and confess that I buy Classico pasta sauce. I really can't spare the time to make that stuff from scratch. But it's a relatively healthy choice when you read the contents label. And it doesn't even make any health claims.

Choosing well requires constant vigilance, though. A major brand of tomato paste contains high-fructose corn syrup (why? is tomato paste supposed to be sweet??). Fortunately, right next to it is the store brand which contains TOMATOES.

People have to understand that "convenience" foods - anything that comes in a cardboard box or wrapped in plastic - are NEVER the most nutritious choice.

A hard-boiled egg is ALWAYS a better nutritional choice than a protein drink, unless someone has such high blood cholesterol that any dietary cholesterol will push him over the edge into a heart attack (and btw, before anyone pitches into me, cardiac specialists are reluctantly coming around to the view that dietary cholesterol has negligible effects on blood cholesterol in most people).

It really only takes one slow, attentive walk through the grocery store, comparing labels, to learn how to read them and to see exactly what you are getting. This would be a great educational activity for parents and kids to do together.

Becca said...

I <3 Michael Pollan! Great blog.

Elizabeth Jarrard said...

i agree 100%. Food marketers promoting processed junk as nutritious because of the individual nutrients is a huge problem. Eat real food, stay away from the middle aisles and you'll be on the way to a much healthier you. Thanks for another well-researched post!

Sarah said...

I loved Michael Pollan's "In Defence of Food", especially his rule about avoiding any food that has a health claim written on it. Mainly because that means that it comes in a package - you never see a tomato with a sticker touting its healthiness. Remembering that rule in the grocery store helps me avoid "healthy" foods in favour of truly healthy foods.

LB said...

I'm of two minds about this. I am definitely on board when it comes to the points made on marketing and always reading the labels. But what about things like fortification? My understanding is that for things like white flour, B vitamins and iron are added to replace the natural nutrients in wheat that are destroyed during the milling process, so it's not quite the same as adding vitamins to sugar water. Because I've struggled with iron deficiency anemia (which makes me feel more positively towards extra iron in my food!) I actually did need to pay attention to a specific nutrient in my food and not just general advice like "eat a balanced diet" or "eat mostly whole foods."

I also think it's fine for, say, a bakery to change a recipe to include more whole grain flour and then reflect that on the package. I'm not comfortable with health claims but I don't have a problem with "Now with 20% more whole grains" or the like. After all, doing something like replacing some white flour with whole grain flour or adding flax seeds to a recipe is something I do in my own kitchen.

I think the main thing is to not be taken in by the "health halo" and assuming that because something says "No HFCS" or "fortified with vitamins" that it's automatically healthier.

sarah said...

In his book In Defense of Food Pollan says that you never see a carrot or a potato with health claims stuck to it, because a carrot doesn't even have packaging. So don't be fooled by the "silence of the yams" (heehee); buy lots of foods without packaging. (More about Pollan's book here.) Thanks for your overview!

Ricki said...

Such a great post--thank you! I had not heard the term before though of course am aware of the concept, and couldn't agree more that individual nutrients are NOT equal to the benefits from whole, real foods. To the commenter who mentioned that it may be more acceptable when the B vitamins and minerals are replaced in white flour, my respnse would be: don't eat white flour. It's not a whole food--use whole grain flour instead, and benefit from all the nutrients that were naturally in the grain to begin with. And it will taste better, too!

Daniel said...

This is a brilliant article Kris.

Even consumers who you'd think would know better stumble on this. I read a post on a running blog where the author talked about how even fit, trained athletes over-focus on what he called "superfoods"--things like energy bars, protein powders, supplements, etc., to the detriment of their health. This is just another manifestation of nutritionism, but among people who should know better. Goes to show how pervasive the practice really is.

I think a lot of this comes from how it's very easy to sell Americans on trendy things and authoritative-sounding scientific claims. And that's what these foods are all about.

Thanks for another great thought-provoker.

Casual Kitchen

Daniel said...

Just thought of another devil's advocate point, one that echoes LB's sentiment.

Remember iodized salt? The practice of iodization (adding a small quantity of iodine to salt) did more to eliminate iodine deficiency in our culture than anything else. It used to be a meaningful public health issue. Look up "Iodized Salt" on Wikipedia and you can find all of the illnesses iodine deficiency can cause: goiter, thyroid problems, etc. It's also one of the world's leading causes of mental retardation. The article goes on to claim that iodisation "may be the world's simplest and most cost-effective measure available to improve health."

Is this an example of nutritionism too? If so, it's quite a salutory one.

Casual Kitchen

Starving Student Survivor said...

@Daniel: I use Redmond Real Salt. It is a natural sea salt brand that contains more than 50 trace minerals, including a nice helping of iodine. Iodized salts add the iodine because their processing removes it, but they don't worry about the other 50 minerals that also were erased. It's somewhat akin to the value of enriched white flour, where a few of the nutrients of the whole wheat were added back in after processing destroyed them.

A big advantage of whole foods is that they contain nutrients that scientists haven't yet discovered/don't yet understand. Were antioxidants and omega-3s as big a deal 15 years ago? They were in whole foods, but we didn't know so much then, and now we feel like we need to artificially add them to granola bars and the like. What nutrients are going to be in vogue 15 years from now? They're not in granola bars today, but they're probably in whole grains and fresh produce. If my diet sticks to those whole foods, I don't have to worry about the popular "health" foods.