The Rise and Fall of Nutritionism Ideology

We should have known we were in trouble regarding our food system when in 1973 the Food & Drug Administration repealed a section of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 that dealt with “imitation” foods.  According to Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food:

The 1938 Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act imposed strict rules requiring that the word “imitation” appear on any food product that was, well, an imitation.  Read today, the official rationale behind the imitation rule seems at once commonsensical and quaint: “…there are certain traditional foods that everyone knows, such as bread, milk and cheese, and that when consumers buy these foods, they should get the foods they are expecting…[and] if a food resembles a standardized food but does not comply with the standard, that food must be labeled as an ‘imitation.'”

Hard to argue with that…but the food industry did, strenuously for decades, and in 1973 it finally succeeded in getting the imitation rule tossed out, a little-notice but momentous step that helped speed America down the path of nutritionism.

There you have it.  This relatively simple change allowed Sara Lee’s engineered bread-like edible substance to compete with the freshly baked bread from your local baker (see ingredient comparison).  More important, it allowed manufactured foods to take on the “nutritional orthodoxy” of the day and compete effectively against traditional and real foods on the grounds of latest nutritional fad.  I highly recommend reading Pollan’s In Defense of Food to get a better understanding of the “Age of Nutritionism.”

While I may be stretching the importance of this single event,when combined with other forces you can see with near clarity how we got into our current mess.  Just consider this short list of things that have also been happening over the last 30 years:

  • Concentration of agriculture around large-scale feed and live stock (consolidation of acres and influence)
  • Proliferation of monoculture crops to serve as low-cost raw ingredients in food manufacturing (esp. sweeteners and oils; consumed acres)
  • Federal policies and regulatory frameworks that favored monoculture crops and large-scale food production (pushed small, specialty crop farms to edge)
  • Tens of billions of dollars spent annually on marketing by leading food companies, as well as millions more on lobbying (convinced consumers to buy fake food)
  • Nutrient-based research providing health claims for “imitation” food products and fad diets (kept consumers from easily understanding what they should eat)
  • Plus…those things highlighted in previous posts on unsustainable food and industrial food

What you end up with is concentrated power in agriculture and food, the rapid proliferation and marketing of “edible foodlike substances” (thanks Mr. Pollan), a confused consumer base, and a complex problem to solve.

The question is what can we do about what appears to be daunting odds.  Tomorrow, I will post 10 Ways to End the Ideology of Nutritionism, which I hope us test more boundries and identify where we can concentrate our energies to have the biggest positive impact.

Stay tuned…


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4 responses to “The Rise and Fall of Nutritionism Ideology

  1. Kudos for nailing another reason why it’s so hard to find real, whole foods, and why legislation is not the short-term answer. “In Defense of Food” is so good that you could pull almost any page as the starting point for a terrific discussion. I’m looking forward to your top 10 list already.

  2. You raise an excellent point. First, the fact that imitation food doesn’t have to be labeled as such. Second, I’d add the fact that one can actually label the imitation food as real food through the brand name, eg Velveeta Cheese, Cool Whip, Real Cheese. I seem to recall that McDonald’s had to stop calling their shakes “Milk Shakes” because they contained no milk. Why them but not the foods in the middle section of the grocery?

    • Lee: Legislation will surely help…in the mid to long term, but I am of the opinion that we first need to rapidly grow sales of sustainable, real and/or local foods through alternative food systems that operate outside today’s conventional value chain. This will give the movement more leverage in pushing for change.

      Carrie: What the food companies are capable of doing is designing “edible foodlike substances” that provide sets of macro- and micro-nutrients that people are looking for. The reason consumers are looking for nutrients in the first place is because of the sophisticated and relentless PR, marketing and advertising by the food companies. This allows the food companies to develop “value-added” food products (vs. a tomato, which is hard to mark up) that effectively compete with real food at the nutrient level. As long as consumers continue focusing on nutrients, rather than foods as a whole, they will be at the mercy of the “nutritional industrial complex” (Pollan strikes again).

  3. Pingback: 10 Ways Local Food Has Changed My Life | Simple, Good, and Tasty

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