Tag Archives: Nutritionism

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We should have known we were in trouble regarding our food system when in 1973 the Food & Drug Administration repealed a section of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 that dealt with “imitation” foods.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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Danimals: A Case Study in “Nutrient-Based” Marketing

Earlier this week, my post Experiencing Food v. Thinking Nutrients highlighted how “our instincts seem geared toward detecting sudden changes, while we miss the build up of truly life-threatening situations.”  This weakness is being regularly exploited by food manufacturers bent on making us believe that we eat for nutrients, rather than for the simple pleasures of eating.

This approach makes their job much easier, but creates major headaches and health issues for the rest of us, especially parents, who want to do what’s best for their children.  Much of this starts with making sure kids have the energy (food) to engage in all the joys of childhood, which is why Fooducate’s “Inside the Label – Liquid Yogurt Candy” post on Danimals drinkable yogurt is so disturbing.

Using pop star Hannah Montana to co-market the product (on a Disney web page), cartoon characters on the box, and promoting “LGG” – something I had never heard of before reading Fooducate’s post, Dannon marketing is hitting on all cylinders.  They go further in highlighting Danimals has no high fructose corn syrup, yet substitutes with three teaspoons of good old sugar. As Fooducate points out:

“The fact that Dannon emphasizes the absence of HFCS is another indicator of marketing to confused parents that suddenly think sugar is fine to consume. Both suagr and HFCS are bad in the quantities consumed by today’s youth.”

Dannon Shelf Dominance

Dannon Shelf Dominance

You can get an eye full of all of this on the official Danimal web page, including their claim: “Helping Kids Stay Healthy Everyday.”  You’ve got to be kidding me!  What’s worse?  Check out the visual breadth of Dannon products in the typical supermarket.

It seems the deck is stacked against us, but we have just begun to fight.  For example, my favorite part of Fooducate’s excellent and informative post, which follows the conclusion that Danimals could do a lot better, was the recommendation for using real foods to reproduce a truly health Danimals alternative at home:

“Here’s how to make a Danimal-like treat in 90 seconds:  place a cup of plain yogurt, half a cup of water, a few strawberries, and a spoonful of brown sugar into blender, and mix for 30 seconds. You’ll get all the benefits of Danimals plus real fruit, minus the extra sugar.”

I’ll drink (a drinkable yogurt) to that!


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Experiencing Food v. Thinking Nutrients

A funny thing has been happening to American consumers over the last couple decades regarding what they eat.  Actually, its not really that funny, and it reminds me of old “The Boiled Frog” story, which goes something like this:

If you put a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will leap out right away to escape the danger. But, if you put it in a pot filled with cool water, and then gradually turn up the heat until it starts boiling, the frog will not become aware of the threat until it is too late. 

Keeping in mind that this is a parable, and not factually correct (according to Fast Company), it still makes a great point; like the frog, our instincts seem geared toward detecting sudden changes, while we miss the build up of truly life-threatening situations.

Throughout history, humans have not needed to consult others to figure out what to eat.  We figured it out.  We learned what to look for, especially nature’s markers for “danger.”  And, we did it all without the benefits of industrialized food.  But, with industrial food’s so-called revolution, things started changing.  Like so many things related to food, I really like how Michael Pollan describes what has been happening:

“No idea [nutritionism] could be more sympathetic to manufacturers of processed foods, which surely explains why they have been so happy to jump on the nutritionism bandwagon.  Indeed, nutritionism supplies the ultimate justification for processing food by implying that with a judicious application of food science, fake foods can be made even more nutritious than the real thing.” –In Defense of Food

The evidence supporting Mr. Pollan’s statement above is steadily rolling in, including Marion Nestle’s latest post on Food Politics: “Antioxidants as a marketing tool.”

“Antioxidant nutrients are so important as marketing tools that they constitute their own brand, say British experts on such questions.  Apparently, up to 60% of consumers who see an antioxidant claim on a product label will buy it for that reason.  Despite lack of evidence that additional antioxidants make people healthier (and may actually do some harm), these claims are so popular that food companies introduced nearly 300 new antioxidant-labeled products into U.S. supermarkets last year…

Like the frog in the “Boiled Frog” parable, we can continue being slow-cooked by large food manufacturers. Or, we can wake up to the reality they have created, discount the onslaught of nutrient claims (and counter claims) associated with highly processed food, and begin experiencing the wholesome goodness of natural and organic foods.


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