“Nutritionism”: are you just buying nutrients?

Back at the beginning of the year, one of my colleagues, Janet Helm RD, posed the question: Have the parts of food become bigger than the whole?  Meaning: we obsess about the latest nutrient or ingredient that promises magical health properties, but we ignore, or even diss, the importance of the whole diet.  There’s a name for this behavior: “nutritionism“.  The term was first coined by author Michael Pollan, and he blames it for many of the problems with our food supply.

Here’s an example of nutritionism: adding fiber to yoghurt.  Normal yoghurt never contains fiber.  Most consumers have an idea that fiber = healthy.   So when they see “Contains Fiber!!” on the package label, they conclude that yoghurt with fiber must be healthier than other yoghurt.   There’s a catch: people believe, incorrectly, that food fiber looks like those stringy parts of celery.  In order to assure consumers that fiber yoghurt isn’t gross and stringy, a clever TV ad informs consumers that the yoghurt has special invisible fiber.  The fiberized yoghurt sells, and the manufacturer is happy.  Nutritionism makes money for manufacturers.  Consumers are happy; they think they’re eating a healthier product.  But did it really make anyone healthier?  Wouldn’t that be the point?

Most people aren’t nutrition experts and don’t understand the fine points of fiber biochemistry.  The indigestible plant material used in yoghurt – inulin – isn’t the fiber linked to heart or digestive health.  Those would be fibers like glucans from oats, pectin from apples and the unique fibers found in whole grains, vegetables, fruit and legumes.  Inulin is extracted from chicory root.  Manufacturers add it to food products for 3 reasons:

  1. Inulin dissolves easily in liquids
  2. It’s tasteless, flavorless and doesn’t affect texture.
  3. Since it’s technically indigestible, it can be called fiber, which gives a product a Health Halo.

Now that they’ve isolated the perfect fiber add-in, food manufacturers are playing catch-up, funding research of varying quality to try to prove that inulin has actual unique health benefits.  Maybe it does; maybe it doesn’t.  But the whole silly process is the perfect example of nutritionism at work in our food supply.  Hype a product by adding a bit of some Health Halo ingredient.

The result is a food supply overloaded with highly processed stuff, touted as healthy by virtue of a dusting of one or more added nutrients.  The list includes water, snack bars, cereals, fruit flavored beverages, drink powders, candy, bread, milk drinks and of course that fiberized yoghurt.  As Helm notes, some of the blame for this nonsense lies with researchers themselves.  Research that focuses on one nutrient is hyped in the media, and people conclude that it’s all about this one nutrient or that one nutrient.

Unfortunately, it’s expensive and complicated to do research that looks at the whole diet.  By contrast, it’s very easy to design some short term study that just focuses on one nutrient.  Since researchers need a paycheck, they need to keep doing research.  If these kind of single-nutrient projects are easy to design and relatively inexpensive to fund, that’s what they’re going to keep doing.  Recently I’ve seen studies that link disease risks to what is called a Mediterranean Diet profile, rather than to intake of one nutrient or one food.  These types of studies are at least on the right track, because in the end, it’s about the whole diet, not just one nutrient or one ingredient.

The media is part of the problem.  TV, radio and internet news outlets love to run stories about the latest miracle nutrient.  What to do?  Eat real whole foods.  Don’t buy a product because it has a bit of some Health Halo nutrient added.  Omega-3 fatty acids belong in salmon, not bread.  Fiber belongs in bread or vegetables, not yoghurt.  Vitamins belong in all our food, not in water.  Calcium belongs in dairy foods or broccoli, not a sugary snack bar.  ‘Nutritionism’ probably isn’t going away, but you don’ t have to let it affect your diet.

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