Nutritionism: The Numbers Game That Doesn’t Add Up To Good Health
April 8th, 2009 by kerry · 6 Comments
So Seinfeld alumna Julia Louis-Dreyfus has signed on to flog frozen dinners for processed food giant ConAgra, who’s shelling out an estimated $90-100 million dollars to “re-introduce” its Healthy Choice brand of convenience foods.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Or is there? The new campaign strives for Seinfeld-like irony by showing Louis-Dreyfus waffling about whether to endorse Healthy Choice. And Louis-Dreyfus should be ambivalent; after all, ConAgra has a pretty troubled track record on labor, food safety and environmental issues.
Louis-Dreyfus, meanwhile, has all the obligatory eco-chic credentials, from the solar powered Santa Barbara house featuring salvaged materials to her hybrid and biodiesel-fueled cars. She encourages everyone to use CFL bulbs and reusable shopping bags. And, as she told Shape magazine, whose April cover features her fabulously fit 48-year-old bod, Louis-Dreyfus is a big fan of organic and local food:
I’m not out to mock Louis-Dreyfus’s apparent hypocrisy, here. What really galls me about Healthy Choice is what it represents: the triumph of “nutritionism,” that dubious dietary trend skewered by Michael Pollan in his bestseller In Defense of Food.
Nutritionism is the phenomenon that’s given us all kinds of super-duper enhanced foods: probiotic yogurts; whole grain cookies that are high in fiber; orange juice with added calcium, and so on. It’s a system of formulas, relying on various combinations of carbs, fats, proteins, minerals, vitamins, and other nutrients which–in the proper ratios–are supposed to be the key to good health.
And yet, all these numbers haven’t added up to a healthier nation–on the contrary.
So, on the 100th anniversary of our nation’s oldest nutrition program at Teachers College, Columbia University this past weekend, one of our foremost professors of nutrition, Joan Dye Gussow, stepped up to a podium to implore her fellow nutritionists to avoid what she called “the nutrient trap.”
Gussow, who’s taught nutritional ecology at Teachers College for nearly four decades,
recalled the gist of a conversation she’d had with a colleague back in 1969:
As Gussow noted, the end of World War II brought a flood of processed foods derived from new and novel ingredients:
Nutritionists in recent decades have focused on individual nutrients in their attempts to identify beneficial ingredients. But Gussow pointed out the folly of fixating on, say, beta carotene’s potential to fight cancer when there are some 50 other carotenoids commonly found in fruits and vegetables. Since many of these carotenoids occur together, Gussow added, “It’s impossible to say when you’re looking at someone’s diet, which one–or several–of them might be helping protect against cancer.”
What we do know is that plant-based foods contain a wide range of micro and macro nutrients that foster good health. This is why Gussow and her fellow nutrition professor Marion Nestle–and Michael Pollan, who acknowledges his debt to both these women–are forever telling us to eat whole foods, especially fruits and vegetables. Packaged, processed “food-like substances” containing long lists of gobbledy-gook ingredients will never form the basis of a healthy diet, regardless of whether they’ve been “enhanced” with fiber, or omega 3 fatty acids, or antioxidants. As Gussow declared:
ConAgra’s Healthy Choice website boasts that its new “all natural” entrees are high in fiber, contain antioxidants such as lycopene and vitamins A and C, are low in saturated fat and cholesterol, and free of preservatives or artificial flavors. To the average shopper, that all sounds reassuringly nutritious, no doubt.
And if you take a look at the nutritional information offered for each of Healthy Choice’s new entrees, you’ll see that the number of carbs, fats, etc. falls within the recommended range by our current nutritional standards. You’ll also get a brief, vague description of each dish–for example, the Sweet Asian Potstickers: “Get 6 grams of fiber from this delectable vegetable dish served on a healthy bed of whole-grain rice and covered with a sweet Asian-style sauce.”
Well, OK, but what are these Sweet Asian Potstickers actually made of? Who knows? The Healthy Choice website doesn’t bother to list the actual ingredients. Because it’s not really about the food–it’s all about the nutrients. The truly healthy choice is real food, not a brand in a box.