Nutritionism: The Numbers Game That Doesn't Add Up To Good Health

Cross-posted from The Green Fork.

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 buy organic foods whenever they're available and shop at my local farmers' market whenever I can. There's something cozy about it. It's a very friendly environment; you get to know the farmers. Plus, it's better for the earth because the food is grown nearby, not flown in from some faraway place like South America."

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:

"You know, Ruthe, I was thinking about nutrition education; and I realized that it would take me about 20 minutes to teach ordinary people what they ought to eat if they wanted to be healthy. Less meat, less fat, lots of grains and fruits and vegetables, some dairy. The problem is that there are all those other things in the supermarket designed to seduce them."

As Gussow noted, the end of World War II brought a flood of processed foods derived from new and novel ingredients:

"...the push to invent new products to maintain the growth of the food industry and the emergence of television for promoting these tempting objects directly to the public, came together to create accelerating change in the food supply...

...if we had known in 1940 what we know today about degenerative diseases in relation to the macronutrient composition of the diet, it would have been relatively simple to teach people how to choose their diets wisely from the foods then available in the marketplace...

...Instead, those of us trying to apply nutrition so as to improve human well-being, have for years found ourselves standing ankle-deep in a flood of new products, desperately seeking to keep abreast of the latest news about the latest combination of ingredients that will make us and those we counsel chronically healthy.

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:

" is time for nutrition educators to start taking our own stand, insisting that whole foods not collections of nutrients must become the fundamental unit for eaters and educators as well as researchers.

In thinking how we might do that, I've personally had some success in suggesting that we use the term "indigenous" nutrients in our specifications which would mean they had to be there to start with and "nutrition" couldn't be achieved by just dumping appropriate quantities of the most popular nutrients into any old mix of corn, soy and sugar. But we need to go further than that. We definitely need to push for food, food that comes fresh into homes and institutions and is cooked so that it tastes like actual food. Simple, good tasting food that eaters sometimes have a chance to handle raw...

...As the devastating statistics indicate--the rising rates of obesity and diabetes, the forecasts that our children will have lives shorter than ours--we are threatening ours and our children's futures by how we feed them and allow them to be fed. We know just enough about the composition of food to know that, in seeking health, our only real choice is to eat actual traditional foods, not those collections of nutrients that the food industry will be happy to provide to us in a variety of forms, even as candy bars. And we know, therefore, that our most determined enemies in the attempt to improve diets will be the food companies that profit from selling all of us these unhealthy products.

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.

Ah yes, Mr. Pollan, the

Ah yes, Mr. Pollan, the champion of the people who showed us the inherent deceit of contemporary nutritionism.

This is, of course, while he (contrary to this blog post) tells us how great omega-3 or 6 or whatever it is fatty acids are on pages 5, 31, 37, 38, 39, 44, 59, 87, 108, 109, 125, 126, 127, 128, 129, 130, 131, 132, 134, 140, 141, 155, 165, 167, 171 of that same book, as well as a few more times in the notes for good measure. (Admittedly that's from a quick Google Books search, but, for most anyone having read the book, the list makes the point.)

The book was great and well written overall. His deconstruction of white whole wheat bread was a classic, capturing our moment in society perfectly, and should be read in freshman composition classes (or whatever they're calling them then) decades into the future. Yet the logic in the book backtracked and undercut itself a number of times; the omega issue was the most startling of those self-deflations for me.

This is to say we all have our pet hypocrisies. JLD's seem to be that she's happy to sell out what sounds like a good, solid, eco-friendly lifestyle if hit with enough cash. We get the Marxist critique and the Bernstein and Woodward-ian method. But given that there is a breaking point for most professionals living in a capitalistic society, the issue isn't to point out what an actor is doing is "wrong", but to see how they might best use this wrongness to promote something positive. What should JLD be doing as ConAgra spokesperson to help fix what's broken? Can her message be co-opted, warts and all, just as we've been able to do with Pollan's?