LET’S ASK MARION: DO WE REALLY NEED SCIENTIFICALLY ENGINEERED “SUPERFOODS”?

(With a click of her mouse, EatingLiberally’s kat corners Dr. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Food Politics and What to Eat:)

kat: The annual Institute of Food Technologists convention just unveiled the latest batch of "nutraceutical" novelty foods, such as brain-boosting brownies and cheese cubes that strengthen your immune system. Meanwhile, fruits and vegetables are loaded with all kinds of phytonutrients and antioxidants that provide the same benefits (or better) naturally.

So why do food scientists devote so much effort and expense to fabricating these things? I'm not saying that a cholesterol-lowering yogurt isn't a boon to mankind, but wouldn't it be easier to, you know, eat more fruits, whole grains, and vegetables?

Dr. Nestle: Ah yes. Miracles of food technology. This is about marketing food products, not health. If you are in the food business, your job is to make money. If your company is publicly traded, your job is to make money for stockholders and you have to please Wall Street--or else. As I'm constantly repeating, we already have 3900 calories a day available in our food supply for every man, woman, and child in the country--roughly twice what we need. So the competition is absurd.

What to do? Make new junk foods because the ingredients are cheap and you can add lots of value. But how to distinguish one product from another? Make them look healthy. So food technologists work hard to create products that might have some small health benefit--if people eat enough of the products AND make sure the rest of their diet is healthy. Best of all, companies can advertise the "improved" junk foods with health claims, and health claims are well established to help sell foods.

It's hard to add value to fruits and vegetables and whole grains and one carrot is much like another so you can't get added value out of the brand. This is really all about marketing. And you don't need food products to eat healthfully. You know my mantra: eat less, move more, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, and don't eat too much junk food (even if it has a health claim).