History of ‘nutritionism’

You go back to the 1860s, 1870s, and people are talking about this idea of scientific eating, eating according to nutrients, not foods. And the interesting thing is the identities of the good and evil nutrients is constantly changing, all the time. So you go back to the turn of the last century, to John Harvey Kellogg, the nutrition guru of his time; and C.W. Post; and Horace Fletcher, “the Great Masticator,” who believed that if you chew your food a hundred times, that was the key to health. And it probably is: You will not get fat, because you won’t have time to eat enough (laughter).

In their day, do you know what the great evil nutrient was? Protein. Protein was the evil nutrient. That’s why they invented breakfast cereal, Kellogg and Post — to drive evil protein out of the morning meal and replace it with carbohydrates, which are now becoming evil.

So this been the American dialectical approach to food. But the modern history of nutritionism really dates to the ’70s, and I just want to tell you a little bit about that history, because I think it’s relevant to our predicament now.

If you go back to the 1970s, you find a couple of red-letter days in the rise of nutritionism. The first happens in 1973 and nobody notices. This is when the Food and Drug Administration took it upon itself to repeal something called the “Imitation Rules” in the 1938 Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.

The thinking behind it went like this: There are certain traditional foods that everyone knows, such as bread and milk and cheese. And when consumers buy these foods, they should get the food they’re expecting. And if a food resembles one of these standardized foods but does not comply with the standard, that food must be labeled an imitation.

Seems pretty sensible. We had this rule because there had been such a history of adulteration in the food supply, and people — as is happening now in China, they’re at exactly that moment where we were pre-1938 — were substituting cheap ingredients, toxic or not, for expensive ingredients.

So we had this rule. If you were going to play around with the formulation of bread or pasta or cheese or beer or whatever it was, you had to label it “imitation.” You couldn’t make something like no-fat sour cream, without any cream. You couldn’t do that; you’d have to call it imitation sour cream or cream cheese. And who would buy a product labeled “imitation”? We don’t buy things labeled “fake.”

So the industry was working very hard to get rid of that rule because it was really holding them back from doing something they were very eager to do. And by 1973 they had the support of the public health community, specifically the American Heart Association. It weighed in, saying, “Yeah, we’ve got to get rid of this ‘imitation rule.’ It’s standing in the way of reformulating the American food supply to get rid of fat” — the great dietary evil of the time. So with the support of the American Heart Association and other public health groups, they threw it out.

The second red letter day happens in 1977, when Sen. George McGovern, chair of the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, decides that he’s going to hold hearings and try to get to the bottom of this epidemic of heart disease that everyone’s scared of, and see if he can’t improve the American diet. He holds two days of hearings. He listens to the latest thinking on the subject, disregards some dissenters who also spoke — saying, “Maybe it isn’t so simple” — and he issued something called the Dietary Goals for the United States.

This was the first time in history where the government endeavored to change the eating habits of all of us, not just an at-risk group. And this had a lot of recommendations that are very familiar to you. The focus was very much on animal fat, which was the great culprit. And one of the rules, the most important one, said very simply, in plain English, “Eat less red meat.”

Everyone knew what he meant — which was a problem for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the entire food industry. And they came down on the government and this committee like a ton of bricks, with protests, phones ringing off the wall at the USDA and Congress. And the government was actually forced to withdraw these recommendations and renegotiate them with the industry.

Now what’s interesting here is what they came up with, the compromised language. Because in the transition from that first sentence, that simple declarative approach that George Orwell would have admired — “Eat less red meat” — they came up with a rewrite. And in the difference between the two, you see the whole flowering of nutritionism.

“Eat less red meat” becomes, “Choose meat that will reduce your saturated fat intake.” Now in some ways it’s the same thing, but not really. First of all, what does that mean? People don’t know what saturated fats are in 1977, not everybody. So it’s confusing, which is a great approach if you’re in the industry.

No. 2, it’s affirmative. It’s not saying eat less of anything, it’s saying choose meats that will reduce your saturated fat — eat more of something with better nutrients, not eat less of any food. And from that day forward, the government understands that it is never allowed to say eat less of anything, and that is basically how the government talks to us about food.

And the other main thing is we’re no longer talking about food, we’re talking about nutrients — which is great, because they’re really confusing and nobody knows exactly what to do.

And then in 1982, the government issued another report about diet and cancer, and the same rules applied. The epidemiology says that we can show that people who eat lots of fruits and vegetables have less cancer. We don’t know why, but the recommendations don’t say that. The recommendations say, increase your intake of vitamin C, vitamin E, even though the science didn’t yet support that and still doesn’t support that. You can’t talk about food, only talk about nutrients. So nutritionism has become the official ideology of the U.S. government and of the U.S. food industry.

Now this whole thing, this whole critique that McGovern was really voicing was a critique of the food system and the American diet. But what’s really interesting is how the industry, kind of in this wonderful ju-jitsu move, takes the criticism and with a few little tweaks, turns it into a brilliant new marketing strategy: Yeah, we get nutritionism. We can deal with it.

We’re going to engineer all these low-fat products. We’re going to change pork so it has less fat. We’ll breed the pigs. And it might taste bad, but if you’re competing with white-meat chicken, it’s a meat that you can use to reduce your saturated fat intake.

So the industry loved nutritionism. And it gave us things like SnackWell’s. Anybody remember SnackWell’s? Now they’re relegated to a little corner of the cookie row but for a while there, they had as many linear feet as dog food (laughter). And they tasted like dog food. They were all over the place; there was this line of basically no-fat junk food – cookies, candy, crackers and all this kind of stuff. And it said “no fat.”

And the industry realized right away, boy, those are magic words. If you put “no fat” on a food, people will eat a ton of it (laughter). Because our sense is if doesn’t have any of the evil nutrient, it’s a free pass.

And what happened? People got really fat on a low-fat diet ((laughter). The obesity epidemic and the public health campaign, “get fat out of your diet,” coincide. Quite a public health disaster.

What did we do wrong? Well, we didn’t speak about foods, we talked about nutrients. And we created, totally inadvertently, this whole new way of marketing: Eat more of healthy foods, rather than eat less of unhealthy foods. And that’s the path we’re on.

Now it gave us a lot of really bad food. Anyone remember the year 1988, also known as the Year of Eating Oat Bran? And now we’re doing the same thing with omega-3’s. This is a fish fat, and it’s showing up in yogurt — it’s gotten out of the seas and onto the land (laughter). It’s in milk, it’s in orange juice, it’s in everything, but you know, it’s got omega-3 and if you eat that, you’re going to be fine.

If nutritionism works, if thinking about food according to these premises and focusing on nutrients actually made people healthy, perhaps we could put up with it. Perhaps we could deal with the fact that it takes a lot of pleasure out of food and reduces foods to counting nutrients and calories and stuff like that. But the fact is, as I suggested, it has been a disaster. It hasn’t worked at all. So the question becomes, why hasn’t it worked?

One reason I’ve suggested is what called the SnackWell’s Phenomenon: By giving a free pass to good nutrients, people go there and eat a lot more food. If one SnackWell’s is okay because it’s low-fat, a whole box is probably better (laughter). One of the problem with SnackWell’s and a lot of low-fat products, is when you remove the fat, you discover that you’ve removed the flavor. So they have to replace it with something and what do they do, they amp up the sugar.

So SnackWell’s actually had a lot more sugar than competing cookies. But at the time, we didn’t think sugar made you fat.

So that’s one problem. The other problem may be that the science behind nutritionism has just been completely wrong. What we thought we knew about nutrition, and probably what we think we know today, is not right. We have gotten so much wrong. The whole history of nutritionism is a history of one mistake after another.

And the reason is that it’s really hard to do. The more you look at it, the more you scratch away at the façade of these confident studies — in fact, if you ask the scientists, they’re a lot less confident than you would think from the headlines and the newspapers, and the media has definitely played a role and deserves blame for this. But it’s really hard to understand, on the one hand, a food that is almost unimaginably complex, it is a living system, it’s constantly changing. We think of the carrot as being beta-carotene — well, there are 49 other carotenes in a very complex relationship. It is, yes, a pile of chemicals but it’s also a biological system.

And every time we have tried to take out the active ingredient in a food, especially with antioxidants, like beta-carotene and vitamin E, we find that as soon as we take that out of the food and turn them into a supplement, they don’t work. They absolutely don’t work.

And in some cases for reasons we don’t understand — beta-carotene is an example — if you give it to people in supplement form, it increases the likelihood of cancer. This was true — don’t worry — in a study of a group of Finnish drinkers (laughter). So you don’t want to throw out the beta-carotene.

So what we’re finding is that foods are more than the sum of their nutrient parts. And I ask scientists about it and they say, “Well, maybe we got the wrong carotene. Or maybe even it’s the carotene’s presence in chloroplasts, because you always find chloroplasts where you find carotene. We don’t really know.” So you have this mystery on one end food chain and that’s is the complexity of the foods, for which we need to have a lot more respect.

Then on the other side you have the human metabolism and digestive system, which turn out to be a lot more complex than you’d think. Just to leave you with one fact, did you know that in your digestive tract, you have as many neurons, or brain cells, as you have in your spinal column? What are they thinking? (Laughter.) Why do you need brain cells to digest your food? It’s kind of the Stephen Colbert approach.

It’s not that clear at all exactly why you need so many neurons in the digestive system, but it does suggest that there’s a very complex amount of signaling going on and feedback, and the same foods in different combinations different times a day behave very differently in the body. So you’ve got a mystery on both ends of the food chain that so far has thwarted any effort to really reduce it, to where we could say with real confidence, eat these nutrients and you’ll be healthy.

The other problem with food science and nutrition science is that — and I’m kind of fascinated by this and I follow it really closely, but always with a big grain of salt — is most of the research about the effects of nutrients on human populations is based on food-frequency questionnaires, and I urge you, before you ever do anything based on a nutrition article that you read, to take a food frequency questionnaire over the Internet. You can find these things. They ask you everything you’ve eaten over the last three months. You have to remember it all.

Here’s a sample question: “Over the past three months, how often did you eat a half-cup portion of okra, squash or yams. And when you did, were they fried in stick margarine, tub margarine, butter, shortening, olive oil, canola oil or nonstick spread?” (Laughter.)

It’s really hard to remember, isn’t it? And let’s say you have those yams or okra in a restaurant, where we now eat about half of our meals. Do you have any idea what fat they’re using? I don’t think so. With the result that these food-frequency questionnaires are understood in the racket of nutrition science — did I say racket? (laughter) — in the science of nutrition science as being off by a factor of 30 percent. That is how much they know that the caloric intake is underreported. People lie more about their eating than anything on surveys except perhaps sex.

So this is what we’re building the edifice of our nutritional wisdom on — a lot of testing and experiments, too — but all these population studies are based on very sketchy data. And when you challenge the scientists, as I’ve done, they say, “We correct for that. We know it’s off by 30 percent but we have these algorithms that help us correct. And I say, “Well, what are those based on?”

And they say, “We call people and ask, what did you have last night? And then we correlate that with what they said they had three months ago, so then we get a correction figure, and then we apply that to all the numbers.” Now think about that. To what extent is what you ate last night representative of the last three months? Not very. It’s really hard to get food data. You would need to be following people around with a clipboard and a camera 24/7, so food is really hard to study.

As I see it, nutrition science today is a very promising science. But it’s basically where surgery was in the year 1650. Are you ready to get on the table? (Laughter.) I think I’ll wait for the anesthetic and the autoclave and a few other things. It’s crazy to reorganize your life on the basis of such a sketchy science. Food is more than the sum of its nutrient parts.