Today, the final day of our book giveaway for Gyorgy Scrinis’s Nutritionism:The Science and Politics of Dietary Advice, we have an interview with Dr. Scrinis in which he discusses the limitations of nutritionism, the “nutritional gaze,” and how to correct popular conceptions of nutrition.
How does margarine exemplify the limitations of nutritionism?
Margarine is one of the few highly processed foods that many nutrition experts have promoted—and in some cases continue to promote—as a healthy food, or at least as healthier than butter. It illustrates their willingness to believe in the truth of their nutritional hypotheses, to the point where this overrides other ways of evaluating food quality, but also overrides the sensual and cultural significance of butter. Margarine manufacturers worked this out decades ago, and have refined the art of nutritionally engineering their products so as seduce those nutrition experts in awe of polyunsaturated fats, reduced fat foods, omega-3 fats, and cholesterol-lowering plant sterols.
What are the political consequences of nutritionism?
One of the ideological functions of nutritionism is that it is so faithfully serves the interests of the food industry. Nutritionism provides the rationale for the production of nutritional commodities, such as nutrient-fortified food products. But it also helps to construct the types of subjects—nutriticentric subjects and consumers—that desire and demand these nutritional commodities.
Most nutritional messages we now receive are in the form of nutrition and health claims on food labels in food advertisements. These nutritional marketing create what I call a ‘nutritional façade’ around a food product, one designed to conceal the character and the quality of a food and its ingredients.
These nutritional marketing messages present the most simplified, exaggerated, and decontextualized forms of nutritional knowledge, and they overwhelm any more nuanced or qualified dietary advice offered by nutrition experts. This is the era of corporate nutritionism, in which food corporations have taken over from nutrition experts, government agencies, and public health institutions as the primary promoters of nutritionism.
The book includes a Nutritionism and Food Quality Lexicon in the appendix containing definitions of a number of terms you have coined. What is the ‘nutritional gaze’, the ‘nutrient treadmill’, or the ‘perception of nutrient scarcity’?
The nutritional gaze borrows from Foucault’s notion of the medical or clinical gaze. It is a way of looking at food—and of looking through food—as a collection of nutrients. It is employed by nutrition experts when they gaze and evaluate foods and dietary patterns. But the nutritional gaze is also a way of looking that we employ as individual shoppers and eaters when we look through a food to its nutrient components, or scan the nutritional claims or information on food labels.
The nutrient treadmill is the imperative to keep up with the latest nutrient fetishes and trends. Consumers may be caught on this treadmill, but so are food manufacturers who feel compelled to engineer the latest wonder-nutrients or food components into their products, such as omega-3 fats or antioxidants.
The perception of nutrient scarcity refers to the anxieties and often exaggerated concerns of individuals that not only highly processed foods, but even fresh, whole foods, no longer contain the adequate quantities of nutrient we require for good or ‘optimal’ health. This perception first emerged after the discovery of vitamins in the early twentieth century, but is now being exacerbated by the proliferation of supposedly health-enhancing nutrients that are somehow scarce in everyday foods and in our over-abundant food supply.
So should dietary advice be focused on foods instead of nutrients?
Dietary recommendations regarding the kinds of foods we should eat have long existed alongside nutricentric advice. The Food Guide Pyramid released in 1992 is the best-known example of such food-based guides. But the Food Pyramid was itself merely a way of communicating nutrient-level advice: carbs at the bottom, proteins in the middle, and fats on top. Such food guides have also typically only referred to whole foods, rather than representing foods in the various states or levels of processing in which we consume them. In this respect food guides such as the Food Pyramid have been complicit with the way nutritionism remains silent about—or conceals—the level of processing of the foods typically found on supermarket shelves.
We need instead to develop our food quality literacy, and for that purpose I propose ways of distinguishing types of foods based on the level and type of processing they’ve been subjected to. This sort of understanding of food quality may be more important than—though does not replace—nutritional knowledge. Rather we need a new paradigm—a food quality paradigm—within which to generate and interpret nutritional knowledge differently, and to integrate this knowledge with food production quality, cultural-traditional knowledge, and sensual-practical experience.