Michael Pollan devotes a chapter of In Defense of Food to defining the notion of “nutritionism,” which we’re to distinguish from nutrition. Whereas the latter is a scientific discipline, the professor of journalism explains, “As the ‘-ism’ suggests, [nutritionism] is not a scientific subject but an ideology.” This ideology rests on the premise that “Foods are essentially the sum of their nutrient parts” and several other premises which flow from this first one.
Pollan argues that because we can’t see nutrients, in the nutritionist view, “it falls to scientists…to explain the hidden reality of foods to us. In form this is a quasireligious idea, suggesting the visible world is not the one that really matters, which implies the need for a priesthood.” The references to religion are a bit odd, given that Pollan will later take nutrition science to task for changing its mind. More importantly, though, the need for expert help doesn’t arise so much from the focus on nutrients as the decision to care about the health consequences of our dietary choices. If I wanted to know whether white rice or brown rice would make for a healthier meal, I suppose I could get all my friends together, assign half of them to eat white rice and half to eat brown rice and then record their health outcomes over the course of the next few years. No experts required! Of course, that would take a long time, I’d probably have a pretty small sample size, and people would stop being friends with me. So I’d prefer to direct the question to the “priesthood,” even though I’d be thinking about foods, which (unlike nutrients) I can see.
Another assumption of nutritionism, he explains, is “that the whole point of eating is to maintain and promote bodily health.” Perhaps this follows if we interpret his definition of nutritionism in the most literal sense, but I would bet that only a tiny minority of people who think about nutrition in terms of nutrients actually believe that we can understand everything there is to know about a food by studying its constituent nutrients. Some might believe that we can understand the relationship between diet and disease in terms of the nutrients, but that doesn’t mean they can’t also see a place for less healthful foods in the diet now and then, perhaps for reasons of culture or pleasure.
Pollan further argues, “It follows from the premise that food is foremost about physical health that the nutrients in food should be divided into the healthy ones and the unhealthy ones–good nutrients and bad.” This is another consequence that doesn’t really follow. Though Pollan has criticized the campaign to reduce fat intake, you’d be hard-pressed to find a nutrition researcher or dietitian who didn’t understand that some amount of dietary fat is essential. The Manichaean view, then, is more a product of a lack of attention to nuance than to the ideology of nutritionism itself.
And Pollan, of course, will sound every bit as Manichaean as any supporter of nutritionism when he contrasts fresh and processed foods. Indeed, in the same chapter, he argues that “the most troubling feature of nutritionism” is that it does not allow for “any qualitative distinction between whole foods and processed foods.” Quoting Gyorgy Scrinis, he argues that in the nutritionist view, “even processed foods may be considered to be ‘healthier’ for you than whole foods if they contain the appropriate quantities of some nutrients.”
To find this idea troubling, one has to take a position that is perhaps more radical than it might sound. One has to reject, for instance, the idea that iodized salt has played an important role in reducing brain damage in infants (or, I suppose, one could reject the idea that brain damage is unhealthy). Elsewhere, David Julian McClements, César Vega, Anne E. McBride, and Eric Andrew Decker have argued that fortification of flour has played a critical role in reducing deaths due to pellagra. To be sure, there are ways to process food that are less benign, but if Scrinis and Pollan want us to believe that processed foods cannot be healthier than whole foods under any circumstances, then they need to be able to answer to these examples.
By the end of the chapter, nutritionism has become something so big and bad that it seems to encompass just about everything that’s wrong with our way of eating. Now the time is ripe for Pollan to save us from this ideology which threatens not just our health but pleasure, common sense, and even food itself.