That's not natural or organic: How Big Food misleads

Major conglomerates claim their food is healthy. But they might have funded the study -- and the feds barely care

Published July 20, 2013 12:30PM (EDT)

  (<a href=''>Big Pants Production</a>,  <a href=''>er ryan</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>/Salon)
(Big Pants Production, er ryan via Shutterstock/Salon)

Excerpted from "Nutritionism: The Science and Politics of Dietary Advice"

Food Technology is an industry journal that showcases the latest technologically modified and nutritionally engineered foods, offering an array of claimed health benefits and marketed with a proliferating range of nutritional buzzwords. Probiotic ice cream, heart-healthy chocolate chip muffins, satiety smoothies, calorie-burning green teas, fiber-rich snack bars, omega-3-fortified baby foods for brain and eye development, and low-glycemic-index meal replacements are part of a new generation of so-called functional food products. Other health-enhancing products include fat-free yogurts with three grams of fiber per cup; heart-healthy chocolate bars with high concentrations of flavonols to reduce blood pressure; a Women’s Wonder Bar chocolate bar with soy, cranberry seed oil, and flax for “easing symptoms of premenstrual syndrome and menopause”; and candy and chews with echinacea for “boosting immunity.”

Alongside these premium-positioned food products are much more conventional processed foods, sweets, and beverages that have had some nutrients added to or subtracted from them. These are the standard fare of the supermarket shelves, including vitamin-enhanced breakfast cereals, low-fat reconstituted chicken nuggets, calcium-fortified orange juice, caffeinated and sugar-dense “energy” drinks, and processed/refined white sliced breads with invisible added fiber. Even confectionery and soft drinks are being nutritionally enhanced, such as Diet Coke Plus with added vitamins B6 and B12, zinc, and magnesium and Diet Pepsi Max with added ginseng and increased caffeine. Some of these products fit into the category of “lesser evil” foods—foods of poor nutritional quality that have been nutritionally improved by reducing the quantity of some of their “bad” nutrients and food components.

Within the food industry and among nutrition experts, the code phrase for all of these types of foods marketed with nutrient-content and health-related claims is functional foods, foods they claim can target and enhance particular bodily functions and overall health. The functional foods term is, however, so poorly and broadly defined that virtually any food with added nutrients, or carrying some type of health claim, seems to qualify. Through their ability to overwhelm consumers with nutritional and health claims on food packaging and in advertisements, food corporations have become the primary disseminators of the most simplified and reductive understanding of food and nutrients in the present era of functional nutritionism.

This piece examines food companies’ various nutritional engineering strategies, and their use of nutrient-content and health claims, to create a demand for their products. I also consider how the food industry and governments have proposed or implemented other front-of-pack labeling schemes, such as nutrition scoring and traffic-light labeling systems, in order to inform or influence consumers’ understanding of the nutritional quality of food products.

From Restoring Nutrient Balance to Health-Enhancing Foods

In "Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health," Marion Nestle characterizes functional foods—or “techno-foods,” as she refers to them—as “flatly reductionist; the value of a food is reduced to its single functional ingredient. . . . This logic is flawed in that it fails to consider the complexity of food composition and the interactions amongst food components.” Nestle portrays the food industry’s reductive rationale for the design and marketing of these functional foods as a deliberate misuse and distortion of the otherwise sound and rigorous scientific knowledge that she claims underpins mainstream dietary guidelines.

However, while the food industry has certainly exploited nutrition science for its own commercial interests, the types of reductionism that Nestle identifies are also a key feature of the nutritionism paradigm that nutrition scientists and experts have themselves adopted and promoted over the past century. The focus on single, isolated, decontextualized nutrients has been a long-standing feature of scientific research since the mid-nineteenth century and of dietary guidelines since the 1970s. The idea that these isolated nutrients can impart their full benefits when added as a supplement to foods is also supported by the nutrient fortification programs promoted by governments and public health institutions, as well as the health claims approved for use by food regulatory agencies. The single-nutrient and multinutrient supplements that many nutrition experts endorse are similarly underpinned by these kinds of reductionist assumptions.

The food industry’s nutritional engineering and marketing strategies have reflected the broader changes in nutritional paradigms over the past fifty years. Throughout the era of good-and-bad nutritionism, mainstream dietary guidelines were dominated by negative dietary advice regarding the dangers of consuming too much of the wrong types of foods and nutrients. Nutrition experts branded highly processed foods, as well as some animal foods, as containing too many “bad” nutrients and ingredients. Food manufacturers responded to these negative nutritional messages by designing food products and marketing strategies that focused on lesser evil messages, such as those accompanying reduced-fat and reduced-calorie foods, as well as vitamin-fortified and fiber-fortified processed foods.

The aim of much of this nutritional engineering and marketing was to restore the appropriate “nutrient balance” to one’s diet, either by reducing the bad nutrients and calories or by adding good nutrients considered to be lacking in modern foods and dietary patterns. In some cases food manufacturers achieved these nutritional reductions by incorporating processed-reconstituted ingredients, such as artificial sugars and fats. Consumers themselves might consume these nutritionally engineered food products in order to compensate for perceived imbalances, deficiencies, or excesses in their overall diets. In the early 1990s, journalist Michelle Stacey noted the tendency for consumers to trade the perceived health benefits of one food for the consumption of less healthy fare: “A prime reason for having diet soda in existence at all is to compensate for other indulgences—it’s an equation, a numerical trade-off, and perhaps a little game we play with ourselves. Thanks to Atwater we know that a one-calorie soda leaves a hole that a 500-calorie piece of pie could fill.” This nutritional trade-off is a game many of us still seem to play, by selectively responding to nutritional guidelines and food marketing claims.

Since the 1990s, a range of novel food products carrying more positive health messages have taken center stage. A new and broader set of nutrients and food components such as omega-3 fats, plant sterols, probiotics, and antioxidants now compete for attention on food labels. Rather than just compensating for the perceived nutritional deficiencies or excesses in one’s diet, such as of vitamin C or calcium, some of these nutritionally engineered foods aim to provide nutrients and other food and nonfood components that are meant to provide additional and targeted health benefits. Sports drinks such as Red Bull, for example, contain added taurine, which the company claims is “involved in neurological processes and positively influences the performance of the heart,” while probiotic yogurt drinks are laden with specific “good bacteria” that target gut health. Food companies also market their foods not merely as restoring and maintaining good health but as enhancing health, optimizing bodily functioning and performance, and delivering a broad range of targeted health benefits relating to such issues as weight management, joint and bone health, immunity, digestive health, cardiovascular health, mental performance, and physical energy.

The commercial success of some of these foods marketed for their health benefits is illustrated by the popularity of probiotic yogurt drinks, such as Yakult and Dannon’s DanActive. The specific live microorganisms in these foods are intended to add “good bacteria” to your stomach, much like traditional yogurts. Yakult contains the bacterial strain Lactobacillus casei Shirota, named after the Japanese scientist who identified this strain and invented the product. Dannon’s DanActive is powered by the strategically named Lactobacillus casei Defensis bacteria, which Dannon claims can “help strengthen the body’s natural defenses.” Manufacturers make a wide range of health claims about their probiotic products, from how they can alleviate indigestion and diarrhea to how they can strengthen the immune system and reduce the severity of colds and flu. However, unlike regular yogurts, these yogurt drinks are not conventional foods that you eat as a snack or as a part of a meal; instead, they are sold in small packages containing a daily medicinal dose of beneficial bacteria. Consumers have therefore been convinced to purchase these products entirely for their claimed health benefits.

Another trend in food companies’ marketing practices in the functional era has been their more explicit reference to internal bodily processes in their food marketing campaigns. This form of marketing plays upon and promotes the way nutricentric individuals have developed a functional view or experience of their own bodies, in which they visualize the way these foods directly act upon particular parts of the body or bodily functions. Advertisements for cholesterol-lowering margarines, for example, provide explicit descriptions of how plant sterols enter the intestines and block the absorption of cholesterol into the blood, while probiotic yogurts are advertised with reference to “good microorganisms” in the stomach. Advertisements for Yakult explain to consumers that their product “contains billions of live and active ‘good bacteria.’ . . . When you drink Yakult daily, it makes it difficult for the bad bacteria to take over. Yakult also gives you more of the good bacteria that may help balance your digestive system.”

Nutritional Techno-Fixes: From GM Foods to Nanofoods

The nutritional engineering of foods is essentially a narrowly framed technological solution—or nutritional techno-fix—to the perceived limitations of particular foods or dietary patterns. If the problem is that highly processed foods have been stripped of beneficial nutrients, then engineering them back into foods is a way of convincing consumers to continue eating these products. Similarly, if impoverished populations have inadequate access to good-quality foods and diets, then specific nutrient deficiencies can be addressed through the nutrient fortification of their staple foods, rather than by tackling the broader socioeconomic inequalities that deny people an adequate income to afford better quality diets.

Food scientists have developed sophisticated processing techniques to add and subtract nutrients and ingredients from foods while retaining the desired taste, texture, appearance, and durability of food products. A range of novel technologies are being developed and applied by food and agricultural scientists for these purposes, such as the breeding of genetically engineered crops with modified nutrient profiles, and new processing techniques for manipulating or adding nutrients and other components to foods and drink products. For example, food companies adding small quantities of fish oil to products—in order to claim the health benefits of their long-chain omega-3 fats—have had to meet the significant technological challenge of trying to overcome the “fishy” taste of these oils. So food scientists developed microscopic capsules containing the fish oil that are intended to dissolve and release the fish oil in a person’s stomach rather than in the mouth.

While genetically engineered crops with modified nutrient profiles have been promised for many years, none of these modified crops have yet reached the stage of commercial release. The most celebrated of these genetically modified crops has been the rice variety dubbed Golden Rice that scientists have engineered with enhanced levels of pro-vitamin A. The promoters of Golden Rice have touted it as a technological solution to vitamin A deficiency for the world’s poor, since vitamin A is a major cause of blindness and of increased susceptibility to infection, particularly in children. Plant breeders have also genetically modified canola seeds to produce the type of long-chain omega-3 fats (DHA) found in fish. Another genetically modified functional food crop under development is a variety of wheat with enhanced levels of resistant starch. When incorporated into food products, this modified wheat may enable these products to be marketed as having a low glycemic index.

The new nanotechnologies represent the next wave of technological innovation across the food system, including developments in agricultural production and breeding, and in food processing and packaging. Nanotechnology is a set of tools and techniques for directly manipulating, transforming, and mass-producing materials, living organisms, and products at the level of atoms and molecules, or at the nanometer scale (one-billionth of a meter). Food manufacturers are already using nanotechnology to develop new processing techniques and additives with novel or improved properties. These new techniques and materials may simply enable the more efficient production of cheap, palatable, and durable convenience foods. But nanotechnology is also being used to nutritionally engineer foods through the addition of nanoscale nutrients and food components. These nanonutrients may in some cases be more easily absorbed than the larger-scale equivalent nutrients and could therefore be added to foods in smaller quantities. Scientists are also developing nanoscale encapsulation techniques for the addition of nutrients and food components to foods, such as nanoencapsulated fish oil, that may provide greater stability than existing microsized capsules, enabling them to better withstand cooking, refrigeration or long-term storage.

It is primarily the larger food manufacturing corporations that have the resources necessary to develop, test, seek regulatory approval for, and market these various forms of functional food technologies and products. So the trend toward functional food development is likely to accelerate the trends toward the corporate concentration and control of the food manufacturing sector. The world’s largest food and beverage corporation, Nestlé, launched its Nestlé Health Science venture in 2011. The new center draws on cutting-edge science to develop new products with “enhanced” health benefits. It will also be capable of generating the scientific data that governments increasingly require to substantiate new health claims. One of the first products to roll out of the lab was a new version of its BOOST Drink containing twenty-six essential vitamins and minerals and ten grams of protein per bottle. Nestlé is targeting this drink at “older adults” who can, according to the company’s marketing blurb, use it as “a convenient way . . . to accomplish their daily nutritional goals while maintaining their busy lifestyle.”

In 2012 the Quaker Oats Company, a division of PepsiCo, announced the creation of the Quaker Oats Center of Excellence, described by the company as a “cross functional entity focused on elevating the relevance and benefits of oats through science, agriculture and innovation.” The center will conduct research intended to build on the already positive public image of oats based on studies and health claims for the heart-health benefits of oats in the 1990s. In a press release the director of the center, Marianne O’Shea, states, “Oat science has already revealed important benefits such as heart health and satiety, but we’ve only scratched the surface when it comes to the power of the oat and all it can do.”

Nutritional Marketing and the Nutritional Facade

In her annual summary of the “Top 10 Functional Food Trends” in the Food Technology journal, food scientist and industry consultant Elizabeth Sloan identifies the shifting trends among food manufacturers and health-conscious consumers. Some of these recent trends include what she calls “Retro Health,” a return to “traditional” strategies focusing on “avoidance foods,” such as reduced fat, calories, and sodium in foods. Another trend—“Prime Timers”—targets the health concerns of the over-fifties age group, who might be more interested in functional foods that claim to address problems of cholesterol levels, bone health, memory, and digestion. The more active consumers are covered under the market segment she calls “Daily Dynamics”: foods and beverages that “boost” energy, improve sports performance, enhance memory, or reduce stress. Of the successful new food products launched in 2006–2007, for example, Sloan reports that 30 percent carried an added-nutrient claim, such as added calcium or soy; 23 percent carried a reduced-calorie claim; and 22 percent a high-fiber/whole-grain claim.

One of the aims of nutritional marketing is to create what I refer to as a nutritional facade around a food product—an image of the food’s nutritional characteristics and benefits. This nutritional facade then becomes the focus of food marketing campaigns. The other purpose of a nutritional facade is to cover up or distract attention from the underlying ingredients and processing techniques used to manufacture a food. Nutritional marketing typically focuses on the presence or absence of one or two nutrient components of a food—such as the presence of vitamin C, calcium, and omega-3 fats, or reduced quantities of fat, cholesterol, or calories. A 2010 survey of selected supermarkets in the United States found that half of all products stocked carried a nutrient-content claim and that, of these, half were processed foods high in added salt, sugar, and fat. In Appetite for Profit, public health attorney Michele Simon refers to the nutritional marketing of such foods as “nutri-washing,” another variation of the corporate strategies of white-washing and green-washing.

These nutritional marketing practices reproduce and promote both nutrient-level and single-nutrient reductionism. The reductive focus on nutrient composition conceals the quality of a food and its ingredients, as well as its overall nutrient profile. This is particularly the case with highly processed breakfast cereals targeted at children and that typically contain highly refined grains, sugars, and chemical additives yet are marketed on the basis of the extensive list of added vitamins and minerals. Kellogg’s Froot Loops Marshmallow cereal, for example, has the nutrient-content claim “Good Source of Vitamin D” emblazoned at the top of the cereal box even though it contains a whopping 48 percent sugar. A 2006 study of breakfast cereals marketed to children revealed that those marketed with “low-fat” claims had, on average, no less sugar, salt, or calories than other breakfast cereals. The nutrient content claims on the front of the pack, as well as the nutrition information on the Nutrition Facts label, also fail to distinguish between nutrients intrinsic to a food or its ingredients, on the one hand, and those added to a food product during processing, on the other.

The enormous commercial success of Vitaminwater products also suggests that cutting-edge nutrition science is not always required when appealing to the nutricentric consumer. Simply adding a few vitamins and minerals to water is enough to add an aura of health, even when that water also contains added flavorings and 32 grams of sugar per bottle. Instead of esoteric ingredients backed by rigorous scientific studies and government-endorsed health claims, the manufacturers of Vitaminwater—now owned by the Coca-Cola corporation—just sprinkle a few nutrients into the mix and use suggestive names for each variety, such as “Revive,” “Energy,” “Focus,” and “Defense.” The Vitaminwater labels also carry the nutritional claim that this product is a “nutrient enhanced water beverage.” However both the suggestive names (“Defense”) and the accompanying commentaries (“Help support your immune system with the zinc and vitamin C in this bottle”) stray beyond nutrient claims and into the more highly regulated territory of direct health claims.

Health Claims and Functionally Marketed Foods

For much of the twentieth century, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) prohibited the use of health claims on food labels advertising a link between foods, nutrients, or other food components, on the one hand, and specific diseases, bodily functions, and health conditions, on the other. In 1984 the Kellogg company began advertising its All-Bran breakfast cereal with the claim that high-fiber foods might help prevent cancer, in defiance of FDA regulations. The FDA initially attempted to stop Kellogg’s marketing campaign but backed down under pressure from within its own oversight department. In the following years, the FDA tolerated the proliferation of health claims on food labels while it developed new labeling guidelines. The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act that was finally introduced in 1990 allowed companies to seek approval for health claims by submitting evidence for the claims to the FDA.

The first authorized health claim under the new legislation was issued in 1997—linking the beta-glucan soluble fiber from whole oats to the lowering of blood cholesterol levels—following evidence submitted by the Quaker Oats Company. Quaker had assembled scientific studies supporting its claim—including a meta-analysis of previous studies published in 1992 that it had cosponsored—reporting that bran had a modest lowering effect on blood cholesterol levels. To scientifically substantiate health claims, the FDA required evidence of the specific nutrient or active ingredient in oats that was responsible for the claimed health effects. In this case, the FDA accepted Quaker’s claim that the active ingredient in oats imparting its health benefits is the beta-glucan soluble fiber. Quaker was even able to quantify the precise effect, claiming that three grams of beta-glucan would reduce cholesterol by 5 percent in most people. The wording approved by the FDA for this health claim was as follows: “Soluble fiber from oatmeal, as part of a low saturated fat, low cholesterol diet, may reduce the risk of heart disease.” Quaker quickly capitalized on this approved health claim by heavily advertising the health benefits of its oat products, which translated into impressive annual sales growth in the following years.

The FDA currently distinguishes three types of health-related claims on food labels—health claims, qualified health claims, and structure/ function claims—for which it requires different levels of scientific substantiation. Health claims—or scientifically substantiated health claims— refer to a direct relationship between a food component and the risk of disease and require the highest level of scientific substantiation for regulatory approval. The current FDA-approved health claims include the link between calcium and osteoporosis; soy protein and the risk of coronary heart disease; saturated fats, trans-fats, and dietary cholesterol and heart disease risk; and folic acid and neural tube defects. Some whole foods or whole food extracts have also received approval for substantiated and qualified health claims, such as whole oats and oat flour, nuts, tomatoes and tomato sauce, and green tea. Qualified health claims are claims that have not yet met all of the FDA’s scientific substantiation criteria required for authorized health claims. Nevertheless, they are permitted to carry similar types of claimed health benefits (e.g., the link between omega-3 fats and the reduction of heart disease risk), provided they also carry the statement that “conclusive” evidence does not exist for such claims. The FDA introduced this category of qualified health claims in 2003 after a dietary supplement manufacturer legally challenged the FDA’s claims approval process.

Structure/function claims generally link single nutrients or foods to normal bodily functioning and growth, such as “calcium builds strong bones” and “fiber maintains bowel regularity.” General Mills’ Cheerios breakfast cereal, for example, carries the front-of-pack structure/function claim “Clinically Proven to Help Reduce Cholesterol,” on the basis that it contains one gram of soluble fiber per serving. The fine print on the pack reveals that “3 grams of soluble fiber daily from whole grain oat foods, like Cheerios and Honey Nut Cheerios, in a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease.” Structure/function claims are relatively unregulated in the sense that they do not require preapproval by the FDA. Yet these structure/function claims should be classified as fully fledged “health claims” and require the same level of scientific substantiation as disease prevention claims since they may be interpreted by consumers in much the same way. A report by the U.S. General Accounting Office confirms that “consumers find it difficult to understand the differences between qualified health claims and health claims . . . Consumers have similar difficulties understanding the differences among health, structure/function, and other health-and nutrient-related claims.”

Claims about nutrient content in food advertisements rely on consumers making their own connections between a nutrient and its perceived health benefits and are therefore limited to commonly recognizable nutrient-health associations. Direct health claims, on the other hand, open up a wider range of marketing possibilities for the food industry. Cholesterol-lowering foods such as sterol-enriched margarine may not have been introduced without the regulatory approval to make explicit cholesterol-lowering claims on the pack, since the nutrient-content claim “contains plant sterols” would be meaningless to most consumers. By highlighting the presence of an unfamiliar additive, such as plant sterols, these foods may even be looked upon suspiciously by consumers who prefer minimally processed foods. Making direct health claims may therefore be effective for reaching and influencing consumers unfamiliar with the latest nutritional trends and scientific developments.

Health claims invariably exaggerate and decontextualize the health benefits of particular foods. All nutrients and whole foods probably have multiple health benefits, many of which scientists are either unaware of or are unable to substantiate. To pick out any of these claimed health effects, and to allow them to be used on food packaging and in advertisements, is flawed in at least two respects. First, it exaggerates the scientific certainty of such an association. Second, it exaggerates and decontextualizes the significance of the particular food/nutrient and its related health benefits, in relation to the plethora of other such food-health relationships.

Studies examining consumers’ understanding and interpretation of health claims have identified a number of ways in which the healthfulness of functionally marketed foods may be exaggerated in the minds of consumers. A seminal study published in 1999 by food researchers Brian Roe, Alan Levy, and Brenda Derby has identified a number of possible effects of health claims, such as the so-called “halo effect,” in which “the presence of a health claim induces a consumer to rate the product higher on other attributes not mentioned in the claim.” Another is the “magic-bullet effect” that leads consumers to attribute inappropriate and exaggerated health benefits to a food product. They also observed how health claims on the front of food packaging are prioritized over the information on the Nutrition Facts label and may discourage consumers from searching for further information on the package. For example, you could pick up a box of Cocoa Krispies that carries the front-of-pack claim that it is “a good source of 5 vitamins including folate” and “now helps support your child’s immunity” while overlooking the Nutrition Facts label that shows it contains 36.5 percent sugar.

Front-of-Pack Labeling Schemes and Promotional Logos

A range of front-of-pack and point-of-purchase labeling systems are already in place to convey to a shopper at a glance the relative healthfulness of a food. The labeling schemes developed by food companies for their own products are largely intended to promote the healthier, “better for you,” or lesser-evil products within their product range. The labeling schemes run independently of food companies, on the other hand, rank all foods on the supermarket shelf, whether of good or poor quality. Government-mandated labeling systems, such as calorie labeling and traffic-light labeling systems, are another source of guidance for consumers about the nutritional contents of foods. These labeling schemes are primarily focused on nutrients and are usually based on a specific nutrient profiling system to evaluate and rank foods.

The more “positive” promotional logos introduced by food companies include Kraft’s Sensible Solutions, PepsiCo’s Smart Spot, and the controversial Smart Choices Program. Smart Choices was introduced in 2009 by a number of leading food companies in conjunction with nutrition experts and organizations, and administered by the American Society for Nutrition. This scheme was voluntarily suspended in 2010 when its green logo began appearing on sugary breakfast cereals such as Froot Loops and Cocoa Puffs, drawing close media scrutiny and destroying the program’s credibility. The Froot Loops fiasco highlighted the lenient criteria that food companies inevitably adopt to rank their own products. Food manufacturers also use third-party health endorsements, such as the American Heart Association’s Heart-Check symbol and the Whole Grains Council’s Whole Grain Stamp. Most of these schemes are based on meeting some minimum qualifying criteria, such as the quantities of salt, sugar, total fat, cholesterol, saturated fat, trans-fat, and selected vitamins and minerals contained in a product.

In 2011 the Grocery Manufacturers of America, representing all the major food manufacturers, introduced its own voluntary Facts Up Front front-of-pack nutrition labeling system under which companies can place an icon on food packaging that displays calories, saturated fat, salt, and sugar per serving. Critics of these voluntary initiatives argue that they are an attempt by the food industry to circumvent more stringent and mandatory government-regulated schemes, such as traffic light systems. But the Facts Up Front labeling system also suggests that the industry considers there to be little to fear from providing quantified, nutrient-by-nutrient information about their products.

Other types of nutritional scoring and ranking systems are displayed on the shelf or at the point of purchase rather than on the label. For instance, the NuVal system, developed by an independent panel of nutrition and medical experts led by Yale University researcher David Katz, ranks foods from 1 to 100 and is currently being used in a number of supermarket chains across the United States. The Guiding Stars program developed by one supermarket chain allocates between 0 and 4 stars to each item within a food and beverage category. These schemes intend to offer a single indicator of the nutritional quality of a food and are a means of ranking foods within each product category.

Another type of front-of-pack labeling is the traffic light scheme developed by the U.K. Food Standards Agency that retailers and manufacturers can voluntarily use on the front of packages. The U.K. traffic light system lists only the quantities of total fat, saturated fat, sodium, and sugar and color-codes each of these red, amber, or green depending on the quantities of each food component in a product. Salt and sugar are key ingredients in highly processed foods and may be reliable indicators of the overall quality of a food. But this labeling system maintains the long-standing focus on and stigmatization of fat and saturated fat. Even within the terms of nutricentric food labeling, the omission of calories from the U.K. traffic light system seems odd. Some studies have demonstrated that consumers prefer and find easier to comprehend such simple color-coded labeling systems, and this may be precisely why they are so vigorously opposed by the food industry. The industry is reported to have spent around one billion euros successfully lobbying the European Food Safety Authority to reject a proposal for the introduction of a mandatory traffic-light labeling system across Europe.

These front-of-pack labeling schemes are usually underpinned by nutrient profiling systems that have been developed by independent nutrition experts, government institutions, or food or retailing companies. Nutrient profiling has been defined as the science of ranking foods based on their nutrient composition. It involves evaluating foods based on a range of constituent nutrients and weighting the various beneficial and detrimental (i.e., good and bad) nutrients in order to produce a single nutrient-density score or nutritional classification. These profiling systems use varying methods for evaluating and classifying foods. Nevertheless, in most schemes, the bad nutrients are the usual suspects, saturated fats, trans-fats, calories, sugar, and salt; the good nutrients usually include protein, fiber, polyunsaturated fats, vitamins A and C, calcium, and iron. Most profiling schemes focus on nutrients, although some combine nutrient and food ingredient criteria. While maintaining our attention on nutrients, nutrient profiling systems at least move us beyond the reductive focus on single nutrients. Nevertheless, this multinutrient evaluation of foods is largely based on the simple addition and weighting of the single nutrients in a food and therefore reproduces—and possibly even magnifies—some of the limitations and biases of single-nutrient reductionism.

Corporate Nutritionism

In the present era of functional nutritionism, there is now a deep complicity between nutritionism and food corporations. In many respects, we can refer to this as the era of corporate nutritionism, as food corporations become the primary promoters and beneficiaries of this reductive understanding of nutrients, foods, and the body. While a level of corporate influence, and of government appeasement of food industry interests, is not new, it is since the 1980s that food corporations have come to control the nutritional agenda, and have become the dominant promoters of the nutritionism paradigm. It matters less and less what nutrition experts or the government’s dietary guidelines advocate, for their advice will invariably be appropriated and reinterpreted by the research, development, and marketing departments of food corporations and overwhelmed by a barrage of nutritional and health claims.

The marketing of foods with nutrient-content and health claims has become the primary means through which the public now encounters nutritional information. Beyond its role in selling products, nutritional marketing now also shapes and disseminates the functional nutritionism paradigm itself. Through these nutritionally engineered products and nutritional marketing practices, the food industry promotes the most simplified, decontextualized, deterministic, and exaggerated ways of understanding nutrients, foods, and the body. The food industry has also capitalized on, and accentuated the shift to, a more positive and functional view of foods and nutrients that target internal bodily functions. It also exacerbates the anxieties surrounding the perceived lack of these nutrients in conventional foods and dietary patterns.

The sheer volume of nutritional advertising has maintained the focus of many consumers on nutrients and other functional components of foods, rather than on the quality of food products and their ingredients. The marketing budgets of some food corporations now run into the hundreds of millions of dollars, easily overwhelming government agencies’ modest nutrition education and health promotion efforts. Many of these food companies are transnational corporations that are able to invest significant resources in the development of new products, in new technologies for designing nutritionally engineered foods, and in scientific research to support the claimed health benefits of their products.

The ability of food companies to promote their products and cultivate consumer demand, unhindered by restrictive regulations, has been facilitated by compliant and cooperative governments and nutrition experts and institutions. Government agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the FDA have seemed more intent on enabling these food marketing possibilities than restricting them. The introduction of new food labeling regulations in the United States in the mid-1990s permitting a range of direct health claims on food packaging and in advertisements has allowed food companies to capitalize on a broader range of nutritional concerns and functional nutrients. At the same time, food companies’ use of these nutrient and health claims has been poorly regulated and monitored by these agencies.

Government agencies have also formulated national dietary guidelines for the public in ways that further, or at least protect, the interests of food producers or manufacturers. The earliest American food guides, such as the Basic Four food guide, gave a prominent place to meat and dairy foods. The Food Guide Pyramid and the latest MyPlate food guide have similarly given prominent place and ample recommended servings of dairy products. As Marion Nestle has argued, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans has typically been worded so as not to advise eating less of any specific foods. “Eat less” recommendations have been translated into nutrient-level language, such as eat less saturated fats or less sugar, rather than naming the foods in which these food components are typically consumed.

The food industry spends millions of dollars each year lobbying politicians as a means of more directly influencing government food policies and regulations. The defeat of the proposed traffic-light labeling scheme in Europe, described earlier, following intense industry lobbying demonstrates the power of food corporations to undermine what many public health institutions consider to be a powerful and effective labeling system. Another documented example is the sugar industry’s lobbying of the World Health Organization to remove its proposed recommendation that added sugars should be limited to 10 percent of daily caloric intake in its 2004 Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health report. While resisting direct government regulation, the food industry has instead undertaken to self-regulate its actions, such as through pledges to reduce children’s food advertising or to reformulate its products by selectively reducing their sugar or salt content.

Food companies have become increasingly active in directly funding scientific studies into particular foods or nutrients conducted by university-based researchers. Some reviews of these industry-funded studies have found that they are, on average, more likely to publish favorable findings for the nutrient or food under investigation, thereby lending support for the industry sponsor’s products. These more favorable studies may have been used as scientific substantiation to support a food company’s submission to regulatory agencies for approval for health claims, such as Quaker’s funding of studies on the health benefits of oats described earlier. These studies may also be referred to directly in advertisements for food products. Food companies also seek to influence expert dietary advice in other ways, such as by funding nutrition and public health organizations or university departments. For example, the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the British Nutrition Foundation accept funding from food corporations. Another strategy of food corporations has been to set up industry front groups that purport to offer an independent expert or consumer voice. A recent example is Americans Against Food Taxes, which describes itself as “a coalition of concerned citizens— responsible individuals, financially strapped families, small and large businesses in communities across the country—opposed to the government tax hikes on food and beverages.”

In response to this growing corporate control of the nutriscape, there have been renewed attempts by public health experts and institutions, and in some cases government agencies, to impose more stringent regulations on food products and food marketing. Public health experts such as Kelly Brownell of Yale University and Marion Nestle have been vocal critics of the food industry’s marketing campaigns and argue for stricter labeling and marketing regulations. Despite its own role in promoting nutritionism, the advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest has been active in exposing the inadequacies of some food labeling and marketing regulations. It has lobbied governments for regulatory changes and litigated to pressure food companies to reformulate their products or to change their marketing practices. However, the center’s campaigns seem rather selective and narrowly focused and are not anticorporate per se, given their support, for example, for genetically modified crops.

Excerpted from "Nutritionism: The Science and Politics of Dietary Advice" by Gyorgy Scrinis. Copyright © 2013 Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.

By Gyorgy Scrinis

Gyorgy Scrinis is a lecturer in food politics at the University of Melbourne, Australia, and the author of Nutritionism: The Science and Politics of Dietary Advice (Columbia University Press, 2013).

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