In this op-ed in The Guardian, Gyorgy Scrinis — lecturer in food politics and policy in the Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Melbourne, Australia — offers a great explanation of how the food industry co-opts different nutrition concepts to mislead the public and washes its hands of any responsibility.
“Over the past decade, nutrition and public health experts have focused on the energy-balance equation – calories-in, calories-out – to explain and address the obesity problem. They have advised the public to reduce their intake, and to choose lower calorie foods. They have also called for calorie labelling on the front of food packaging and on restaurant menus, hoping this will change customers’ food choices and encourage the food industry to reduce the number of calories in their products.
However, many food companies no longer fear the calorie-counting message, just as they learned to adapt to the low-fat dietary advice of the 1980s and 1990s. The advertisements for the Coca-Cola campaign actually repeat the dominant public health message regarding calories, proclaiming that “all calories count, and if you eat and drink more calories than you burn off, you’ll gain weight. That goes for Coca-Cola and everything else with calories.
The idea that “a calorie is a calorie”—that all calories are the same—suggests that a calorie of sugar is the same as a calorie of carrots, and that the quality of the foods supplying these uniform calories is irrelevant went it comes to weight gain or loss. This plays into the hands of highly processed foods and beverages producers, as it suggests that their products are no different to and no worse than any others, other than the number of calories they contain.”
This is why the food industry loves messages like “everything in moderation” (note the word “everything”, which includes lentils, spinach, Pop-Tarts, and soda) and the Academy’s “total diet” approach to health.
“Food corporations have also embraced the energy-balance equation. This equation gives equal weight to calories-in (food consumption) and calories-out (physical activity). It thereby allows the food industry to attribute half of the blame for weight-gain to individuals’ inactivity, without truly addressing how highly-processed ingredients affect our health or metabolism in other ways.
These ways of understanding food and the body are examples of what I call nutritionism. This ideology of nutritionism is defined by a reductive focus on and interpretation of nutrients within nutrition science, dietary guidelines, and food labeling and marketing. Whether focusing on fats, carbs or calories, this approach to food and nutrients has been easily exploited by the food industry, and has made consumers more susceptible to such nutritional marketing strategies.
An alternative to this nutrient-focused approach is to regulate food and beverage products and labeling based on production and processing quality. It’s important for the public to become more food quality literate, rather than just nutritionally literate, if they are to resist the marketing messages of food and drink companies.”
When health organizations partner up with Big Food and Big Soda, this nutritionism is passively (and sometimes actively) condoned and, even more shockingly, presented as “sound science” or “evidence-based”.
History has shown that the food industry mainly responds to policies, lawsuits, and mandatory change. Coddling the food industry in hopes that “it will do the right thing” is like waiting for Godot (hence our advocacy efforts to have the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics shift the way it views partnerships).