Nutritionism 101: How to See Past Nutrition Marketing

by | Jun 19, 2013

Photo by {Guerrilla Futures | Jason Tester}

Long time readers know that I’m a huge fan of today’s guest blogger, Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, and his pithy and entertaining blog Weighty Matters.

Today Yoni is educating us on the evil ways of “nutritionism” and teaches us how to protect ourselves from its clutches.

Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, MD, founder and Medical Director of the Bariatric Medical Institute in Ottawa, dedicated to the (nonsurgical) treatment of overweight and obesity since 2004, is often called a “nutritional watchdog” for his advocacy efforts for improved public policies regarding nutrition and obesity. Dr. Freedhoff regularly speaks to the national media, before medical boards and even in front of the Canadian House of Commons. His daily blog Weighty Matters, was voted the top Canadian Get Healthy blog of 2011 by Reader’s Digest’s Best Health magazine.

You can follow Dr. Freedhoff on both Twitter and Facebook.


Nutritionism 101

by Yoni Freedhoff

“Nutritionism” is the enemy of healthy eating.

The term “nutritionism” refers to the notion that specific properties of foods are sufficient to make them healthy, and is what makes some people forget that zero-trans-fat Oreos are, and always will be, just cookies.

To put it bluntly, nutritionism sells. And it works by convincing you junk food is healthy.

The 4 most common ways nutritionism is used to sell food products are by means of added nutrient, formal ingredient, cooking style, and implied benefit.

Let’s start with some examples.

The Added Nutrient

Many products claim that the addition of a specific nutrient transforms it into something healthy. Common added nutrients are Vitamin D, plant sterols and omega-3 fatty acids.

For example, Sara Lee’s Soft and Smooth Plus DHA (Omega-3) fortified white bread advertises that it’ll help your children’s brains to develop. However, to consume the DHA equivalent of just 2.5oz of salmon (a small serving), your child would need to consume 13.5 loaves or 268 slices. That’s right, a single slice of this slippery bread has as much omega-3 as a piece of salmon 1/12 the size of a pea.

Implied Benefit Nutritionism

Implied benefit takes advantage of public perception and media hype. A product need not claim any actual benefit, but it will usually have a buzzword, and some foods have themselves adopted the air of health.

The cereal aisle provides an example that hits all the right sales notes: Kellogg’s Fiber Plus Antioxidants Berry Yogurt Crunch.

How could that not be healthy?

Fiber is good for you, and now we’ve got the added benefit of berries, yogurt and of course the magical antioxidants! The box does not actually come out and say that this cereal will protect you against cancer, and for Kellogg’s—the same company that recently settled a lawsuit brought on by their Cocoa Krispies packaging which promised to improve your child’s immunity—that’s a big deal.

Such a big deal in fact that their PR department went out of their way to point it out.

Sadly, no claim need be made (which normally requires approval by a regulating agency), as implied benefit nutritionism does the job for them.

So what’s going to fill your bowl if you are among those fooled by the implied benefits of fiber, antioxidants, berries or yogurt.

An astounding 82 ingredients make up a cup of Kellogg’s Fiber Plus Antioxidants Berry Yogurt Crunch, including 3 teaspoons of sugar (combined from 12 different sources) and 6 different artificial colors, including one that in the EU would require a warning label.

The Chip Aisle

A quick waltz down the chip aisle will bring you face to face with “whole-grain” chips. Almost every brand has a version nowadays. Pick up a bag of “Multigrain Tostitos” thinking they’re healthier and your chips will have the same amount of dietary fiber and 7% more calories per chip compared to regular Tostitos.

If you see “baked” chips, you have come across a cooking style claim. But while your Baked! Tostitos will give you marginally fewer calories, they make up for it with nearly 20% more sodium.

But so what? 7% more calories isn’t such a big deal for one small snack, and for most of us, the sodium won’t matter much either.

But what if you ate twice as many baked or whole-grain chips thinking they were healthier?

Enter the Health Halo.

Health Halos

Health halo is a term coined by Cornell’s Dr. Brian Wansink that refers to the phenomenon of eating more, liking more, or buying more of an item due to its perceived healthfulness.

He uses the term broadly in that it can apply to front of package labels, health claims, as well as common perceptions (like Subway being thought of as a healthier restaurant than McDonald’s).

Wansink has shown low-fat labelling leads people to underestimate the product’s calories, with one of his experiments demonstrating subjects dramatically underestimating calories in low-fat labeled M&M’s. In another experiment capitalizing on the public perception that Subway serves “healthier” fare than McDonald’s, he demonstrated Subway’s fast food patrons eat more calories than those of McDonald’s. Likewise more recent research has shown the term “organic” leads people not only to underestimate calories in organic foods, but also to say they have better flavor and are worth a higher price.

Bottom Line

Food manufacturers are all too happy to pander to nutritionism, since not only does it help to sell food, but you’ll even pay a higher price for it.

The good news is that protecting yourself is easy. Anytime you see a health claim: a highlighted ingredient, added nutrient, implied health benefit, or a special cooking style, take that as your grocery store cue to actually take a moment or two, and read the label.

First compare the “healthier” product to its regular counterpart. If there’s not much of a difference, I’d grab the fully-leaded version. If there is a difference, make sure it’s a difference that matters to you and that you’re not simply trading off one minor nutritional shortcoming for another.

And if it has more ingredients than you think it deserves, or multiple words you can’t pronounce, just walk away.

Ultimately if a food needs to convince you that it’s healthy, it’s probably not.

Of course if you don’t want to bother with labels there’s an even easier way and it fits wonderfully with Summer Tomato’s message: Eat “F”ood. That’s capital “F” food. Real food. Whole ingredient food. Food you have to cook yourself, where cooking isn’t simply stirring ingredients together or reheating a box.

Think of it as you versus the processed food industry. Don’t let them win.

How has nutritionism fooled you?

Originally published May 11, 2011

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26 Responses to “Nutritionism 101: How to See Past Nutrition Marketing”

  1. fredt says:

    Thanks for your post. It is more evidence that we “easy to fatten” have been marks to the food industry for a lone time. They do not have public health uppermost in there minds. The food industry is corrupt, with corrupt marketing, and much is owned by old tobacco money. How do we know what information to trust?
    Simplifying weight loss diet advice would help. No trans-fats, sugar, grains, seed oils, or manufactured eatable products would go a long way in cleaning up this obesity epidemic. Other issues like food addiction, hyperinsulinemia, and no impulse control would then be obvious. Other comments can be found at [link removed]
    Thank you for your advice.

  2. MsB says:

    This is an awesome article. I wish the Yahoo and MSN websites would post something as truthful as this on their front pages. Instead, their “nutrition” articles are just thinly veiled marketing for some product, book or advertiser.

  3. Dani says:

    Recently, I took Nutrition and Fitness at my college, I was severely disappointed. She constantly showed important, popular films (food inc, future of food, corn king, etc) and put down the USDA, FDA and big ag with the rest of the students, but taught the Food Pyramid. -facepalm-

  4. Great read! Check out a post I wrote recently on the same subject, when nutritionism targets our children:

  5. Nate says:

    Darya: You have the best damn articles. Always learning something on your site.


  6. Daniel says:

    Great read.

    The Health Halo sounds like a different name for the Snackwell Effect.

  7. Thank you for an important message. May I add that the health halo extends far beyond packaged and marketed foods. People get wrapped up in eating for antioxidants, for omega three, for soluble fiber, avoiding sodium, avoiding nitrates….you get the idea.

    I have had diabetics drinking acai juice three times a day wondering why their blood sugar is not in control. Folks with CVD still report eating low fat everything. People with hypertension are taught “no added salt” during cooking, but have no idea 77% of all sodium comes from packaged foods.

    Nutritionism is fueled by media and health care personnel who have whittled nutrition advice into short, distorted messages. No wonder people don’t know how to eat anymore.

  8. Janet Nezon says:

    Love this – two of the people I respect and follow regularly coming together on the same site! Yoni always writes so well and provides a science-based, straight-up take on hot issues in nutrition & obesity. I’ve raised a lot of these points myself, but he does a great job of pulling it all together. Thanks for posting it (and for fostering a US-Canadian alliance in promoting better health!) I will be sharing this article with my Nutrition students this week. This is the stuff you don’t find in the textbooks, but it will probably do more than the text to help them navigate the real world out there! Thanks, and keep doing the great stuff you’re doing!

  9. Thank you for having this guest post. For years now if I see something labeled “low-fat, no-fat” I stay away. Did you know that gummi bears are non-fat? People actually buy them for their kids thinking that means healthier! I finally watched the whole Dr. Lustig video. This goes hand in hand.

  10. Allie says:

    The New York Times wrote an article about this same stuff today. The products in the photo are ridiculous…

  11. Stephen says:

    Here in the UK there’s a drive for “5-a-day”, a government scheme encouraging people to eat at least 5 portions of fruit or vegetables each day.
    Some food companies have gone all-out to gain their health halos on the back of this programme.
    This has led to packets of biscuits (cookies) getting some sort of 5-a-day logo stuck onto the packaging because they contain some dried fruit (eg raisin chocolate chip), even though, as they say on the pack, you’d have to eat 4 biscuits to get one-half of one your 5-a-day.
    It’s insane.

  12. Annie Mayes says:

    PHD Perfect Health Food diet – says it all – good natural food and not too much of anything … your posts ….

  13. Irina says:

    Many good points here, but I disagree with the paragraph where organic label is listed as a health halo. As I try to buy organic whenever possible, and grow some of my veggies myself, I can assure you that there is a difference in taste, in smell and nutritional value. I challenge anyone to do a blind taste test – compare an organic beet with a conventional one or an heirloom tomato with a “plastic” conventional tomato.

    That said, I admit that there is plenty of “organic junk food” out there – a cookie made with organic ingredients is still a cookie.

    • Darya Rose says:

      Yes. Dr. Freedhoff is referring to studies that have shown the organic label (on organic junk food) has made people believe food has more nutrients and fewer calories than it really has, so psychologically it still falls under the health halo. We’re all about real, farm-fresh food here though 🙂

  14. Robert Edwards says:

    I find it amusing that at the end of the article is an ad for Cinnamon toast crunch, Lucky charms and Trix.

  15. Kate says:

    I remember in the late 80s when cholesterol was the big bad(and oat bran the savior) — several brands of soda had “Cholesterol-Free!” added to their cans.

  16. Alice says:

    Bravo, bravo. Great post! 🙂 Very glad someone finally brought up this issue. Been noticing it for a while now.

    However; I believe the opposite is also true. Barring too many foods. Gluten is evil, GMOs are evil, etc. etc. etc.

    When do we stop on that end?

  17. My favorite of all nutritionist claims is, “Made with real ingredients.” Seriously? As opposed to what? Phantom ingredients?

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