Nutritionism is an alleged paradigm that assumes that it is the scientifically identified nutrients in foods that determine the value of individual food stuffs in the diet. In other words, it is the idea that the nutritional value of a food is the sum of all its individual nutrients, vitamins, and other components. Another aspect of the term is the implication that the only point of eating is to promote bodily health. The term is largely pejorative, implying that this way of viewing food is simplistic and harmful, and the term is usually used to label others' views. The term's most prominent opponent, journalist Michael Pollan, argues that a food's nutritional value is "more than the sum of its parts."
Originally credited to Gyorgy Scrinis, the notion was popularized by Michael Pollan. The key to Pollan's understanding of nutritionism is "the widely shared but unexamined assumption ... that the key to understanding food is indeed the nutrient." Since nutrients are invisible, it is now necessary to rely on nutrition experts to make food choices. Because science has an incomplete understanding of how food affects the human body, Pollan argues, relying solely on information regarding individual nutrients has led people and policy makers to repeatedly make poor decisions relating to nutrition. Pollan blames nutritionism for many of the health problems relating to diet in the Western World today. He compares Nutritionism to a religion, relying on "priests" (nutritional scientists and journalists) to interpret the latest orthodoxy for the masses. Like many religions, nutritionism has divided the world into good and evil components, although what is good or evil can change dramatically with time. Pollan believes that nutritionism is inherently flawed due to a reductive bias within science to isolate and study individual factors disconnected from their usual contexts such as diet and culture, factors which have repeatedly been shown to have a fundamental impact on nutritional outcomes. Even when scientists have attempted to study factors such as culture, diet, and long term consumption patterns, the enormous difficulties in making accurate measurements relating to individual nutritional components, and producing meaningful conclusions has resulted in incomplete results at best, and misleading or harmful results at worst.
Ben Goldacre wrote that nutritionism, or its attribution to scientists, is the "bollocks du jour", and that it is "driven by a set of first year undergraduate errors in interpreting scientific data." In his opinion, professional researchers and medical experts bear some blame for nutritionism because they at times created unrealistic expectations about the potential benefits of their research, but that the primary promoters of nutritionism are health food manufacturers, self-proclaimed "gurus" and journalists who have an incomplete understanding of science, along with a credulous public that is willing to believe whatever simplistic theories they are told in the mass media.
At least one observer, Daniel Engber has argued that Pollan's anti-nutritionism, or anti-food science stance has taken on a dogmatic tint itself. He says, "Modern nutrition may be more of an ideology than a science, but so is Pollan's nutritional Darwinism. The two ideologies stand in direct opposition to one another, with the science-minded progressives on one side and the culinary conservatives on the other." One criticism is that while many scientific studies of nutrition, or the conclusions extrapolated from them by both scientists and journalists have been bad, we should not reject a scientific approach to food altogether. One reviewer notes that the study of vitamins and nutrients led to vast improvement in treatment of diseases such as beriberi or scurvy and that with further refinement food science may well help combat other diseases and health conditions. The complexity of food science should not be taken as a reason to abandon systematic investigation of it. Daniel Engber also argues that Pollan over idealizes the diet of our ancestors, and believes that it may not be well suited to our modern needs.
- Pollan, Michael (2007-01-28). "Unhappy Meals". The New York Times.
- "Gyorgy Scrinis' Web Page". Retrieved 2009-01-14.
- Pollan, Michael (2008). In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto. New York, USA: Penguin Press. ISBN 978-1-59420-145-5.
- Goldacre, Ben (2007-01-22). "Science and Fiction". New Statesman. pp. 16–17. Retrieved May 19, 2013.
- Engber, Daniel (2008-01-02). "Survival of the Yummiest: Should we buy Michael Pollan's nutritional Darwinism?". Slate. Retrieved 2010-06-01.