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

That's not natural or organic: How Big Food misleads(Credit: Big Pants Productioner ryan via Shutterstock/Salon)

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.