Gyorgy Scrinis. Nutritionism: The Science and Politics of Dietary Advice. New York: Columbia University Press. 2013. 352 pp.
We currently live in the age of “functional nutritionism.” We are surrounded by cereals enhanced with calcium, soft drinks fortified with vitamins, butters and yogurts low in fat, and breads low in carbohydrates. These products all claim to make us healthier and skinnier by optimizing our consumption of beneficial nutrients and minimizing our consumption of harmful ones. As Gyorgy Scrinis shows in his book Nutritionism, though, these foods do not always have the effects we expect. He argues that by focusing on the nutrient composition of foods, the presence of “good” nutrients, and the absence of “bad” nutrients, we draw our attention away from more important issues, such as the production and processing quality of our supposedly healthy food. Scrinis refers to this reductive focus as “nutritionism” and illustrates how the concept shaped the practices of the food industry, nutritional science, dietary guidelines, and the public understanding of food in the past 150 years.
Drawing on scientific, sociological, historical, and contemporary popular accounts and debates on nutrition, Scrinis claims to have a strong critique of nutrition science. He argues that other critics of nutrition science, such as Marion Nestle or Michael Pollan, have focused only on how scientific knowledge is mistranslated into dietary advice and thus overlook the larger problems of nutrition science. Scrinis questions the conventional paradigms of nutritional science, which he argues fail to offer a solid and trustworthy dietary guidance for the public. Scrinis powerfully illustrates the contested history of nutrition science through his nutritionism concept and offers a comprehensive critique of how nutritionism has been applied, utilized, and exploited in dietary guidelines, nutrition labeling, food engineering, and food marketing. Yet the book falls short by failing to present a real alternative paradigm to nutritionism or to give directions in today’s confusing nutritional landscape.
One of the best sections of this book is an analysis of the evolution of scientific knowledge from the perspective of his nutritionism concept. Nutritionism has taken different forms throughout the history of nutrition science. Scrinis identifies three main paradigms: “quantifying nutritionism,” “good-and-bad nutritionism,” and “functional nutritionism.” These paradigms frame the production, interpretation, and application of nutritional knowledge from the 1800s to the present (45).
The era of quantifying nutritionism ranges from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries and is characterized by the scientific discoveries of carbohydrates, protein, fats, vitamins, and calories. These nutrients deconstruct and decontextualize food, thereby turning it into a measurable, comparable, and quantifiable object. They also constitute the nutritional message of this era, which advocated people “eat more” of these essentially “good” and protective nutrients to meet their recommended calorie intake. Beginning in the 1960s, scientists started to distinguish between these nutrients and identified “bad” nutrients that can lead to chronic diseases. This is the era of good-and-bad nutritionism, and the dominant paradigm was to “eat less” of “harmful” nutrients and foods, such as fat and butter. Finally, the era of functional nutritionism began in the 1990s and continues today. It perpetuates the notion of a single causal relationship between nutrients and bodily health but emphasizes the positive, health-enhancing role of special nutrients and foods. Functional nutritionism suggests optimizing the consumption of functional nutrients to “eat smarter” (162).
The “trans-fats fiasco” or the history of margarine described in Chapter 6 illuminates the practices of nutritional reductionism and illustrates the shifting paradigms identified by Scrinis. Before the 1960s, margarine had been mainly a cheap substitute for butter, consumed by the poorer segment of the population. But when scientists in the early 1960s found evidence of the relationship between saturated fats and heart diseases, margarine, which is made from polyunsaturated fats, was cast as a healthier, more desirable alternative to butter. Scrinis in this chapter shows how nutritional experts promoted margarine over butter in the era of good-and-bad nutritionism based on then-premier nutritional research, which claimed that saturated, “bad” fats increase the risk of heart disease. He also illustrates how the food industry took advantage of the reductive focus on nutrients in the era of functional nutritionism by claiming margarine reduces blood cholesterol levels. This history shows how the reductive focus on a single nutrient—in this case the presence or absence of “good” and “bad” fats—can distract attention from the highly processed and chemical components of the product itself by removing a nutrient from its broader dietary context, exaggerating the health benefits of a single nutrient and simplifying the relationship between saturated fats and the risk of heart disease.
In the final chapters of the book, Scrinis presents an alternative paradigm to nutritionism, the “food quality paradigm,” a more nuanced and complex framework meant to understand healthy and nutritious food without eliminating the findings of nutritional science. This paradigm focuses on the quality of production and the level of processing when evaluating food, distinguishing between whole, refined-processed, and processed-reconstituted foods (218–19). While refined-processed foods only contain additives, refined, and extracted ingredients, processed-reconstituted foods are constructed entirely from these ingredients. This frame emphasizes the importance of cultural-traditional knowledge about food and health as well as the sensual-practical experiences of growing and preparing food to identify healthy and wholesome food and diets (236).
Despite the complexity of the food quality paradigm, Scrinis’s alternative seems to agree with the “weak criticism” he earlier disparages: Eat less processed food. While his nutritionism concept is powerful in its critical presentation of the history of nutrition science, the several other concepts he introduces within his “Nutritionism and Food Quality Lexicon,” such as the “nutritional gaze” or the “nutricentric person,” are rather confusing for our understanding of nutrition science and do not help Scrinis to further his critique.
Overall, Scrinis’s expertise is the history and philosophy of science and social theory, which makes Nutritionism a unique theory of nutrition science. He uses social theory to extensively critique nutritional science as a practice, a paradigm, and an ideology. His ideas range from the epistemic practices of the scientific field to the strategies of big food corporations in exploiting this knowledge. His historical approach offers a detailed background that supports and illustrates his arguments and renders visible the working mechanisms of this nutritional ideology. Even though the neologisms and complex theoretical framework are confusing at times, the book is still worthy of the attention of nutrition and social scientists as well as of the lay audience.
Anett K. Toth is an masters student in the Sociology and Social Anthropology program at the Central European University, Budapest. Her research interests include science and technology studies, development studies, the anthropology, sociology and politics of food and nutrition, and the relationships between knowledge and power. She conducted ethnographic research on the articulation of Kurdish identity in various culinary spaces of Budapest. Currently she is working on her thesis examining multilateral nutritional interventions in Nepal.