Real Food is More Than the Sum of Its Nutrients

Americans have always been concerned with nutrition. In 1912, Casimir Funk discovered complex compounds, which he called "vital amines" or "vitamines". At approximately the same time, Dr. Elmer McCollum and Marguerite Davis discovered a substance in cow's milk, butter fat, and egg yolk that seemed to be essential for growth in laboratory animals. Their discovery was named Vitamin A.  Additional vitamins were discovered and elimination of deficiency diseases became possible through the consumption of vitamin-rich foods. 

Readying for World War II, Selective Service Director, General Lewis B. Hershey reported that draft boards turned away 380,000 of the first million men screened, with malnutrition causing at least a third of all rejections. Through war and scientific study, it was determined that as a matter of policy, synthetic enrichment (the mandatory inclusion of thiamin, niacin, iron, and, later, riboflavin to flour and bread) was necessary to ready, strengthen and prepare America’s fighting men. For war planners, synthetic enrichment was the only "realistic" way to improve the nation's health.  Thus began nutrition reductionism.

Reductionism is the philosophy that a complex system is nothing more than the sum of its parts, and that an account of the complex system can be reduced to accounts of its individual components.  The belief can be applied to objects, phenomena, explanations, theories, and in this particular domain, food. 

Fragmentalism is an alternative term for reductionism.  The idea that each component of a system can be deconstructed and then reassembled is demonstrative of reductionism, the theory that forms the basis of our current food system.   

Reductionism strongly reflects a certain perspective on causality. An example would be the assumption that nutrients alone, and not whole foods, benefit health and wellness—like consuming Vitamin C for health instead of eating an orange. 

Unfortunately, today’s marketing schema exploits this phenomenon to such a degree that our drive for health and wellness has us seeking pills and potions instead of real food. But is isolation of specific substrates, vitamins, minerals, and micronutrients effective?

What reductionism cannot account for is that food is an organism, whether plant or animal.  To disturb the known and unknown symbioses of its parts would render the social aspect of eating hugely inconsequential and reduce humans and food to simply chemical interfaces. 

In layman’s terms, if reductionism were adequate, then we should be able to break down the human body into chemicals and minerals like we have done to food and simply add water to reconstitute.  And with hubris, we may think we can do it better than nature originally did.

Reductionist theory, as it is applied to food has a term—nutritionism. Nutritionism assumes that a food can be distilled into the sum of the values assigned to its nutrients. In this disaggregated state, the nutrients have a different value than the collective combination of those nutrients, as well as their relationships as they occur in nature.  Gyorgy Scrinis coined the phrase and Michael Pollan popularized it in his book In Defense of Food

Our industrial food system no longer produces food but reconstituted food products, emphasizing the macronutrients of fat, carbohydrates, fiber, and proteins and the micronutrients of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, antioxidants, flavonoids, et cetera.  Nutritionism is, among other things, the unintended consequence of maximizing profit yields, growth yields, and economies of scale.

Scrinis and Pollan argue that the industrial food system assumes the value of a food is the sum of its nutrients.  Nutritionism justifies the disaggregation of food into components and the reassembly of components into a variety of products that Pollan says are no longer food but are “food-like substances,” highly processed foodstuff, or simply, nutrition. 

Dr. T. Colin Campbell spends a great deal of time discussing this in his book, Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition. The book discusses the state of food and makes a clear distinction between “wholism” and “reductionism.” Campbell differentiates early on and often:

“If you are a reductionist, you believe that everything in the world can be understood if you understand all its component parts. A wholist, on the other hand, believes that the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. That’s it: the entire debate in a nutshell.” 

Campbell postulates that this practice has roots in an ideological clash between faith and rationalist viewpoints. The two dispositions became more and more diametrically opposed resulting in antagonism:

“Rather than seeking partnerships with theologians, scientists increasingly sought to distance themselves and their endeavors from 'superstitions' not grounded in observable fact. This included not just religion, but any idea that did not adhere to scientific views, in which truth was found only through breaking down the observable world into as many smaller parts as possible. In short: reductionism”.

The food industry thrives on the idea that food requires disaggregation, disassembly, reassembly, a litany of experts, and the movement away from eating whole food and toward eating a conglomeration of nutrients. The assumption gives industry a purpose and allows them to substitute cheap, shelf life-proloning ingredients which in turn allow them to control costs and maximize profits. It is the quintessence of utility. 

In a New York Times article, Michael Pollan goes further still. We are worried far too much about nutrients and not enough about food.  By utilizing the components of the disaggregated food and reconstituting them into “product,” the food industry can maximize economies of scale and change the dialogue from food distribution to nutrient delivery. Here is an example of reducing food into its components.

Pollan writes:

“Indeed, to look at the chemical composition of any common food plant is to realize just how much complexity lurks within it. Here’s a list of just the antioxidants that have been identified in garden-variety thyme:

Terpineol, alanine, anethole, apigenin, ascorbic acid, beta carotene, caffeic acid, camphene, carvacrol, chlorogenic acid, chrysoeriol, eriodictyol, eugenol, ferulic acid, gallic acid, gamma-terpinene isochlorogenic acid, isoeugenol, isothymonin, kaempferol, labiatic acid, lauric acid, linalyl acetate, luteolin, methionine, myrcene, myristic acid, naringenin, oleanolic acid, p-coumoric acid, p-hydroxy-benzoic acid, palmitic acid, rosmarinic acid, selenium, tannin, thymol, tryptophan, ursolic acid, vanillic acid.”  

 That is a lot of “nutrition,” but it is merely the herb thyme. Pollan continues:

“This is what you’re ingesting when you eat food flavored with thyme. Some of these chemicals are broken down by your digestion, but others are going on to do undetermined things to your body: turning some gene’s expression on or off, perhaps, or neutralizing a free radical before it damages a strand of DNA. It would be great to know how this all works, but in the meantime we can enjoy thyme in the knowledge that it probably doesn’t do any harm (since people have been eating it forever), that it may actually do some good, and that even if it does nothing, we like the way it tastes.” 

We are bombarded with nutritionism and reductionist thinking every day.  We shop for nutrient conglomerations instead of simple, whole food. Food is no longer marketed as such but as a variety of products designed to meet the growing illusion of ills and nutritional shortcomings.  Most of our food products are not food at all but low fat, no cholesterol, whole grain, heart healthy, omega 3-rich, vitamin-fortified, enriched, chemically-enhanced food-like substances.  

That folks, is not real food.


Daniel W. O’Connor, MA is currently employed by the Department of Homeland Security. He is a graduate of National Preparedness Leadership Initiative from the Harvard Kennedy School and received his Master’s Degree from the Naval Post Graduate School in Monterey California where he was the Curtis H. “Butch” Straub Award recipient for exemplary academics, outstanding thesis, and classroom leadership.


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