Gyorgy Scrinis: nutritionism serves the interests of the food industry

Gyorgy Scrinis is a lecturer in food policy at the University of Melbourne (Australia). He regularly collaborates with the Center for Epidemiological Studies on Health and Nutrition at the University of Sao Paulo (Brazil) directed by Prof. Carlos Monteiro, the originator of the NOVA food classification. His research focuses more specifically on the science of nutrition. Gyorgy Scrinis is the first researcher to have denounced the ultra-processing of food and its toxic effects on health.

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In your book, you denounce a drift in the science of nutrition that you call “nutritionism”. What is nutritionism for you?

Professor Gyorgy Scrinis : Nutritionism, or nutritional reductionism, refers to the way nutritional scientists have attempted to understand and interpret foods and eating habits almost exclusively in terms of their composition of a few nutrients. It has been the paradigm, or the dominant framework of nutritional science for over a century. This reductive focus on nutrients has led to a decontextualized, simplified and exaggerated understanding of the relationship between nutrients, food and the body. Food companies have also exploited this focus on nutrients as a way to market their products.

Your definition of “nutritionism” The science of nutrition began in the 19th century, emerging from the discipline of chemistry and adopting a narrow view of food as being composed of chemical building blocks. Although there have been significant shifts in this paradigm over the past century, nutritional scientists have, until recently, maintained this belief that we need to understand foods at the nutrient level, rather than at the level of nutrients. foods or eating habits.

What do you think is a nutritionally sound food?

My book The Drifts of Nutrition does not attempt to answer the question of what constitutes a nutritionally sound food. I am neither a nutritionist nor a dietitian. In the book, I argue that we should not define the health effects of foods based on one or two nutrients, but also consider other ways of understanding food quality. For example, nutrition scientists have overlooked the question of how different types of food processing impact food quality. For this reason, I propose a system of classifying foods according to food processing levels, and I argue – in line with most expert advice – that our diets should primarily be made from minimally processed foods. It’s also important not to overstate the health benefits or harms of any single food, and instead consider the impacts of our total eating habits.

So how do you define a healthy diet?

I believe there is a wide range of diets that can be considered healthy given the diverse diets followed around the world. But most traditional eating habits are usually based on a diverse and balanced range of minimally processed foods. Personally, I don’t follow specific diets or food philosophies.

How do you compose your diet then?

My diet is mostly made up of a diverse range of minimally processed foods. I eat lots of legumes and vegetables, and I bake my own sourdough bread. I am primarily a vegetarian, not because I think meat is harmful, but for animal welfare and ecological sustainability reasons.

In France, we have the slogan “eat less fat, less salt, less sugar “. Do these recommendations stem from nutritionism?

Many highly processed foods are made from large amounts of fatty meats, vegetable oils, sugar and salt, and refined grains. There’s good reason to be concerned about the unbalanced ingredients that make up these foods, as well as other ways they’ve been processed that degrade their quality. But when these foods are defined by their nutrient profile – high in sodium, sugars and saturated fats – then it can help gloss over ultra-processed ingredients and additives, and the transformation processes to which they have been subjected and which have distorted them. Food companies can also exploit this nutritional concentration, by modifying and marketing their products as being low in fat or sugar.

We also have the Nutri-Score? What does it have in common with nutritionism?

Like all other simplified labeling systems used around the world, Nutri-Score is a nutrient-based scoring system for assessing the nutritional quality of foods. It often gives low-quality ultra-processed foods a lower rating. But like most other nutrient systems, there are many anomalies, so some low-quality foods receive a high score.

Do you think this type of nutritional score, such as the Health Star Rating in Australia can help people eat better and avoid metabolic disease?

Australia’s Health Star Rating is probably the worst simplified labeling system in the world. It does a poor job of distinguishing between good and bad quality foods, and scores many ultra-processed foods well. For this reason, food companies are very fond of this system, but few consumers seem to use it or take it seriously.

How should official nutritional recommendations, which focus for example on fats or fibres, evolve?

Official nutritional recommendations could move away from precise, nutrient-based dietary advice, and instead promote globally balanced diets based on diversity, minimal processing and ecological sustainability. Countries could follow the example of Brazil’s dietary recommendations, which do not address nutrients at all, and simply recommend avoiding ultra-processed foods.

As an expert in public health nutrition policy, what actions would you recommend to improve the health of the population?

Public health policies should focus on measures to improve the quality of food that is produced and distributed, rather than placing the responsibility on consumers to make healthier choices. This includes policies to directly regulate food companies that produce ultra-processed foods.

What essential information should be given to consumers, appear on food packaging?

Food packaging should give clearer and more detailed information about how a food was grown or made; for example more information about where each ingredient came from and how it was processed. The emphasis on nutritional composition in labeling has been used to hide these important issues.

In your opinion, why and how to regulate the production or limit the consumption of ultra-processed foods?

Most ultra-processed foods are made by large food companies, and these companies are responsible for the intensive design, manufacturing, marketing, and distribution of these products. The best way to limit the consumption of ultra-processed foods is to impose direct restrictions on the ability of these companies to produce, distribute and market these products.

A French food manufacturer has just marketed a margarine for children, enriched with calcium and vitamin D. What inspires you?

Margarine is a highly processed product which involves the chemical transformation of vegetable oils, and the use of numerous additives to make the taste and appearance pleasant, and to imitate butter. Without these additives, it would look and taste horrible. Margarine manufacturers have focused their marketing on the nutritional profile of their products in order to conceal the degraded quality of their products and to suggest that margarine is more nutritious than butter.

Many studies associate the consumption of a food with the prevalence of a disease. For example, high-fiber almonds and cardiovascular disease. What do you think of this type of study?

Many of these studies overstate the role of single foods or single nutrients in causing or preventing chronic disease. Unique nutrients and unique foods need to be studied and interpreted within the broader context of their multiple interactions within foods and eating habits, as well as their broader social and ecological contexts.

Households are consuming more and more ultra-processed foods. What are the impacts of these foods on health?

Ultra-processed foods are typically produced from ingredients that have been refined, broken down, and altered through processing. They are often high in sugar and require many additives. They have multiple harmful influences on our diet and our health.

You collaborate with the team of Carlos Monteiro, at the origin of the Nova ranking. How do food manufacturers perceive this new classification?

Companies producing and promoting ultra-processed foods hate the NOVA classification because it allows us to identify and study their ultra-processed products precisely. Nor can the NOVA classification be manipulated by these corporations as nutrient-based classifications have been, for example by reformulating food composition to reduce levels or one or two nutrients.

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