Obesity is the second risk factor after age for Covid 19. Obesity now is not the gluttony we are warned against in the Bible. It is a phenomenon of the last fifty years, starting in America, followed by England and then France and spreading to the rest of the world, affecting primarily the lower social classes, often starting at a young age. This phenomenon coincides with the vastly increased use of highly processed foods consumed both in and outside the home. This is not causal proof, but cause for concern. Scientists working with food corporations and governments have so far been of no help in finding a solution. This unhelpfulness of scientists is not new.
At a public inquiry held at the Royal Courts of Justice in February 1920 on the wages of dockers, a statistics professor at the London School of Economics, A. Bowley, testified that the needs of dockers in terms of calories were met by their present wages. Ernest Bevin, trade union leader and the workers’ KC, bought plates of food with the amount of money quoted by Bowley, displayed them before the court and proved the professor wrong. Afterwards he said about the LSE: “Bowley and his budget are a revelation of the prostitution of a great institution [the LSE] which was founded not to keep the workers in slavery but to develop knowledge so the human race might be happier”.
Food scientists work in the large food corporation laboratories. They create new products by extracting, blending, deodorising, flavouring, and putting together with the help of added chemicals various foods; these products are cheap, convenient, and tasty, and don’t make you ill suddenly. Nutritionally engineered foods are scientifically calculated to create the perfect hit of sugar, salt and fat that will have you asking for more, a hyperreal food, attractively packaged, which is more exciting than bread and butter. They are produced for the home for convenience and for fast food restaurants.
Scientific information serves two other purposes, apart from technological development. One is to produce marketing strategies, and the other is to collaborate with government with science backed nutrition advice for the public. Marketing and government nutrition advice follow the approach of not looking at new ingredients and processes, but only at abstract nutrients in isolation.
Food is increasingly marketed with the help of health claims: ‘With added vitamin D’ ‘With added fibre’. The health claims have multiplied, along the lines of ‘helps digestion’ ‘provides beneficial bacteria.’ In 2002, during the H1N1 flu epidemic in America, Kellogg put on the packets of their very high sugar Cocoa Krispies ‘now helps support your child’s immunity’, on the basis of added vitamins A, C and E.
Every packet of food has printed on it a nutrition analysis, couched in scientific vocabulary: “carbohydrates, of which sugar/starch, fat, of which saturates, protein, calories”, plus sugar, salt, and fibre. This list is separate, and diverts attention from the list of ingredients which can be much shorter (just one item on a bag of pasta or rice) or much longer (a whole list of mostly unfamiliar words on a highly processed creation.) It gives the impression that all foods are equivalent: a gram of fat is a gram of fat. A gram of carbohydrate is a gram of carbohydrate. That is not the case. Depending on how the nutrient has been obtained, or has been produced, with the help of higher or lower degrees of heat, mechanical and chemical processes, the resulting product will have a greater or lesser quantity of vitamins and other beneficial elements, and therefore a different effect on the body. Polyunsaturated fats are supposed to be good for you. But there are different qualities, with different effects. The use of extreme heat, mechanical extraction and chemical solvents changes the chemical structure of polyunsaturated oil, but oil processed in this way still bears the same nutrition science name as a cold pressed olive oil: polyunsaturated oil.
Saturated fats are deemed bad, but some saturated fats occur naturally and have been consumed with good effect for centuries (meat, milk, butter, cheese). The fat also changes in nature depending on the use it is put to. Consuming oil as salad dressing is different from consuming the oil in crisps, which has been heated and reheated an unknown number of times.
In the same way, a calorie is not a calorie in terms of the effect it has on the body. A calorie from bread includes elements like vitamins and fibre, unlike a calorie from sugar. All calories, that is, all foods, are not used (metabolised) by the body in the same way and at the same speed. Calories do not make you feel full in the same way, depending on what food they are present in.
The so-called traffic light system of labelling, approved by manufacturers, follows this single nutrient paradigm, with absurd results. Parmesan cheese, sprinkled on the pasta of Italians for ever with healthful results, gets a red light (saturated fat); sweets get a green light (no salt).
General health advice for the public
General health advice for the public is disseminated in the media, and often follows the same approach, that food can be analysed in terms of simple ingredients and that one ingredient might be the culprit in a range of illnesses. After all, if scurvy is prevented by vitamin C, couldn’t other diseases be prevented or cured or indeed caused by a single nutrient?
For a time scientists blamed fat, and recommended low fat diets; they discussed the merits of saturated, unsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats. But there was no discussion regarding the quality of each sort of fat.
Then they blamed carbohydrates and recommended low carb diets. A difference was made between refined carbs (white flour, sugar) and unrefined carbs, present in wholemeal flour and vegetables (except potatoes). No difference was made as to quality. Yet white flour for example can contain vitamins and fibre and other nutrients, it is perfectly possible to make a nutritious loaf of bread with white flour. Potatoes also make a nutritious meal. Sugar on the other hand is a pure element, with no extra nutrition within it; giving them the same name, ‘refined carb,’ obfuscates matters.
Another weight loss and health theory focussed on a single element was to avoid cholesterol in food, until it was found out that naturally occurring food cholesterol e.g. in eggs, has a modest influence on blood cholesterol. Then low Glycemic Index (GI) foods became fashionable as the answer to obesity and diabetes.
That again gave the impression of scientific precision: each food has its Glycemic Index, all you have to do is to avoid foods with high GI (foods that turn into sugar in the blood quickly). But it’s not as simple as that. A carrot has a high GI of 71, but that figure is obtained if you eat 50g of available carrot carbohydrate. The public is left to work out how much available carb there is in a carrot. And so on with all foods. Moreover eating foods in combination can lower the GI, for example adding fat to a food reduces the speed at which a carbohydrate is converted into sugar in the blood. This is what happens in such tried and tested staples as bread and butter, baked potatoes and cheese and other traditional food combinations. All studies of GI involve good quality low GI foods, not poor quality low GI foods. The actual foods promoted by the low GI school is almost always good quality whole foods.
This is direct government advice, not advice produced as a result of legislation as nutrition information on tins and packets. Government advice follows the trend of considering nutrients independently of their quality and manufacturing history.
In England and in France, government advice does not recommend or warn against particular foods, only particular nutrients. It talks as if all foods contained only what the nutrition information list proclaims, as mentioned above: carbohydrates, fat, and protein, plus salt and sugar; fruit and vegetables are put forward. Absent from the advice is any mention of all the other possible ingredients, additives, sweeteners, emulsifiers etc, the effect of which, especially in combination and in quantity, is unknown. Caught between the conflicting aims of protecting public health while not impeding the commercial interests of the food industry, governments end up warning against foods that can be perfectly healthy: red meat, butter, cream, hard cheese, cakes, biscuits. Cakes and biscuits are more or less healthful depending on the ingredients, but talking about ingredients is taboo.
The British NHS still recommends margarine, under its new name of ‘spreads’. We still don’t know completely the effects of hardening oil to make it spreadable (rather than liquid). Otherwise the advice is not as straightforward as it sounds. It assumes a certain lifestyle, which is not as common as it was. ‘Eat five portions of vegetable and fruit a day’ may sound easy, but it can’t be done unless you eat at home, cooking from scratch. Cooking from scratch usually means cooking for others, who abide by mealtimes and eat together. Many families don’t do that. The guilt for not following advice is heaped on the citizen, not on the purveyors of potentially harmful poor quality food, or the lifestyle which has become normal.
The food manufacturers, the government, and the scientists they employ, speak with one voice: look at the major nutrients, and don’t worry about the ingredients and the processes.
Food manufacturers produce foods that are cheap, tasty, and convenient. The presence of these foods in the home and in fast food restaurants has increased dramatically in the last 40 years, coinciding with an increase in obesity and diabetes among the less well off. There is a problem here, but we can’t count on scientists to solve it. Cheap food, carefully avoided by the better off, enables the continuation of low wages. By being complicit in obfuscating advice on food, scientists are instrumental in the perpetuation of low wages, as they were a hundred years ago when Ernest Bevin was defending the dockers.
Source: the single nutrient approach to food science is an ideology called ‘Nutritionism,’ described by Gyorgy Scrinis in his book of the same name. He was quoted by the French nutritionist Anthony Fardet in his presentation to the parliamentary committee on industrial food at the French Parliament, in June 2018.