Time to dial down the ‘nutritional cacophony’?

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The French Canadian nutritionist Bernard Lavallée warns that a “nutritional cacophony” is drowning out informed discussion about the food choices we make. Does he have a message for our own industry, asks Jim Manson.

The French Canadian nutritionist Bernard Lavallée likes to stir things up a bit. In his regular talks and TV appearances Lavallée (aka ‘le nutritionniste urbain’) is scathing about ‘nutritionism’ – an approach to diet and health where individual nutrients and micronutrients are valued more than whole foods. He accuses parts of the functional food and supplement industries of reductive thinking about health and diet, and finds nutritional gurus guilty of promoting “bullshit nutritionnelle”. 

Speaking at the recent Sial trade show in Paris, Lavallée said that the resultant “nutritional cacophony” has left us confused about what eating well actually means, adding that we no longer have the “corporal tools” to distinguish what is healthy or not.

Lavallée argues that such “one dimensional” thinking denies the importance of the ‘food matrix’ – the nutritionally complex structures and interactions in food that, in combination, confer health benefits. Instead, he says, we’re encouraged to think of foods as micronutrient delivery systems – oranges contain vitamin C, milk is full of calcium, bananas are a good source of potassium, and so on. In case we’ve forgotten, Lavallée reminds us, bananas are 99.9% not potassium. And that really his point.

Lavallée is not the first food writer to point these things out (Michael Pollan comes to mind) but his intervention is opportune – coming at a time of intense debate about diet and food choices.

Lavallée is a supporter of the NOVA food classification system, which grades food quality based on the type, extent and purpose of food processing – here, ‘ultra-processed’ foods are graded worst, unprocessed or minimally processed the best. A recent survey, which NPG reported on, revealed European consumers’ growing addiction to ‘U-P’ foods. Lavallée thinks ultra-processed represents “a really big challenge for industry”. In Paris, he urged food manufacturers to stop relying on ‘star nutrients’ or superfoods, arguing that while “in the short term, it might be helpful to say your product contains omega-3, probiotics or chia seeds but in the long term, this kind of trend is not helpful”. In fact, he predicts a backlash to nutritional claims driven marketing. Recent studies showing growing consumer distrust of nutrition claims suggest this might already be happening. While Lavallée was addressing a broader food industry audience in Paris, his comments raise questions for our own industry. Are we too contributing to the ‘fractionation’ of natural food (to borrow a term used by the plant-based food researcher Anthony Fardet)?

Part of the original impetus for the natural food movement was to reconnect people with their food, and where it comes from. Arguably, the narrow focus on nutrients that Lavallé identifies, further disconnects us from our food and farming traditions. At the same time, an agenda that seeks to elevate individual micronutrients, extracts and bioactives to a higher nutritional status than whole foods is, in effect, a rejection of holistic principles, and closer to a pharmacological approach.

Then there is the wider context, in which the fundamental, life-sustaining act of eating – with all its cultural and social import – is progressively medicalised, along with other aspects of everyday experience. The natural products industry, whose own constituent parts come together in a shared belief in the principles of holism, should be united in rejecting this trend. 

This article was first published in 2018 in Natural Products Global

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