Who Knew What a Mess Nutritionism Would Become?

July 19, 2011 in fiber, Nutritionism by Joyce Bunderson

I need nutritionist CPR or nutritionist psychotherapy; I’m so exasperated with the rapidity by which the food processors think up new junk food with healthy-sounding ingredients that cannot deliver. The following is what lead me to my infuriated and frustrated state:

Robin, Dr. Grandma’s Operations Manager, brought an advertisement to me that she received in our local newspaper. The name of the product is WhoNu?, nutrition rich cookies. Robin is a certified teacher and taught primary public school children for years and this product set her into more than a little bewilderment with its blatantly deceptive advertising.

Before I tell you more about Robin’s experience, let me introduce you to WhoNu?.


WhoNu? is a line of cookies; the food processors would call the line functional foods. Note: Just typing this makes me feel a bit faint; where’s that nutritionist paramedic when you need him? Functional foods are foods that are designed to meet a specific need, generally to add a nutrient that is not found in a specific food or design a product to be a ‘vehicle’ to deliver a nutrient that is not being consumed in sufficient amount. The bottom line with the term ‘functional food’ is that the meaning is still evolving. It doesn’t just mean adding omega 3s to chicken feed to help those who can’t or won’t eat fish or other foods that provide omega 3s, but that is an example.

Three WhoNu? Cookies, according to the WhoNu? website, have as much fiber as a bowl of oatmeal; as much vitamin C as a cup of blueberries; as much vitamin A as an 8oz. glass of tomato juice; as much vitamin B12 as a cup of cottage cheese and fruit; as much vitamin E as two cups of carrot juice; as much iron as a cup of spinach and as much calcium and vitamin D as an 8oz. glass of milk – Who Knew that you could eat three cookies instead of tomatoes, cottage cheese with fruit, carrot juice, spinach and milk, and get the main benefits from those foods? Now these cookies look like yummy Oreos – quick, easy, crunchy and sweet. But who knew that they were actually nutrition powerhouses and not more mostly empty, but fattening, calories?

Don’t miss the recipe section of the WhoNu? site for your chance to make 12 of your WhoNu? Cookies into a special Chocolate-Dipped lollipop stick. (You add 2 cups of chocolate chips, 2 tablespoons of solid vegetable shortening (yummy!!), ½ cup of white chocolate (just in case there’s not enough saturated fat in the previous ingredients), and the topping of your choice.

Or if that’s too much trouble and you want to turn your three nourishing cookies into a milkshake – try adding 1-cup vanilla ice cream (ranges between 260 to 460 calories), plus a half-cup of milk. Yum, yum, yum – a 600 calorie treat; perfect for the children. No doubt the children will love these treats. And because it has added fiber and vitamins, it must be wildly healthy, according to the logic of nutritionism. Are these products and recipes supposed to help or to amplify the childhood obesity epidemic?

What are We Teaching Children?

Don’t miss the recipe for Cookieruption – I know they were probably hoping that it would take the mind to ‘eruption’ like a volcano – but corruption is the word that comes to my mind. Start with a half a package of ‘nutritious cookies,’ add a package of white chocolate (how big of a package? – Who cares?) and a package of dark chocolate chips (again how big is the package?) Please don’t make this for your children, especially if you’re hoping for a nourishing snack.

One of my first questions, is why not just eat the cheapest junk food cookies that you can buy and take a vitamin tablet, if the concept of added vitamins and minerals works for you?

WhoNu? is, of course, not a new concept; hello Total Cereal, processed grain with vitamins sprayed on since 1961.

What a deal!

Let’s get back to Robin.  The teacher and mother in her is always evident; her first concern was; “What are we teaching the children?” Indeed! They look exactly like Nabisco’s Oreo’s; and the other versions like Chips Ahoy. Why not go after ‘The world’s favorite cookie’ add some cheap nutracuticals and call it nutritious? Robin told me how she used to teach ‘sight recognition’ during introduction to reading. The children could ‘read’ “Coke” and “Pepsi” before they could ‘read’ – it made her point that they knew many words by sight. She believes that being introduced to cookies, as nourishing will lead the children to believe that cookies are ‘health foods.’

Robin, who raised five children, also pointed out that the advertisement included a $1.00 coupon. So the family’s food purchaser, may think, “three of these cookies equals a bowl of oatmeal, with milk and a cup of blueberries; the cost is less than buying the three real foods.”

What I really want to say

While it may be true that three WhoNu? Cookies will provide roughly the same fiber as a bowl of oatmeal; calcium and vitamin D as the milk you’d have with the oatmeal; and as much vitamin C as a cup of blueberries that you may put on top of your cereal – the cookies don’t really equal oatmeal, milk and blueberries. I know that you do not need to be a Registered Dietitian, nor do you need a graduate degree in Public Health to have an inkling that something is rotten in the food processor’s world.

I realize that I’ve written about nutritionism many times, but it bears writing about it yet again. When you eat a whole food like blueberries, oatmeal and/or milk, you get hundreds of nutrients from each of the foods. I won’t even get started on the fact that the cookies are made with nutritionally impoverished white flour. Don’t let the food processors lead you to thinking that the blueberries, for example, are only providing vitamin C; or the milk is only providing calcium and vitamin D or the oatmeal is only providing fiber. It is just wrong – it is, however, a stunning example of nutritionism. Shrink down blueberries to vitamin C, for example; forget that they provide other vitamins, minerals and hundreds of phytonutrients.

I do applaud the WhoNu?, General Mills, and all the other food processors that are so slick with their marketing and imagination. Yes, it’s a sarcastic applause. But I applaud them for their clever marketing; if it were only so easy to lead people to understand that eating real foods will get them to the well-nourished place that they really want to be. I truly don’t believe that anyone really wants to feed his or her child (or themselves) processed rubbish (it’s hard to even call it food). Check out the ingredient list of one of their four cookies varieties; mostly sugar, wheat flour (Of course, that is not whole wheat flour – wheat flour is white flour.)

WhoNu? uses polydextrose as its source of fiber; polydextrose is synthesized from glucose and Sorbitol. We really don’t know if polydextrose has the same benefits as a natural dietary fiber found in whole grains, fruits, legumes, nuts, or vegetables. Polydextrose is not a natural dietary fiber; it is referred to as a functional fiber – there’s that word again. (Note: Did the food processors do some kind of study and decide that ‘functional’ was a great marketing term?) I don’t think that we have any solid evidence yet, that polydextrose can lower cholesterol levels like oat bran. But why would a company with so many additives in their ingredient list care about the type of fiber that is included. Just as they can say, ‘vitamins and minerals,’ polydextrose frees them to say ‘fiber’ too.

I was watching an interview of George Pontiakos the chief executive of BI – Nutraceuticals that was conducted at the annual convention of the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) in the middle of June 2011. The interviewer, Elaine Watson, asked if some foods should be off limits? Like adding healthy ingredients to unhealthy products. Pontiakos said “I don’t see it as unhealthy at all. Any delivery vehicle you can use is a job well done and time well spent. The industry has done a good job of that.” Nutritionist CPR – Please!!! To me, one thing he is saying is that as long as we can deliver functional additives like the ones his company provides in a way that will be eaten eagerly, it doesn’t matter if the delivery vehicle you use is otherwise nutritionally impoverished, laden with empty, fattening calories, and known to increase obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

If you do take the time to look at the Bi-Nutraceuticals list, you will see that they provide extracts from many kinds of plant foods often known to have health benefits when eaten as whole foods, or used in traditional folk medicine. These may be a step away from synthesized chemicals toward the benefits of whole foods, but the research is not in about how much of the nutritional benefit is retained after the processing. However, there is sufficient research to know that the delivery vehicle for a nutraceutical does indeed matter. How much of the supposed benefit from a functional additive can be obtained by those who eat the processed extracts in different delivery platforms (like cookies), and why should anyone think that the claimed benefit offsets the cost of the sugars, saturated fats, refined grains, and chemical colors for which there is ample research evidence?

Another interesting observation discussed in the interview is Watson’s statement: “It has been shown that consumers want to get nutrition from food and drink not from popping pills.”  The implication is that adding the ‘pills’ to the food somehow makes it wholesome. Lastly, Watson asks about the public paying a premium for these functional foods, and Pontiakos says that the public “pays a premium every day.” Indeed we do; but does the public as a whole really understand the potential premium, not just the dollars for new forms of additives, but for increased health care costs? I think not; because we, as a nation, continue to use the impoverished processed foods, with sprayed on, and mixed in vitamin/mineral concoctions. The message must not be clear in the general public’s mind, that eating processed junk food with a few added nutrients does not provide good nutrition – it does not provide the hundreds of nutrients that are available by choosing from a real plant-based diet of whole foods.

Gotta run! I think I hear the paramedics.