We were fed to believe that calories, protein, carbohydrates, fat, along with a few others should be weighed significantly before consumption. The history of how this came about and why it is ubiquitous today is discussed in depth in Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food”.
The bombardment of nutrient marketing has benefited the conglomerates of the food industry and has created much confusion for consumers. Do you select that granola bar that’s labeled and marketed as low fat, high fiber, low carb, low sugar, or high protein?
How about whether or not you should opt for the pizza dough that now has probiotics?
Does it not strike you as odd that the produce we all know that contain the nutrients that are beneficial to us have no listings on them describing what their high in, low in or good for? Next time you step inside a food store, walk down the middle aisles where all processed foods are located and then proceed to the far end of the grocery store where you will find the produce selection. Be cognizant of how divergent they are in regards to their marketing claims.
Researchers compose studies about nutrients and aim to break them down into single dimensions. Skepticism is needed here for those of us who read and care about what we are ingesting. Height and weight are single dimensions. Those can be measured precisely at a specific point in time. Consider areas where singularity is non-existent. How do you precisely measure the risk of cancer from eating too much meat or whether a glass of wine every day is good for you?
Although we attempt to control all other factors that may play a role in altering the results, how does one account for genetics, exercise, stress, happiness, etc. We also know that certain foods are processed and digested differently when eaten in conjunction with other foods as well as nutrient contents being contingent upon the method we use to cook them.
The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Although determined in a different field of science Anderson’s finding in his essay, “More Is Different” that “The behavior of large and complex aggregates of elementary particles, it turns out, is not to be understood in terms of the simple extrapolation of the properties of a few particles” can be applied to food nutrients.
What is more alarming is that most nutrient studies are based on questionnaires. Do you recall the exact amount of red meat you’ve eaten in the past two months? How about the precise amount of water, exercise, fiber, sugar, or coffee?
We must also take into account how we skew answers. We have the tendency to consciously or unconsciously select choices based on what we speculate may be in our and/or the surveyor’s best interest. Couple this with the inability to determine the precise amount of food we consumed (how many peanuts are in 6 oz?) and your credence of these studies should plunge.
Let’s begin depreciating the importance of nutrients and transition back to single ingredient items. As much as science has completely transformed our lives, researchers should abide by Socrates’ quote that “true knowledge exists in knowing you know nothing”. Humans have an innate desire to understand cause and effect and it often leaves us with misinformation. What is taken as conventional wisdom (the world being flat, Roman’s lining plumbing systems with lead, margarine being healthier than butter) will soon be shattered by new evidence that we did not account or factor in.
Turn over those bars you’ve been eating lately. Read the ingredients listed. What exactly are you eating? Consumer awareness of such is increasing and companies that fail to adopt will soon become obsolete. What we now need is to not only shrink those middle aisles filled with processed and artificial foods but solidify that fresh produce will be its replacement.
Never forget, correlation does not mean causation. It’s imperative we keep that in our cognitive toolkit when reading studies related to nutrition. There is a correlation between ice cream sales and shark attacks but that does not mean one causes the other. It just so happens that shark attacks are more likely in the summer (more of us enter the ocean in summer months) which is also the season most of us buy ice cream.