By Janet Helm, MS, RD
It’s the concept of synergy: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. That’s the case in so many different scenarios, but it’s especially true in nutrition. Yet, we have become a nation enamored of single nutrients. All too often people are hyper-focused on an individual ingredient or sole attribute when shopping and give a product more credit than it really deserves. Could it be that the parts are becoming more important than the whole?
“Nutritionism” is at an all-time high, according to The Hartman Group, a market research firm that tracks consumer food trends. They define this phenomenon as celebrating an ingredient at the expense of the food itself. This is what has allowed fancy, fortified processed foods to flourish, while whole, real foods in the produce aisle remain uneaten. For instance, potatoes continue to be demonized, yet a bag of baked artisan-style potato chips with added fiber or a dose of omega-3 is enthusiastically embraced.
This is the health halo hard at work, a topic I recently wrote about on Real Life Nutrition. Sometimes the addition of a trendy ingredient (such as fiber and flaxseeds) or a free-from claim (such as gluten-free, no high fructose corn syrup and even organic) can cloud your view and cause you to overlook the bigger picture – the overall nutritional quality of the food.
It seems that our desire to eat healthier is being translated into single-nutrient shopping. The latest nutrition trends survey conducted by the Food Marketing Institute reveals that supermarket shoppers define healthy foods as having certain nutrients (it used to be all about the absence of negatives, such as fat or sugar). Now the focus is on the presence of specific ingredients, with fiber (44%) being the most sought-after component, followed by whole grain (36%), protein (27%), omega-3 (23%) and antioxidants (16%).
Nothing wrong with that, as long as the desire to get those ingredients does not overshadow the package they come in. Are you eating oatmeal, farro and brown rice, or buying cookies that are “made with whole grain”? Do you eat seafood twice a week to get your omega-3s, or are you more likely to buy superjuices studded with chia seeds or omega-3 fortified chips? Are you eating a fruit and vegetable at every meal or getting your antioxidants by unwrapping a fortified candy bar or opening up a packet of artificial sweetener with antioxidants?
Whole foods contain such a mysterious matrix of nutrients and natural compounds that simply cannot by duplicated through fortification. The addition of one nutrient does not suddenly transform a food into a disease-fighting or flat-belly powerhouse, and it certainly can’t make up for other nutritional shortcomings.
Some have even drawn similar conclusions on how we study diet and health, criticizing traditional nutrition research for its “reductionist” approach. An article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition points out the limitations of studying single food components rather than food habits, or parts of a diet rather than the whole.
This reductionist approach has its place, the author concludes, but to truly understand the impact of diet on our health we should go beyond research on parts and grasp for the whole.
It all comes down to whole foods and our whole diet. Yes, Americans still fall short of essential nutrients (including calcium, vitamin D, potassium and fiber), but don’t go single nutrient shopping. Choose your nutrients by the company they keep. Don’t think than any one food will make or break your diet. Keep sight of the big picture.