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Nutritionism and the Value of Food

What is "nutritionism"?

Nutritionism is an ideology coined by Gyorgy Scrinis (an Australian sociologist of science) that suggests the value of food is solely determined by its nutritional composition1. In other words, nutrients determine the value of food, and the sole purpose of food is to deliver these nutrients to our bodies. Keep in mind that nutritionism is not the same as nutrition1, which is a scientific subject that studies the interactions between food and the human body.

Scrinis discusses nutritionism in his book Nutritionism: The Science and Politics of Dietary Advice2.

The term “nutritionism” was made popular by Michael Pollan (an American author and journalist) in his 2008 book In Defense of Food2. He outlines a few key premises of nutritionism:

  1. “Foods are essentially the sum of their nutrient parts”1
  2. “The whole point of eating is to maintain and promote bodily health”1
  3. “Food should be divided into the healthy ones and the unhealthy ones”1


This view is evident in the multi-billion dollar industry of vitamin and mineral supplements, where micronutrients (and even macronutrients, as seen in protein powder) are separated from food.

Pollan suggests that separating the nutrient from the food poses a challenge in nutrition studies, because when you’re studying nutrients you are isolating them from real-life factors, such as diet and culture.1

Why is nutritionism flawed?

Yes, food is a vehicle for nutrients that are important for the functioning of the human body, but this is not the only value of food.

If the only value of food was nutrients, why does birthday cake exist? Why do we celebrate special occasions with cultural dishes? Why do some religions abstain from certain foods or have fasting periods? Why do family and friends eat together?

The answer is that we eat food for nutrients, but also for pleasure, sociality, community, hospitality, culture, religion, and identity. Nutritionism ignores these many other reasons for why humans eat food, and why we choose the foods we do.

To sum it all up in the words of one of my university professors, “Humans eat food, not nutrients“.3

table of food

Here is another short 3-minute video of Michael Pollan discussing nutritionism.


  1. Pollan, M. In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto; Penguin Books, 2008.
  2. Nutritionism. Columbia University Press, 2017. (accessed Jan 6, 2022)
  3. Willows, N. Biocultural Perspective of the Human Diet. NUFS 223: Cultural Ecology of Food & Health. University of Alberta, Fall 2021.

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