György Skrinis: dietetics serves the interests of the food industry

György Skrinis teaches food policy at the University of Melbourne (Australia). He regularly collaborates with the Center for Epidemiological Research on Health and Nutrition at the University of São Paulo (Brazil) under the direction of Professor Carlos Monteiro, creator of the NOVA food classification. His research focuses more specifically on nutritional science. György Skrinis is the first researcher to denounce ultra-processed food and its toxic effects on health.

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In your book, you denounce the drift in nutritional science you call “nutritionism.” What is dietetics for you?

Professor György Skrinis : Nutritionism, or dietary reductionism, refers to the way in which nutrition scientists attempted to understand and interpret foods and eating habits almost exclusively in terms of their multi-nutrient composition. This has been the paradigm or dominant structure of nutritional science for over a century. This reductionist focus on nutrients has led to an out-of-context, simplistic, and exaggerated understanding of the relationship between nutrients, food, and the body. Food companies have also used this focus on nutrients as a way to market their products.

What is your definition of nutritionism? The science of nutrition began in the 19th century, emerging from the discipline of chemistry and adopting a narrow view of food as part of the chemical building blocks. Although there have been significant shifts in this paradigm over the last century, nutrition scientists have until recently been of the view that we need to understand food at the level of nutrients, not at the level of nutrients, foods, or eating habits.

What do you think is nutritious food?

My book The Drifts of Nutrition does not attempt to answer the question of what nutritionally healthy food is. I am not a nutritionist or nutritionist. In the book, I argue that we should not define the health effects of foods based on one or two nutrients, but should also consider other ways of understanding food quality. For example, nutrition scientists have overlooked the question of how different ways of processing foods affect their quality. For this reason, I propose a system of categorizing foods according to their level of processing and argue—in line with the advice of most experts—that our diets should be balanced first and foremost. from products with minimal processing. It’s also important not to exaggerate the health benefits or harms of any single food, but instead consider the impact of all of our eating habits.

So how do you define healthy eating?

I believe that there is a wide range of diets that can be considered healthy given the variety of diets followed around the world. But most traditional eating habits are usually based on varied and balanced range of products with minimal processing. Personally, I do not adhere to certain diets or nutritional philosophies.

How then to make your diet?

My diet mainly consists of a variety of foods with minimal processing. I eat a lot of legumes and vegetables and bake my own sourdough bread. First and foremost, I am a vegetarian, not because I consider meat unhealthy, but for reasons of animal welfare and environmental sustainability.

In France we have the slogan “eat less fat, less salt, less sugar “. Do these recommendations come from dietetics?

Many highly processed foods are made from large amounts of fatty meats, vegetable oils, sugar and salt, and refined grains. There are good reasons to be concerned about the unbalanced ingredients that make up these products, as well as other processing methods that detract from their quality. But when these foods are defined by their nutritional profile—high in sodium, sugars, and saturated fat—then it can help veil the overprocessed ingredients and additives, and the transformation processes they have undergone that have distorted them. Food companies can also take advantage of this concentration of nutrients by modifying and marketing their products as low fat or low sugar.

Do we also have Nutri-Score? What does it have to do with nutrition?

Like all other simplified labeling systems used around the world, the Nutri-Score is a nutrient-based scoring system for assessing the nutritional value of foods. This often gives a lower score to low-quality products that have undergone deep processing. But as with most other nutrient-based systems, there are many anomalies, which is why some low-quality foods get a high score.

Do you think that this type of nutritional assessment, such as health star rating in Australia can help people eat better and avoid metabolic diseases?

The Australian Health Star Rating is probably the worst simplified labeling system in the world. It is poor at distinguishing between good and bad quality foods and rates many ultra-processed foods well. For this reason, food companies are very fond of this system, but few consumers seem to use it or take it seriously.

How should official dietary guidelines evolve that focus on fat or fiber, for example?

Official dietary guidelines could move away from precise nutrient-based dietary recommendations and instead promote globally balanced diets based on diversity, minimal processing, and environmental sustainability. Countries could follow the example of Brazil’s dietary guidelines, which don’t address nutrients at all, but simply recommend avoiding ultra-processed foods.

As an expert in public health nutrition policy, what actions would you recommend to improve public health?

Public health policy should focus on measures to improve the quality of food produced and distributed, not on making consumers responsible for choosing healthier foods. This includes a policy of direct regulation of food companies producing ultra-processed foods.

What important information should be given to consumers on food packaging?

Food packaging should give clearer and more detailed information about how the product was grown or prepared; for example, more information about where each ingredient came from and how it was processed. The emphasis on nutritional composition in labeling has been used to hide these important issues.

In your opinion, why and how to regulate the production or limit the consumption of highly processed products?

Most ultra-processed foods are produced by large food companies and these companies are responsible for the intensive development, production, marketing and distribution of these products. The best way to limit the consumption of ultra-processed foods is to impose direct restrictions on the ability of these companies to manufacture, distribute and sell these products.

A French food manufacturer has just launched a baby margarine fortified with calcium and vitamin D. What inspires you?

Margarine is a highly processed product. which involves the chemical transformation of vegetable oils and the use of numerous additives to give a pleasant taste and appearance, as well as to mimic butter. Without these additives, it would be terrible to look at and taste. Margarine manufacturers have focused their marketing on the nutritional value of their products to hide the poor quality of their products and show that margarine is more nutritious than butter.

Many studies have linked food intake to disease prevalence. For example, high fiber almonds and cardiovascular disease. What do you think of this type of training?

Many of these studies overstate the role of individual foods or individual nutrients in causing or preventing chronic disease. Unique nutrients and unique foods need to be studied and interpreted in the broader context of their multiple interactions with foods and dietary habits, as well as in broader social and environmental contexts.

Households are consuming more and more ultra-processed foods. What is the effect of these products on health?

Ultra-processed foods are usually made from ingredients that have been refined, broken down, and modified during processing. They are often high in sugar and require many supplements. They have multiple harmful effects on our diet and our health.

You collaborate with the team of Carlos Monteiro, at the origins of the Nova rating. How do food manufacturers perceive this new classification?

Companies that make and market ultra-processed products hate the NOVA classification because it allows us to accurately identify and study their ultra-processed products. Nor can these corporations manipulate the NOVA classification as they did with nutrient-based classifications, for example by changing the composition of food to reduce the level of one or two nutrients.

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