Why can’t food scientists and nutritionists be friends?

History is full of buddies who became frenemies and eventually just stopped talking to each other. Such a dilemma is highlighted in a show tune and a rock song. As a graduate student in food science I remember fondly my discussions with members of the opposite sect. Such friendly disagreements were engaged on two different campuses within departments that combined both fields. At one of these institutions Human Nutrition and Food Science continue to occupy the same building, but the programs appear to have drifted apart. At the other school, once celebrated as the first marriage of the two fields, it has now clearly undergone a divorce. Is there hope for a reconciliation, or are we forever doomed?

What nutritionists think of food scientists. The extreme view was expressed by Marion Nestle in Unsavory Truth with “The purpose of food science is to support the food industry by training students for jobs in the industry and by conducting research to support industry goals and practices.” If that was not bad enough, Nestle subtitled her book How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat. She considers the food industry primarily responsible for the development of the obesity pandemic facing the country as well as the spread of chronic diseases such as diabetes and metabolic disorder. In her view, food scientists and the organizations who sponsor them spread false narratives about processed foods and the dangers they purportedly pose to the public. I have sought perspectives on this blogsite from nutritionists to gain their perspective. Although not as extreme as Nestle, such posts echo some of her concerns whether through a public health lens or from a classical nutrition perspective.

What food scientists think of nutritionists. Although not as extreme, Julian McClements indicates that “food scientists tend to think that nutritionists produce information that is often confusing, inconsistent, and impractical.” Information on specific nutrients can be determined in carefully controlled animal studies, but dietary studies with humans are much more difficult to control. Thus, providing simple information on dietary advice is not easy. Contradictory media messages, often from writers without credentials in nutrition, bombard us weekly generally based on single studies that present conclusions not merited by the results.

In Molecules, Microbes, and Meals Alan Kelly states that “for years the advice of nutritionists has tended to uniformly focus on its [fat] avoidance or reduction in our diet.” It is easy to blame nutrition scientists for contradictory advice, but it has tended to be media sources as well as the medical community who have provided the anti-fat message for so many years. In the nutrition courses I took and the books I read on the topic the main point that nutritionists and dietitians were making about fat was that it contributed twice the number of calories per gram or ounce as carbohydrate and protein. The precaution, then, was that it was easier to overconsume fat calories than carbohydrate or protein calories. The attitudes about nutritionists of McClements and Kelly are common within the food-science community, but my take is that dietary advice offered by nutritionists and dietitians has been relatively stable over the past decades.

tossed salad with added beef and cheese
Dietitians recommend modest portions of meat and cheese

What do nutritionists have to offer food science? At present, healthiness of diets, meals, and foods are primarily being set by self-described nutritionists on the internet and food marketers in ads and on packages. Both types of sources leave much to be desired. Who reads the dietary guidelines or seeks out information at eatright.org? We need parameters for healthy foods in the context of healthy meals and healthy meals in the context of healthy diets. What types of foods contribute to better health and which ones do not? Groups like the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics should be calling out unhealthy habits and help develop guidelines as to how foods could be modified to improve their healthiness and decrease their unhealthy properties.

What do food scientists have to offer nutrition? If nutrients truly matter in the context of an overall diet, processed foods will need to be part of the mix. Whole foods, in and of themselves, cannot meet the needs of millions of people who have specialized diets due to medical conditions. Too much food including too much of the wrong kind of food contribute to many of the chronic diseases affecting health of Americans and others around the world. However, not all processed foods are junk and not all junk foods are processed. Food scientists have the skills to design products that taste good without contributing to poor health. As McClements states in Future Foods such changes must come about in developing new products that can be part of a healthy meal that “looks good, makes you feel satisfied, and does not encourage overeating.”

loaf of frozen, gluten-free bread
Ultra-processed food to be avoided or help in maintaining a specialized diet?

What do food scientists and nutritionists have to lose if they just talk past each other? Society has focused on problems associated with obesity and associated chronic diseases. The campaigns against these conditions do not appear to be working as we continue to get heavier as a society. Collateral damage of such campaigns is an emphasis on body image that is partially responsible for eating disorders and disordered eating in the population. By sniping at each other food scientists and nutritionists are missing the key problems with regard to the nutritional quality of our food supply and the healthiness of our daily diets.  It would make more sense if those of us on both sides of the divide could present an united front in the fight against obesity—particularly childhood obesity.

Where do we go from here? Well, a start would be to stop calling each other names and try to understand the difficulties the other side faces. I will continue a dialog—something I started on this site last year and plan to keep going this year. It is important that we each try to understand each other’s point of view, recognize areas of disagreement, and work at finding common ground. Check this space as winter turns into spring while I devote the next three months to this quest.

 

9 thoughts on “Why can’t food scientists and nutritionists be friends?

  1. Jeremy Cherfas has linked to this page from the site https://stream.jeremycherfas.net/2020/why-cant-food-scientists-and-nutritionists-be-friends

    Through the pingback I can read what he says on the site as shown below, but I am unable to respond:

    For one thing, it’s a lot easier to call yourself a “nutritionist”. Then again, where do food scientists work except in industry, or training more food scientists?

    I have sent him an email message with the following response:

    Thank you for highlighting my post on food scientists and nutritionists not being friends. That anyone can claim to be a nutritionist is part of the problem. When I refer to nutritionists I mean those with one or more degrees in an accredited program in human nutrition and/or dietetics. Because of the stigma many critics of the field place on the us, few people would try to pass themselves as food scientists. Food scientists do many things in addition to working for the food industry or teaching people to go into the food industry. In addition to work on mechanical properties; flow of liquid and semi-solid foods; food safety; food fermentation; pro- and prebiotics; characterization of human perception of food flavor, color and textual properties; many food microbiologists and toxicologists work in governments and international organizations such as FAO and WHO to study and help prevent food outbreaks from processed and unprocessed foods and to improve the nutritional quality of foods in developing nations as well as those distributed in times of natural disasters and famines. I highly recommend Alan Kelly’s book Molecules, Microbes, and Meals if you want to know more about what food scientists do outside the doors of a manufacturing plant or a food-science classroom. Another interesting book is Acquired Tastes by Massimo Marcone who went around the world to study exotic foods including trips to Italy to study truffles and Italian saffron.

    If you have an alternate response to Jeremy, please comment here or send it directly to me at rob.shewfelt@gmail.com and I will forward that response to him.

    Thanks

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  2. Speaking as a rogue dietitian who recently decided she needed a better understanding of food science, I applaud your call for mutual cooperation. Started with the book you wrote and have moved on Alan Kelly’s book. I subscribed to the newsletter and look forward to learning more.

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    1. Thank you for your comment. Alan Kelly’s book, which I will review next month, is an excellent overview of what food science is all about. I hope that you will continue to comment on this site, and I invite you to share your insights by contributing a guest post on this site. Please contact me directly at rob.shewfelt@gmail.com.

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  3. Thank you, Dr. Robert L. Shewfelt, for providing a very thoughtful discussion on a topic that has concerned me throughout my career. Professionally, it comes down to mutual respect in the end and when it is there it can be a very fruitful relationship. However, obtaining that is difficult (given the detractors and biases you mention above). Throughout my academic career, I was associated with two different departments which linked Food Science and Nutrition (in their title). One seemed to make it work very harmoniously, the other seemed to struggle (again.. those biases you mention got in the way). I would love to see more comments and applaud your efforts.

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    1. Thank you for your comments. Although there are serious difference in the perspectives of professionals in the two fields, there is a strong body of knowledge that overlaps the fields. An alliance between the fields on topics where we agree could enhance the food supply of the country.

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