Take An Apple – The Problem With Nutraceuticals

It is everywhere you look today. The scientific community, the media, and the public refer to isolated components of food as if they were drugs. We talk about lycopene, not tomatoes. Vitamin C, not oranges. Calcium, not broccoli. The official term for this horrific conceptualization is “nutraceuticals.” Just like pharmaceutical, only with a nutrient. It is a similar, though in my opinion more dangerous trend, than referring to foods as if they were only a protein, carbohydrate, or fat.

This reductionist perspective misses all that is meaningful about food. Foods are reduced to only a few macronutrient (protein, carbohydrate, or fat), micronutrient (vitamins and minerals), or non-nutrient (flavanoids, antioxidants, enzymes, etc.) components. In particular, the discussion revolves around whichever of these happens to be popular at the time. Even from the perspective of applied biochemistry, this viewpoint is narrow. The composition of food and the biochemical processes of the body are far too complex to be speaking about single compounds as if they were the only ones that mattered. From a Chinese energetic perspective, the properties of foods (and herbs) are never described in terms of isolated compounds. It is the synergistic result of every single ingredient of the food, as well as where and how it was grown and how it is prepared, that creates its properties.

When applied to food, the reductionist perspective (which lies at the very root of modern Western culture) leads to dissociation from one’s source of nourishment. People refer to “taking an apple” or “eating a lean protein”. This misses both the point that food is eaten and transformed into us (we are what we eat), and that what we ingest is always some other living organism. Chicken is not a lean protein, it is a small animal with feathers and a beak. Tomatoes are fruits that grow from plants. When we take such a reductionist perspective, we remove ourselves (at least in our minds) from the cycle of life. Everything becomes a compound which is here for us to eat, so that we can lose weight and lower our cholesterol (see Fish Oils and Omega 3’s).

Even in our own self-centered perspective of individual health, this limited view of food does not create wellness. Look around at your friends and neighbors if you do not believe this. Every food has its own unique characteristics. Learning to differentiate the simple fact that a bowl of brown rice is not the same as a piece of white bread, despite the fact that they both contain (or erroneously, “are”) carbohydrates, leads to a much more sophisticated view of health than just saying carbohydrates are bad.

Finally, I feel it is important to understand why this perspective is perpetuated. Profit. From a public perspective, this might not be obvious. But I read the trade journals. Large chemical corporations (which by the way are the ones who make these “value added” nutraceuticals such as soy isoflavones and omega 3 fish oils), in conjunction with the multinational food conglomerates, actually plan what the next nutrient craze is going to be. People think that this arises from actual scientific discoveries, but it doesn’t. It is planned, along with a whole variety of foods that will host the “newly discovered” compounds.

Pay attention to the language that is used to describe foods. See if you can start thinking about a food for what it actually is, not what you can divide it up into. Your diet and your health will improve if you do.