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Healthy Living

In (Sly) Defense of (Junk) Food?

Michael Pollan, a colleague I very much admire, wrote In Defense of Food. According to my on-line detractors (a.k.a., trolls), I am the author of the sequel: in sly defense of junk food. We’ll examine the case momentarily.

First things first, though. I recognize the liabilities of rebutting trolls this way. For one thing, even thoroughly justified acts of self-defense can make one look, well, defensive. For another, since trolls mostly attract only the interest and attention of one another, there’s a good chance none of their vitriol has come to your attention in the first place. I can accommodate that by addressing topics that matter independently of any provocation, and my position on junk food certainly qualifies.

Finally, I confess I do all I can to avoid the cesspools that form where the constant currents of social media eddy into echo chambers populated by trolls. By now, everyone on-line knows about such trolls, and the hate, bullying, and various displays of humanity’s basest inclinations that can prevail when those so inclined are safely veiled behind a wall of venomous electrons.

I do all I can to leverage the power of cyberspace while avoiding its festering places, but they are at times brought to my attention just the same. I am very fortunate to have colleagues and friends around the world, and when they find my name being pulled into these cesspools in their corners of cyberspace, they warn me about it. I appreciate the camaraderie and intentions, although this may be a case where ignorance is bliss.

So, here we are. I now know that of late, I have been accused of being a very sly front man for the junk food industry. You may imagine my surprise, since this is a bit like accusing Gandhi of slyly fronting for the NRA. But in social media, facts are only as irrelevant as they now seem to be in presidential campaigns. All you need is a hearty dose of disparaging innuendo, and you are good to go.

But it turns out my actual position on junk food is a long-established matter of public record. So if electrons are being used to disparage me, it’s fitting they are abundantly available for rebuttal.

With our freely available Nutrition Detectives® program, we have taught millions of children around the world (and their parents) how and why to identify junk food and avoid it. We have developed music videos to convey the same message to slightly older children.

In my columns spanning years, I have asserted that junk cannot be food, and food cannot be junk; that junk food should be eradicated; and that nutrient-fortification of otherwise junky food is just so much lipstick on a pig.

Apparently all of this translates, in some language spoken only by trolls, to: “please pass the toaster pastries.” I readily concede I am not nearly sly enough to know that language.

The “evidence” propounded to support the charge includes the industry funded research my lab has published. We have, indeed, reported that walnuts confer benefit in diabetes; that eggs may make a better breakfast, even for cardiac patients, than Danish or donuts; and that the significant vascular benefits of cocoa are attenuated by added sugar. And, of course, the funding source was disclosed each time. If, like me, you can’t find advocacy for junk food in that mix- perhaps you just aren’t sly enough, either.

As if this exercise in refuting the pointless didn’t provide enough entertainment, another colleague brought to my attention an article in a local newspaper in Upstate New York declaring the NuVal® nutrient profiling system “fatally flawed.” That proved an irresistible morsel for the same trolls, so let’s add that tribulation to the trial.

NuVal®, which rates the nutritional quality of foods on a scale from 1 to 100, runs on an algorithm called the Overall Nutritional Quality Index®. I led the team that developed the algorithm, but team it was- representing diverse, renowned experts in nutrition and public health from the U.S. and Canada. The system never had, and does not have, any obligations to industry; it is owned by a not-for-profit community hospital that funded its development.

When we completed it, our intent was to make it available to the FDA. Only when scientists there indicated the agency would not be ready for some time to implement any such system (as has proven true; they still have not done so) did the venture evolve into a private sector enterprise. As a result, while all of the nutrient entries in the formula have been published, the algorithm has not. As a scientist, I prefer transparency, and have advocated for it. But, to be fair, I don’t see the engineering blueprints for this Mac I’m using on a billboard either, and yet I can put it to use.

Finally, my disclosure: I did have a financial stake in NuVal® once, but no longer do, and have not for some time. I have no financial ties of any kind to the supermarkets that do or don’t choose to offer the system.

What, then, of the fatal flaw? The article notes that the system, used to score roughly 120,000 foods to date, sometimes scores brownie mix higher than canned fruit. I am pausing here to let you be shocked and appalled…

Now back to our regularly scheduled program.

Well, yes- it’s true. The scores for brownie mixes range from 1 (i.e., abject junk) to 33 (i.e., high-end junk). This entire range is flagrantly lower than the scores for all truly “good” foods: vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, fish, seafood, unprocessed meats and poultry, eggs, and minimally processed dairy, and so on.

The range of scores for canned fruit runs the full gamut, from 1 to 100. Why? Well, sometimes canned fruit is really just that: fruit, in some water. That scores 100, or something near it, just as fresh fruit does. Sometimes, however, the fruit in a can is really just a rounding error relative to the heavy syrup, contributing days’ worth of added sugar. That, appropriately, can score as low as 1. By pointing out that not everything called “fruit” is really any such thing, NuVal® is working exactly as intended. In fact, the less intuitively obvious the scores, the more valuable they are.

So, yes: you could pick a can of heavy syrup with some fruit floating in it that scores a 1, and compare it to the “best” brownie mix (made “best” by such ingredients as whole grain flour, dark chocolate, healthy oil, and walnuts, for instance) that scores a 33, and there’s your indictment: brownie mix outscores canned fruit. Just one problem: NuVal® is right, and the allegation is fatally flawed.

It’s also worth noting that no one reasonably comparison-shops canned fruit versus brownie mix in the first place. Far more relevant is this: NuVal® puts on at-a-glance display that impressive range of scores for brownie mix, so if you’re shopping for that- you can trade all the way up from 1 to 33. It puts on the same at-a-glance display the vastly greater range of scores for canned fruit, so you can avoid being duped into buying a can of mostly heavy syrup.

I hasten to add that NuVal® isn’t perfect, and I very much doubt any such system ever can be. It is, however, the most robustly validated nutrient profiling system in the world, passing through initial validation testing; more validation testing; correlation with both total chronic disease risk and all-cause mortality; and proving itself consumer friendly. Its implementation alters sales patterns favorably. It even seems to influence food choices more meaningfully than financial nudges. Anecdotally, its use has been linked to such impressive n-of-1 benefits as over 100lbs of weight loss.

I have always compared it to GPS, and I think that’s just right. I don’t always “like” the NuVal scores, any more than I always “like” the turns recommended by my GPS in the neighborhoods I know best. But neither is meant to be a substitute for established preferences; both are meant to contribute where knowledge is least certain, and the way least clear. Finding a score you happen not to like to declare the system “fatally flawed” is like declaring GPS fatally flawed because it once advised a turn you didn’t favor.

The last thing to say on that topic is: if NuVal were fatally flawed in a manner that favored junk food, Big Food would be clamoring for its universal application, since so much of the prevailing American food supply is junk. Instead, they’ve been trying to kill it, overtly and covertly, since the start. The only true fatal flaw that NuVal has is that it works exactly as intended, putting truths inconvenient for Big Food on at-a-glance display. As the system’s business travails suggest, this “flaw” may prove fatal, indeed.

In a culture that blithely runs on Dunkin’, peddles sugar-sweetened beverages as a source of happiness rather than diabetes, and markets multicolored marshmallows for breakfast to kids prone to obesity- at-a-glance truth about nutritional quality is the quintessential fatal flaw. With great power, comes powerful enemies.

I concede that some colleagues I respect oppose nutrient profiling on principle, because they think all processed foods are bad, and people should simply eat “real” food. There are a few problems with that. First, some “real” food, like eggs in a carton, nut butter in a jar, lentils in a bag, beans in a can, or whole bulgur wheat in a box- come packaged, and with nutrition facts. They have neighbors on the same shelf that may be highly processed and nutritionally dubious, but similar in appearance. The distinction is worth making, and many shoppers lack the food label literacy to make it without help.

Second, the reality is that our food supply is dominated by items in bags, boxes, bottles, jars, and cans- and that’s what people eat. Until that changes, guidance among the tens of thousands of nutritionally diverse options in that packaged domain is helpful, and needed.

Third, it is somewhat elitist to pretend that advice to eat “real” food will suffice for the population at large. To me, that smacks of Marie Antoinette, reconceived as a foodie: “the peasants have no broccoli? Well, then, let them eat kale!” Not helpful. Trading up to better cereal, or yogurt, or pasta sauce, or even chips- is, and realistic too.

And finally, as noted, testimonials from shoppers, as well as data from studies, suggest enormous potential benefit from trading up food choices one item at a time. I think one of the salient benefits is that this helps consumers steer clear of the hyper-processing and willfully engineered addictiveness Michael Moss describes so incisively.

If, for some reason, you would like to get past the croaking of innuendo by trolls in their cyberspatial cesspools to the corroborating evidence of my defense of junk food, well- good luck. I can offer only this tip: you are apt to find it in all the same places where Gandhi’s secret advocacy for the NRA is chronicled. When you have that smoking gun in hand, come back and tell us about it.

Until then- there is no defense of junk food, sly or otherwise. The defense rests, accordingly.


Director, Yale University Prevention Research Center; Griffin Hospital

Senior Medical Advisor,