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Giving Food Its Due

We seldom go back more than six to eight months when presenting important research findings in our Breakthrough News section, but we want to make an exception for a groundbreaking research review by Dr. David Jacobs at the University of Minnesota and Dr. Linda Tapsell at the University of Oslo, Norway. Their work, entitled "Food, Not Nutrients, Is the Fundamental Unit in Nutrition" is one that signals a new era in study of food, nutrition, and health.

In their review, these researchers document a history of diet studies in which a focus on individual nutrients has often prevented scientists from discovering healthful foods. Concern over a single nutrient-for example, fat-has often discouraged scientists from even considering the valuable role played by whole foods. As key examples, the study authors name olives and high-fat fish. According to the authors, these foods, now considered to have many unique health benefits, were often overlooked in health research because of an inappropriate emphasis on a single nutrient (fat) and its perceived role in health.

In their review, the researchers go on to explain how it is wrong to use nutritional supplement studies as a basis for judging the value of food. They use the pectin found in apples as a key example. Many nutritional supplement studies have shown that pectin is beneficial for our health. However, the amount of pectin provided in these studies through nutritional supplements has often been far more than the amount naturally present in a medium apple. The authors point out that we should not therefore look at apples and conclude that they cannot possibly be beneficial for our health since they contain far less pectin than the pectin supplements used in the study. Instead, we should assume that the unique mix of nutrients found in apples, including pectin, forms what they describe as a "food matrix" in which hundreds of naturally occurring constituents work together in support of our health. At the World's Healthiest Foods, we sometimes evaluate supplement studies to improve our understanding of food constituents and their role in health, but we do not use supplement studies as a basis for making food recommendations unless we are confident that normal, everyday amounts of food can provide nutrients in the same general range that was provided by supplements in the studies, and over a similar period of time.

The researchers go on to analyze research in the area of heart disease over the past 40 years and concluded that the majority of research studies failed to look at the potential benefits of foods and instead reduced the value of foods to a very limited number of nutrients, like their fat content or cholesterol content. They point out that only more recently have investigators begun to appreciate the unique value of foods themselves. They conclude that much of this new focus on foods can be credited to research on the Mediterranean Diet and its unique blend of natural foods.

We agree with these researchers about a major shift in the world of research away from individual nutrients and over not only to food, but to whole types of cuisine (like the Mediterranean Diet). It's why we don't call our website, "The World's Healthiest Nutrients," and why we always emphasize the overall nature of the diet and its balance of whole, natural foods. It's great to have top-level researchers in a journal of top scholarship like Nutrition Reviews signaling the priority of food in our thinking about health.

Pratical Tip

Even though we live in a time when many of the nutrients found in food can also be obtained from nutritional supplements, don't fall into the trap of thinking that nutrients are the fundamental source of our nourishment. That fundamental source is food! The nutritional uniqueness of every whole, natural food is the reason that it's so important to build a diet based on high-quality, fresh foods. In fact, with an optimal balance of whole, natural foods, nutrient issues will often take care of themselves.