Ethics of Dietary Guidelines: Nutrients, Processes and Meals

Michiel Korthals*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)


Dietary guidelines are mostly issued by agrifood departments or agencies of governments, and are the result of power play between interest groups and values. They have considerable influence over food preferences and purchases of consumers. Ethical problems are at stake not only with respect to power strategies and their influence on consumers. In this paper I will consider three different types of guidelines: a nutrient oriented type (like the Dutch or American ones), a process oriented type (Scrinis in Nutritionism: the science and politics of dietary advice, Columbia University Press, New York, 2013) and a meal oriented type (like the Brazilian one). In the nutrient oriented guidelines healthy nutrients and food stuffs are mentioned that excel in containing one or more ‘healthy’ nutrients. Bio- and nutrition scientists and the producers of nutrients, like the sugar, dairy and animal industry, have a lot of influence in this variant. The nutrient oriented framing of food is focussed on individual health. Individuals are implicitly addressed to take responsibility for their own long term health; they have to acquire surveillance and cognitive skills in interpreting their bio data. They don’t need to acquire skills to cook. In the process oriented type, foods and ingredients are categorized according to minimal, refined and reconstituted production processes. Nutrition scientists have the last say here. Consumers do need some food skills to handle fresh products. In the meal oriented guidelines, politicians, social scientists and fresh food producers have prominent responsibilities with respect to the formulation of the guidelines and their application. Buying fresh products, preparing and eating together are the main themes. Food is framed in terms of cooking, and eating and sharing meals. Consumers have to spend time in buying fresh ingredients and cooking; they have to develop food capabilities. The formulation of dietary guidelines is not a neutral operation, but determined by controversies about framings of food and health, responsibilities and also by integrity and self-confidence of experts. It is striking that biological and nutrition scientists often proclaim to possess the final truth on the healthiness of nutrients, and heap scorn on diet gurus. They don’t care that their often incoherent recommendations cause a lot of confusion with consumers and sometimes even lack of trust. I discuss these themes in the paper and will also give some arguments why in the current situation the meal oriented type is ethically more acceptable.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)413-421
JournalJournal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2017


  • Dietary guidelines
  • Experts
  • Food capabilities
  • Framing
  • Meals
  • Nutrients
  • Power

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