6 September 2012

Word for thought: nutrition

A few years ago, during the so-called 'McLibel' trial in Britain, the concept of 'nutritious' became a point of contention. Advertising that used the phrase 'nutritious food' was defended on the basis that this referred simply to foods that 'contain nutrients'. Recently, a couple of uses of the word 'nutrition' have reminded me of these arguments.

First of all, while making efforts to gain and maintain fitness, it becomes clear that a number of people in the health business do not talk so much about 'food', but rather about 'nutrition'.  This is natural. They are focusing on the benefit that the body can gain from its intake.  It seems, in some ways, more scientific to describe the 'nutrition on your plate' rather than the 'dinner on your plate'.

The second instance of usage that stuck out recently was in a different context. An episode of the television series Sapphire and Steel, first aired in 1981, features a woman from the future speaking in derogatory terms about the 'food' of the present and bemoaning a lack of supplies of 'nutrition' from her own period. The comparison in this attitude is clear.  The word 'nutrition' is referring to something that is virtuous, clean, and sustaining.  This is in contrast to 'food', which is a little dirtier, a little more dangerous, and - as implied to the television audience - a little bit more fun.

The debate arising from McLibel challenges the idea that all food is nutrition. The attitude from the future in Sapphire and Steel begs the question of whether all nutrition is food.  Linguistically, we must be aware of the implications if we substitute one word for the other.

nutrition, n. (1a) "the process of providing or receiving nourishing substances",
(1b) "food, nourishment"
(Oxford English Reference Dictionary, 2nd ed. revised, 2002)

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