Sunday, April 14, 2013

Orthorexia nervosa - Key element of food scandals


On Thursday I have heard the term for the first time: “Orthorexia nervosa”. What a beautiful, mind baffling and useful term! I heard the term on the radio where the popular German wag Harald Martenstein talked about the miraculous effects of aspirin. You can read the squib which is about “nocebo effects” and “disease mongering” in “Die Zeit” and listen to it at NDR Kultur. Martenstein referred to Orthorexia nervosa as a case of disease mongering or perhaps an eccentric idea.

I learned from Wikipedia what the term means and where it comes from. Here is the short version of the history of the term – plagiarized from Wikipedia: “Steven Bratman coined the term "orthorexia nervosa" in 1997 from the Greek orthos, meaning "correct or right", and orexis, meaning "appetite".[8] Literally "correct appetite", the word is modeled on anorexia, meaning "without appetite", as used in definition of the condition anorexia nervosa. Bratman describes orthorexia as an unhealthy fixation with what the individual considers to be healthy eating.” And this is how Wikipedia explains the term: “Orthorexia nervosa (also known as orthorexia) is not mentioned in the DSM[a], but was coined by Steven Bratman[1] to characterize people who develop an obsession with avoiding foods perceived to be unhealthy.[2][3] Orthorexia nervosa is believed to be a mental disorder.”

I think the nutritionists may be too much fixated on the physical aspects of food but I may be wrong. They seem to be thinking that physical and chemical food attributes are the only triggers for orthorexia. (They are triggers but not causes of orthorexia because the brain is always the final cause of mental disorders.)  We have, however, sufficient evidence that for many people metaphysical food attributes may also trigger orthorexia. Witness the many people who painstakingly avoid GMO-food, food that is not bio, eco,  or organic, or who have a strong dislike for food that is non-local or non-fair-trade. Metaphysical or credence attributes of food are food additives that have to be attached to food products as pure information in order to be price-effective and popular means of communicating that information are labels, brands and product reputation which is somehow “in the air”. When some metaphysical food attributes are associated with orthorexia and when metaphysical food attributes are conveyed to consumers as pure information, then pure information must be a trigger of orthorexia.

In food markets we have two groups of specialists for the creation and dissemination of information about food: advertisers and scandalisers. Would these two groups forgo the potential gains from spreading information in order to trigger widespread orthorexia? Hardly. The green bio-marketers, in cahoots with some parts of government, try to induce in consumers mild forms of orthroexia with respect to foods that do not come with nervosa-soothing labels stuck on them. Scandalisers appear to be the most effective inventors and disseminators of  orthorexia-triggering information. Their business model is to try to induce orthorexia epidemics which cause the afflicted to demand ever more information which justifies and rationalizes their disorder. Examples for such orthorexia epidemics based on positive food information loops are the nitrophen-scandal of 2002, the dioxin scandal of 2011, the aflatoxin-scandal and the horse-meat scandal of 2013. In all cases we had short outbursts of orthorexia nervosa.

What practical consequences follow from all this? I can think of one. When orthorexia nervosa is a disease it should be recognised as such by medical insurers. If insurers have to pay for curing this disease they have an incentive to contain orthorexia-triggering information. Insurers, with the support of governments, might therefore try to battle the disseminators of orthorexia-inducing information, just like they battled asbestos companies or tobacco companies, and peace in the food markets might eventually be restored.

Comments are highly welcome!

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