Some comments on the current state of sports nutrition products

June 21st, 2008  |  Published in What to eat  |  8 Comments

Years ago, in an article written for Mesomorphosis, I reflected upon the interesting contradicton of ersatz food in “fitness culture”. I discussed “nonfood” which generally referred to artificially created and/or highly processed food substances such as protein powders, MRPs, amino acid pills, and anything else that can be purchased from a supplement company. Essentially, nonfood is any substance which has undergone a significant degree of human mediation, and which is consumed for fuel or specific physical goals (e.g. muscle mass gain) instead of gustatory pleasure.

Food is generally regarded by bodybuilders not as an experience of organic and sensual enjoyment, but as fuel or a substance which contributes to the achievement of a particular physical goal. Bodyfat, in “fitness culture”, is the physical manifestation of overindulgence. Eating, for many people in this culture, is something to be brought under control, and to be done within a clearly defined regimen of bodily discipline.

Enjoyment of food and control of the body are thought to be incompatible; after all, who gets brown rice and lentil cravings? Thus, if the pleasure of eating is antithetical to control of the body, it stands to reason that foods deemed appropriate for “health” goals must be-symbolically or actually-separate from those kinds of foods which are enjoyable. “For”, as Margaret Morse notes, “if food is the manna of fullness and pleasure, nonfood is bad-tasting medicine that-precisely because it is disgusting-can be eaten with pleasure…”(145)

While the latest nonfood supplements such as flavoured whey protein or protein bars taste better than their predecessors, the very fact that they are now supposed to be tasty (or at least palatable) only reinforces the notion that they are “healthy” substitutes for the “unhealthy” real thing. The flavour list of ProMax’s protein bars, for example, reads like a dessert menu: apple pie, raspberry truffle, chocolate fudge brownie. These bars are a morally superior stand-in for “forbidden” foods, and in fact become preferable to the real thing. One may indulge one’s sensual appetites through “virtual flavour” with no physical “harm” being done. Like Olestra, these nonfood products provide a simulacrum of food.

Ironically, it is the most processed foods that are most likely to trumpet their “improved” health value. Some years back, Maple Leaf Foods in Canada promoted a hot dog product by emphasizing its vitamin content. This state of affairs might stem from our cultural “loss of faith in our ability to survive a toxic natural and social world without medicinal help” (Morse 147), and the symbolic link between technology and the future of “progress”. Bodybuilders are always searching for the next big thing, the newest substance to give them an edge over their competitors. The democratic nature of access to “real” food allows nonfood to have a cachet of scientific sophistication. And, we think, the more engineered the food, the better it must be for us. We can bypass all that inconvenient nutrient conversion and jam those isolated aminos straight into our cells.

Personally I feel that we cannot improve on real food. One square of real dark chocolate beats the snot out of a whole fake flavoured “chocolate brownie” protein bar any day. Some of the “delicious” supplements taste downright awful. Real food has sustained us for thousands of years, we’ve gotten very inventive at preparing it in delicious and nourishing ways, and it contains everything we need to survive and thrive. Also, there is a near-complete lack of genuine nutrition in prefab crud. Although the manufacturer may have shoved a handful of vitamins in there like a cook shoves stuffing up a turkey’s butt, the chemical soup of fake food resembles a waste dump more than a meal.

However I do like the convenience of protein bars. So, I decided to use my simian brain and the Julia Child spirit and come up with one myself. And aside from the fact that it’s “real food”, it’s also a whole lot cheaper per bar.

Bordo, Susan. “Anorexia Nervosa: Psychopathology as Crystallization of Culture”, Food and Culture: A Reader ed. Carole Counihan and Penny van Esterik (New York: Routledge, 1997).

Morse, Margaret. “What Do Cyborgs Eat? Oral Logic in an Information Society”, Virtualities: Television, Media Art, and Cyberculture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.


  1. Jennifer says:

    February 17th, 2009at 12:03 am(#)

    Hmm, the link to your own protein bar seems to be broken. I think you’re right about real food though. I’ve got a friend who is planning on buying weight gainers this summer… because his baby makes it impossible to have time to cook or eat enough actual food! *sigh*

  2. Mistress Krista says:

    February 17th, 2009at 7:44 am(#)

    Thanks! Link fixed!
    I wonder what people with babies did before weight gainers…?

  3. Alan says:

    September 19th, 2009at 2:29 pm(#)

    “I feel that we cannot improve on real food. One square
    of real dark chocolate beats the snot out of a whole
    fake flavoured “chocolate brownie” protein bar any day.”

    I’ll have to disagree with you here, slightly.

    I’m as enthusiastic about healthy whole foods as anyone. But
    the truth, IMO, is that we CAN often improve on them. “Improve”
    relative to various values and objectives: culinary/gustatory,
    nutritional, metabolic, and so forth.

    You yourself just confessed (unconsciously) to a preference
    for an improvement over real food: that square of “real”
    dark chocolate — a highly-processed, fractionated product,
    blended with other refined ingredients (sugar, fat,
    lecithin, etc.). If you really want to go entirely with
    “real” food, in the chocolate department, then get the
    whole raw cocao beans, and eat ‘em. Plain.

    In truth, the dark chocolate square is no less contrived
    and “unreal” than the “fake flavoured ‘chocolate brownie’
    protein bar”. It just happens that you prefer the former;
    that, in your tastebud-informed view, the developer of
    the contrived/unreal chocolate square did a better job
    than the developer of the contrived/unreal protein bar.
    Fair enough. You know what you like. Go for it.

    Dark chocolate is a big (gustatory/hedonic) improvement
    over whole raw cocoa beans. It might also represent a
    health improvement if one would neglect to eat the whole
    cocao beans (with all their beneficial polyphenols and
    such) in the absence of the refined dark chocolate

    Another example is the wave of reduced-fat and reduced-
    glycemic-carb products that have hit the stores over the
    last couple decades. Now, you don’t have to tell me that
    some of these products are awful; I know that. But many
    of them are quite good; a few, even excellent. It is nice
    to have access, for example, to a variety of improved
    pastas, with higher protein and fiber, and reduced
    glycemic/insulinemic profile. Yes, one can get too anal
    about all this. Everything must be kept in balance. But,
    that said, there’s nothing wrong with taking advantage of
    some of these processed products for dietary variety
    without the metabolic fallout of the original stuff that
    they imitate.

    I just came from your (excellent) cottage cheese page,
    and it is germane to note that cottage cheese is itself
    not a “real” whole food; it is a fraction of a whole
    food, namely milk. And low-fat cottage cheese is one
    further step removed from the whole food. And I, for one,
    call it an improvement! Low-fat cottage cheese —
    processed, fractionated and non-whole though it may
    be — is an excellent food, rich in protein, low in
    total and glycemic carb, low in sat fat. Cheap.
    Versatile (see recipes on your page). Tastes OK,
    or better than OK in some mixes. Great stuff.

  4. Alan says:

    September 19th, 2009at 2:56 pm(#)

    PS: I wrote:
    “there’s nothing wrong with taking advantage of
    some of these processed products for dietary variety
    without the metabolic fallout of the original stuff that
    they imitate.”

    With respect to pasta: is there anything holy about
    the original stuff? It is a highly-processed food, made
    with high-tech equipment (namely, a big machine called
    an “extruder”, with which a hot starch mash is
    squeezed through little holes to make long strings —
    pasta). Why would the addition of some oat fiber, or
    soy protein, or what have you, to improve the
    macronutrient and metabolic profile, make for a
    product that is any worse (any less “real”) than
    the original? Do we have to apologize for knowing
    about macronutrients and metabolic profiles, and
    wanting to act on that knowledge?

    I guess this goes to the whole question of what is and
    is not “real” and “natural” — what those things mean,
    and what values we place on them.

    I am amused sometimes by people who insist on “all-
    natural” this and that, in the diet department, while
    EVERY ASPECT of their entire life is utterly dependent
    on artificial and technological contrivances. A sub-
    group of same is all the doctors and dietitians who
    insist that you get your micronutrients from
    conventional foods only, (“all natural”), NO
    SUPPLEMENTS, because those evil vitamin hucksters
    are only after your money, and the only thing those
    pills can do is make for expensive urine. What an
    incredibly hypocritical crock of shit!

    I could rant on, but I don’t want to take advantage
    of your hospitality. :-)


  5. Alan says:

    September 19th, 2009at 3:09 pm(#)

    PSS: THANKS for a great website! I’m a new convert
    to the Mistress Krista Church of Health & Fitness. :-)

  6. Alan says:

    September 19th, 2009at 3:16 pm(#)

    PSSS: Just ONE more thing: you quote Ezekiel 4:9 on your
    “Grains GRAAAAINS” page: “Take thou also unto thee wheat,
    and barley, and beans, and lentils, and millet, and fitches,
    and put them in one vessel, and make thee bread thereof”

    Good idea! Mix the grains with super-low-glycemic,
    more-soluble-fiber-rich, and higher-protein lentils and
    beans. Quite in tune with modern conceptions and knowledge
    of meal composition and metabolic responses.

  7. Mistress Krista says:

    September 19th, 2009at 5:07 pm(#)

    “…get the whole raw cocao beans, and eat ‘em. Plain.”

    I do. :)

  8. Mrs. T says:

    March 1st, 2010at 6:06 am(#)

    I’d like to shout a huge “AMEN!” to the assertion sports nutrition is marketed as a “safety food” because it’s nasty medicine, and enjoying foods is for “the fatties.” In fact, I’ve seen a lot of heavier, but well-meaning, people chowing down on high-calorie sports bars after a workout, attempting to “eat healthier,” bless their hearts. I also think Alan’s comments, although smart, are derailing the point of the article. Krista did say “food,” but I believe she means prepared food, as the context of the essay implies. We’re not talking about food springing from the ground versus food in the pan. We’re talking about food in the pan versus food in the shiny, plastic package. At least, I thought that was the argument being made.

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