Carlos Ríos (Huelva, 31 years old) rose to nutrition guru with an epic and apocalyptic story, like many other spiritual leaders before him. The signs of the Apocalypse were everywhere: on supermarket shelves, in billboard ads, in the vending machines at your workplace. An immense but hidden power, represented by the food industry, was willing to do anything to ensnare us with its harmful products and satisfy the inexhaustible appetite of its executives and shareholders. “Ultra-processed foods are slowly killing us because people overindulge in their consumption and don’t know what they are,” he said in an interview in 2019. in 2017pointed out among the participants in the conspiracy the media or the faculties where nutrition is taught for transmitting the erroneous idea “that there are no good or bad foods”, warned that ultra-processed foods should not be recommended “even in moderation” and pointed out the conflicts of interest of a discourse that reduces the perception of the danger of processed products in order to increase the sales of the food industry.
The end was near, but it was not inevitable. Ríos assured on his social networks that he could open our eyes, offering his guide to distinguish what real food was and encouraging us to participate in the epic story of him joining the army realfooder (actual food). Opposite, those who have not yet been enlightened, the fakefooders (fake food) and the agents of the food industry, creator of an illusory environment that he compared to the one generated by the robots that enslave humanity in the film Matrix. With this speech he has sold tens of thousands of copies of books with covers of vegetables and other vegetables, has developed an application with more than a million downloads and a pepper as a logo, and accumulates a million and a half followers on Instagram.
The messianic and radical discourse of confrontation against evil gave results. The followers multiplied and, then, the movement mutated into a brand. The Realfooding label has already been incorporated into processed products such as croissants, cocoa cream or ice cream. All these products, Ríos acknowledges, “should not replace real fresh food”, but, according to him, they are less harmful than those that are already marketed. “What’s wrong with them existing?” he asks himself in a conversation with this newspaper.
The value of taking care of yourself
In his transition from a staunch critic of the industry to a commercial partner, Ríos has shown a good understanding of the changing meaning of food, especially for the youngest, of a virtuous management of social networks and of a great commercial vision. “Before we talked about food when there were deficiencies, but now it has been integrated into our perception of well-being. Taking care of yourself, through diet or physical exercise, is a social value and gives status,” says Cecilia Díaz Méndez, professor of sociology at the University of Oviedo specializing in food. “[El movimiento realfooder] fosters a common identity around something that has value for young people, who have multiple identities and seek elements that allow them to position themselves socially”, he continues. “The communication [de Ríos] is very oriented to creating community, it presents a duality of good and bad, the realfooders in front of the fakefooders, which reinforces the identity. He has a background vision that tells us that we live in a world that is not real, in a deceitful society, with hidden powers that make it so, and young people identify with this idea that life may not have the value that it should,” he says.
For Díaz, the message also permeates the youngest part of the population because “they are the generation that has begun to lose a very solid food culture like the Spanish, which generated identity, and now, in the absence of that culture, they identify with messages like the one from Ríos”. “The food problem is complex, you don’t understand it and Ríos is a good preacher, he gives you simple solutions to those doubts you have when buying, and thus he has created many followers”, he summarizes.
Íñigo Marauri, a researcher at the University of the Basque Country who has published a study in which he analyzes Ríos’ communication strategies, affirms that the creator of Realfooding “had a marketing objective from the beginning, to carve out a niche for himself. He was clear that the message is important, but how you convey that message is as important or more, ”he adds. Marauri agrees on the effectiveness of the Manichaean story of good and evil, “where there are good and bad and there are no grays, and in which that feeling of belonging to a community is created that is also the community of good.” To achieve this goal, social networks were fundamental, but Instagram had a special relevance. “In this network, information can be transmitted clearly and effectively through visual language that does not require much time or attention from followers. Play with simple infographics and colors to quickly tell us where the good is and where the bad is”, explains the researcher. And furthermore, “he chooses Instagram because it is a network that does not allow discussion. It is marked by a great unidirectionality disguised as bidirectionality. It seems like it allows for a lot of dialogue, but that dialogue doesn’t exist,” he continues. Precisely, “Ríos left Twitter when he had 90,000 followers because he gives space to discussion and, when certain contradictions began to appear in his messages, he received very negative responses,” he adds.
With followers came power and with it business opportunities. As with many revolutionaries, the transformation of the movement into a brand was accompanied by a change from a purist discourse to a pragmatic one. “I am doing something that few are doing. Thanks to the support of my community we can bring out products that can work, because the products in this food system stay if they are tasty and profitable, and we also make them as healthy as possible: croissants with 100% wholemeal flour, ice creams with fewer calories or pizzas, like the ones we are going to take out, with good ingredients”, he justifies himself. In the long term, he suggests that he has a strategy to “take on the giants of the industry and create a supermarket where there is only healthy food”. To promote a healthy food industry, products can be added to the supermarket shelves that, according to Ríos himself, it would be better not to consume almost never.
“A croissant is a croissant and a soft drink, a soft drink, will never be good”
Juan Revenga, nutritionist
Juan Revenga is one of the many nutritionists outraged by the change of speech of his professional colleague. “Carlos Ríos has ranted about certain multinationals like Danone, with which he now collaborates,” he says. “Danone’s plain yogurt is very good, but it still has sugary custards or milkshakes and uses very bad advertising, which always borders on the red line,” he continues. Danone’s liquid yogurt with the Realfooding label, very similar in nutritional terms to the multinational’s traditional natural yogurts, is sold more expensive: almost two euros more per kilo than the traditional ones.
“All of us nutritionists make a living selling broccoli, tangerines or turbot, but since he saw that this niche was already occupied and it was not giving him an economic return, he has gone on to do something else,” says Revenga. “A croissant is a croissant and a soft drink, a soft drink, they will never be good, they are not worth within a healthy eating pattern, just like a cookie or an ice cream”, continues Revenga. “If you want to look for a croissant, look for the one you like the most, not the one with a label that misleads you. The less you eat it, the better, but when you enjoy it, don’t let it be with a feeling of guilt, ”she summarizes.
Revenga has put Ríos’ products to the test. After analyzing the products with the Realfooding seal that are found in the supermarket according to various classification systems of the nutritional value of foods, he has observed that the majority fail. In a detailed post on his blog, he explains how, according to the NOVA system, a tool with broad scientific consensus to measure how processed foods are, almost 60% of Realfooding products would be ultra-processed, according to the criteria of the World Food Organization. Health, 73.7% could not be advertised to children due to their poor nutritional profile, and according to the ElCoCo application, 52.6% fail and 26.3% obtain a crude pass. Ríos’s brand comes off very well, however, on his app, MyRealfood. According to himself, all his products are good processed.
Among the most benevolent experts towards Ríos, Ana María Ruiz, from the Hospital Clinic of Barcelona, acknowledges the effort made by her brand to launch products such as “a cola drink, a cocoa cream, cookies, croissants or ice creams, trying to improve the quality of their ingredients and its nutritional profile, something that should be valued”. However, she reminds her, “they are still foods that have no place in a healthy diet.”
Harder is Julia Díez, a professor at the University of Alcalá de Henares, who considers that, “beyond clear ethical and interest conflicts, the movement promoted by Ríos can become a public health problem” because the Realfooding defendants “promote as healthy something that obviously is not. “No one chooses to eat an ice cream like Ríos’s because of its nutritional value, but rather on a whim.” In her opinion, “these gurus tend to make the individual responsible, and when you set such restrictive rules for yourself, you can even blame yourself for going out with your friends to dinner. The changes have to be at the population level. The gurus are not discovering anything, people do not eat badly because they do not know, but because of the attractiveness of these foods or their price. Watermelon is more expensive than Nuggets chicken,” he says. Díez goes on to explain that, traditionally, the world of dietetics and nutrition focuses on what the individual does and forgets about the social aspect of food, although there are many nutritionists who are changing the discourse. “In the long term, interventions at the individual level don’t hold, and if you don’t change the context in which people live, they won’t hold,” he concludes. In this sense, Ríos agrees that to improve the diet of the entire population “it would be much more effective if there were public health policies such as taxes on ultra-processed foods and sugary drinks and subsidies on fruits and vegetables.”
Subjected to intense criticism by all kinds of experts for months, Ríos believes that these questions are due to envy. “When you grow up, success is not very well managed by colleagues, who were often friends. The message realfooding It hasn’t changed,” he says. The nutritionist keeps talking about getting citizens out of Matrix, but, taking advantage of his analogy, it seems that he has given a tool to the evil food industry to disguise their fake world as reality. In the film, Cifra, a resistance member tired of the hardships of the real world, betrays his friends in exchange for being reconnected to the simulation and filled with pleasurable experiences. In a meeting with an agent of the bad guys, connected back to the Matrix, she enjoys a steak that only exists in her head. “You know? I know that this steak is not real, I know that when I put it in my mouth it is the Matrix that is telling my brain: it is good and juicy. After nine years, do you know what I realize? Ignorance is bliss”. The supposedly “healthy” defendants of Ríos can become for many of the fakefooders rescued in a way to return to the delights of the Matrix: tasting forbidden foods while maintaining the illusion that they eat healthily.
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