Naughty Bits from the Naughty Nutritionist

Late last week, I spoke with the Naughty Nutritionist, Catharine Arnston, about her Naughty Bits health tabs. The ones, just to clarify before anyone thinks I’m getting dirty here, made from compressed algae and cyanobacteria (i.e., Chlorella and Spirulina) that she’s selling in sporty little tins from a one-man business based at her downtown dining room table. They’re dark green, smell like seaweed, and as far as Arnston’s concerned, the next best thing to a magic bullet.

When I first heard about them, I was pretty much prepared to dislike it from the get-go. First of all, ‘Naughty Bits’ makes me think of … naughty bits. Not marine life, and definitely nothing that should ever be green. Second of all, I’ve grown increasingly sick of the relentless March of the Superfoods and get more skeptical with each one that passes by. Adding to all that, her site is loaded with exactly the sort of sweeping claims that set me on alert, like “Say hellooooo to great health when you eat this powerful plant protein!” and “the United Nations declared algae to be the ‘best food for the future.’”

But, credit where credit is due. Arnston might be a born-again nutritionist, but she knows her stuff. She’s done her share of biochem reading over the years and on the phone, she’s grounded and articulate and freely accepts your doubts. On paper, the product looks good: a big, impressive pile of vitamins and minerals, plus a few wild cards, like certain rare fatty acids and a full spectrum of amino acids — albeit most all of this in small absolute quantities (micrograms, not milligrams). And heck, the UN did declare spirulina one of the best foods for the future; in fact, it even now has an arm dedicated to the research and use of it in malnutrition, which I’m pretty sure it doesn’t do with Goji berries. Arnston’s algae might be another in a line of superfoods, but it’s got a pretty sweet academic pedigree to back it up.

But that’s old news — what’s new is the branding. And that’s where Arnston comes in.

See, she’s not trying to remake algae. She’s just trying to make it sexy. It’s how she plans to break into the mass market, and it’s why she’s so focused on the image and the packaging. Style sells, right? A big part of this comes from a genuine wish to help people. But if I had to guess, I’d there’s also a chunk of ambition tied in there. If Arnston can sell this on even a fraction of the things she ties it to (energy, beauty, health, hangovers, weight loss, and on and on) then this is the kind of thing that’ll be by registers at Whole Foods, tucked in purses, tossed in gym bags … It’s part of the market in which you find things like Airborne, chocolate marketed for its antioxidants, and Redbull (the latter of which, by the way, Arnston finds personally offensive). It’s a very big market.

I’ll tell you what, though — the day I tried this stuff was a day that wound up stuffed with cops, expired inspection stickers, check engine lights, unfathomably expensive replacement sensors for my car, and, oh yeah, barely any chance for food. My options came down to the algae in my bag or vending machine Snickers, so I sucked down a fistful of tabs and ended the day, to my utter surprise, not babbling with puny rage. I was even borderline cheerful. Coincidence or pondstuff? I’m not sure, but I’m also not so sure I’m ready to give up these suckers just yet. What the heck: who can‘t use more vegetables in their diet, right?