The Scientific Case of Foodism

In the last five years or so, interest in all things food and our food system has become very popular – in books, TV shows, and celebrity restaurant flanuering. Interestingly, being interested in food: aka a foodie, an epicurean, a gourmand, etc., can be costly. William Deresiewicz wrote: “It requires knowledge and connoisseurship, which are themselves costly to develop. It is a badge of membership in the higher classes, an ideal example of what Thorstein Veblen, called conspicuous consumption. It is a vehicle of status aspiration and competition, an ever-present occasion for snobbery, one-upmanship and social aggression. (My farmers’ market has bigger, better, fresher tomatoes than yours.) Nobody cares if you know about Mozart or Leonardo anymore, but you had better be able to discuss the difference between ganache and couverture.”

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Why is food so popular these days? Pence who wrote Food Ethics said: “Food makes philosophers of us all.” Food is an essential aspect of human function, existence and experience. The idea of “you are what you eat” has some truth to it: our food choices define who we have been, who we are and who we want to become. These choices are often intertwined in our beliefs and values, our relationship to where the food is sourced, and our physiological drive towards certain foods and habits.

Through the act of eating, we are more than just consumers. Eating evokes emotion. It can be mundane or sublime, but either way eating often involves moral decision-making rooted within the context of cultures, traditions and social structures that impact human nutrition and health outcomes in a globalized way.

People don’t just care about the acting of eating, but more and more, there is a growing concern about our health and the dysfunctional, globalized food system. In my last post, I wrote about “nutritionism” and how it has created much confusion for consumers, leaving journalists not scientists, to provide the answers. Writers, like Michael Pollan, have effectively opened a new dialogue: how should we consciously eat food and how can we eat healthier, nutritious foods while at the same time, live within a healthier food system.

Scientists are often to blame for not better communicating what constitutes a health and sustainable diet. Scientists have left a gaping hole and journalists (and chefs) have filled it. It took someone like Michael Pollan to give a simple message (that for the most part is correct) that resonated with the public: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”  Gary Taubes, a science writer, agrees: “The 600,000 articles — along with several tens of thousands of diet books — are the noise generated by a dysfunctional research establishment. Because the nutrition research community has failed to establish reliable, unambiguous knowledge about the environmental triggers of obesity and diabetes, it has opened the door to a diversity of opinions on the subject, of hypotheses about cause, cure and prevention, many of which cannot be refuted by the existing evidence. Everyone has a theory. The evidence doesn’t exist to say unequivocally who’s wrong.”

Pollan further explained: “In the case of nutritionism, the widely shared but unexamined assumption is that the key to understanding food is indeed the nutrient. From this basic premise flow several others. Since nutrients, as compared with foods, are invisible and therefore slightly mysterious, it falls to the scientists (and to the journalists through whom the scientists speak) to explain the hidden reality of foods to us. To enter a world in which you dine on unseen nutrients, you need lots of expert help. But expert help to do what, exactly? This brings us to another unexamined assumption: that the whole point of eating is to maintain and promote bodily health. Hippocrates’s famous injunction to ”let food be thy medicine” is ritually invoked to support this notion.”

But let’s not be too harsh on food/nutritional scientists. Some of these journalists function more like advocates then communicators of evidence, taking parcels of select data to tell their story in ways that are more ideological than is typical in nutrition science. Favorite topics include organic foods, GMOs, and industrialization where the focus has been less on the science, and more on a belief system of what the food system should ideally look like and argue for a “commonsense ecumenical approach to diet choices.”

Some of these journalists/writers have been called the “agri-intellectuals” whose books geared toward the general public are filled with “half truths,” and instead rely on “individual dietary purity.” Many scientists feel that there is a lack of understanding and focus on political and structural change and the impact of globalization on our food system. The idea is to bring the food system back into your control, your own environment. This is just a difficult prospect for much of the world, particularly for those who are suffering from hunger or are struggling to make ends meet. Well some of this may be true, but at least they have gotten people to start thinking about what they are consuming, its value, and its impact on the planet. That is more than scientists have done I would say…

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