What’s food got to do with it?


Credit: John Fahy: johnfahyphotography.com
Credit: John Fahy. johnfahyphotography.com


Our lives are ever more moulded by science and newfangled technologies. We are served relentless, indigestible amounts of information and endless supplies of pseudoscientific advice, to the point that even our most instinctive practices – to eat and drink – are persistently put under the microscope. Yes, most of us still drink milk – but its consumption is accompanied by a race against the clock with the expiration date. We believe in this definite, exact date, branded into the side of the carton. It appears scientific. Likewise, our attitudes toward food have become progressively medicalised and absorbed by scientific terms. We often don’t talk about food anymore, but break it down into nutrients, fats, and proteins. And since by tradition every good story craves heroes and villains, the battle between good and evil is now also waged on our plates; between armies of wicked carbohydrates and unsaturated fats, carrying hidden malicious gluten, all ready to launch an assault against brave omega-3 acids and antioxidants. Gone are the days when we just sat down and ate until we were full. Today, food offers us a sense of control over a confusing display of choices and is once again becoming a powerful medium to clandestinely communicate our educational and socioeconomic background. Likewise, discussions about food come with a side of life and health lessons and worryingly stick to our ribs, along with a troubling question: When did our relationship with food turn sour?

Ostensibly, in most Western countries one struggles to simply eat anymore. Access to nourishing and healthy food demands the luxury of time, financial resources, and the educational background that allows us to work through a murky pool of dietary information. Certainly, our well-being is, to some extent, tied to a healthy diet, and we should all know by now that devouring indiscriminate amounts of sweets and crisps while guzzling them down with a sugary drink will not benefit our health. Most dietary recommendations, however, are not as straightforward.

Day by day we are bombarded with an unrelenting cycle of contradicting nutritional facts, all mashed up and spoon-fed as universal truths, when history shows them not to be. Many of those messages ought to be taken with the proverbial pinch of salt. Some of us might still remember the days when we were force-fed spinach to prevent iron deficiency, when, in fact, spinach had been erroneously plugged as the best nutritional source of iron. Equally, scientists at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute not long ago found something fishy with the conventional evidence for dietary omega-3 recommendations. As the report states, “many recent large and well-designed studies have shown ambiguous or negative results regarding the cardioprotective properties of omega-3 fatty acids and fish oil supplements, and yet […] they are still widely recommended as part of a heart healthy diet plan”. Meanwhile, though long vilified by most scientists and doctors for their high cholesterol, eggs are making a comeback, as they contain nutrients which appear to essentially reduce the risk for heart disease. Even for fat, long portrayed as the artery clogging venom responsible for the obesity epidemic, the winds are turning. Sweden’s government, for instance, now recommends a lower-carbohydrate and higher-fat diet.

These messages are confusing and most of them give a false sense of security to those whose ‘rational’ approach to food consumption is contingent upon the clear calculability of scientifically advocated nutritional values. A continued reliance on distinct nutritional categories tends to overlook the difficulty in devising the necessary trials on which those claims are premised, ranging from poor compliance – sticking to diets isn’t a piece of cake – a lack of large sample groups followed over long time periods, and other confounding factors. In particular, nutritional claims regarding cancer-preventing foods can often be simply dismissed, given that virtually no study can last long enough to establish the necessary links. In short, the bulk of most nutritional science is methodologically flawed. And to make matters even more unsavoury, the health industry’s claims predicate that the receivers of their messages think in the food categories we have come to universally accept. Many media outlets commonly combine scientific facts with dramatic speculation, and marketers of lifestyle foods reap profits by putting a high price tag on supposedly healthy products. But simply considering the biological aspects of our food choices disguises the fact that being able to choose what we put on our fork is a clear indication of our socioeconomic class. We are not what we eat. Rather, what we eat is heavily defined by who we are. Having a lean physique isn’t necessarily a sign that one has won the genetic lottery, nor is eating healthily guaranteed to correlate to being an exceptionally disciplined human being. Rather, weight and health rise and fall along with a population’s wealth and education. Relentless discussion in exclusively nutritional parameters detracts from more pressing matters, namely the socioeconomic disparities in our food consumption which is embedded in social relations and shaped by power and politics.

A few weeks ago I attended a seminar on care in Amsterdam and was fortunate to meet Emily Yates-Doerr, an anthropologist whose research focuses on dietary transitions in Latin America and the emergence of the diagnostic category of obesity in the highland Guatemalan community of Xela. Once the heart of Mayan civilization, where maize was deified and where cutting-edge agricultural practices had previously brought about a green revolution, Guatemala’s food has once again become a focal point of interest. While corn feeds the world today, most local foods, reportedly heavy in carbohydrates and cheap fats, now malnourish Guatemalan children. At the same time, obesity has come to be a major health concern among adults. The reasons for these developments are bountiful. Yet they are linked, in one way or another, to the introduction of free trade policies and agreements (CAFTA, NAFTA), which has increased unemployment among countryside farmers and led to a proliferation of both multinational grocery stores and processed foods. As a result, many nutritionists now seek to educate the population about what they should and shouldn’t eat. They distribute food pyramids, which incidentally in Guatemala are not pyramids but an old-fashioned ceramic cooking pot termed “olla” that is filled with images of pineapples, fish, and bags of maize. Furthermore, the health clinics ask their patients to keep track of how many items in the various food groups they consume. What Emily found striking when conducting fieldwork in one of the clinics was that the public health community employed food categories as if they were universal, when they were clearly not. In reality, most of the twenty-one indigenous languages still spoken in Guatemala had no words for those groups. Now they are taught otherwise. Without wanting to promote an indiscriminately warm and cosy vision of history, I cannot help but ask, is it sensible to replace our traditionally intimate relationship with food with rigid food suggestions that are stuffed with stinging nutritional half-truths? Rather than putting pressure on individuals to eat healthier foods, shouldn’t we shift our focus toward the structures which exclude certain populations from healthy foods?

This dynamic is powerfully illustrated in a recent study issued by the University College London which found that eating a daily amount of seven or more portions of fruit and vegetables reduces the risk of death at any point in time by 42%. Such clear and convincing evidence is hard to resist, yet ultimately it is the scientific equivalent of comfort food for the rich and healthy. As with many other paths of life, healthy individuals tend to underrate their socioeconomic background when it comes to adverse reactions and risks while overvaluing their own contributions to their health. Illness must be externally induced. Our healthy lifestyles, however, are consciously and freely chosen. In an attempt to critically address these issues with the UCL report, English film maker and blogger Adam Curtis contacted Tom Sanders, a professor of nutrition at the University whose comments were both eye-opening and alarming. According to Sanders, “the reason that some people in the survey live longer may not have anything directly to do with eating more vegetables. It might be that eating more vegetables is the sort of thing people higher up the social scale do”. Undoubtedly, to feel well, eating well is key. But as it turns out, in order to do so, one might also have to be well-off.

Examining health and food-related matters is, by their very nature, a contentious enterprise. Food cannot, and never will be, entirely untied from the larger bundle of meanings and social implications we attach to it. Narratives around food tend to refer to the dominant modes of interpreting the world around us. Yesterday’s meanings of food are simmering and slowly dissolving to make room for ones created by a profit-hungry health industry who are spreading fears, in a fallacious appeal to scientific authority, when in reality most nutritional sciences are faced with hard nuts to crack. In the end, the question is not whether certain foods are good for our health and others are not, or whether some sensible precautions ought to be observed. Rather, our attention should shift to the social and contextual factors behind our food choices and avoidances. The idea that we must avoid certain diets while including others neglects the fact that not everyone might have the luxury of choice. It equally creates anxieties which seep into our most natural and inborn habits. The challenge before us is to recognise how today’s scientific, pseudoscientific and market-driven dietary accounts are redrafting our most fundamental understandings of the daily meal, disease, and power, leaving us with novel anxieties that not even the healthiest gourmet menu can relieve.

Tobias Haeusermann finished his Ph.D. in Sociology at King’s College, Cambridge. He is now working at the Health Ethics and Policy Lab in Zurich.