What’s food got to do with it?

Tobias Haeusermann
October 29, 2014

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.


All by
Tobias Haeusermann