Friday, February 08, 2008

Food glorious food... sausage and custard! [Shurely shome mishtake. Ed.]

I like food. If I was more confident I'd show you a photo to prove it. I haven't got the guts...well, I have actually.

Anyway, Lee Kennedy's latest post reminded me of the issues around food I often discuss with Nick, my co-author. I was telling Nick about Michael Pollan's book In Defence of Food [it's in our book store] which sets out a few simple rules about eating. Rules like; eat only foods your mother would recognise; never eat things if you don't know what the ingredients are; shop mainly from the outside edges of the supermarket floor. They make some intuitive sense.

My point has always been that some of the ingredients in food are there for the benefit of the manufacturers and retailers and not the consumer. Ingredients that make the product last long enough to be transported hundred (thousands) of miles and to sit on a shelf and in a cupboard enable the supply chain to be standardised. It's, perhaps, an example of McDonaldization.

Andrew Wadge from the Food Standards Agency debated the issues from the book with Pollan on Newsnight a few days ago and wrote about it on his blog. His was, I suppose, the voice of moderation. The other discussant was Julian Hunt from the Food and Drink Federation, the manufacturers. I'll be honest, I hate it when marketers say things like "It's about giving the customer a choice". Mmmm; discuss (as indeed some of my students have been over the last few week and months).
I'm not sure Lee would agree with the book in its entirety. The post I just mentioned points out that testing on food additives is pretty rough and ready (the anti-animal testing lobby will be pleased to know, especially as Lee is a food scientist); additives aren't necessarily bad for you.

But two thoughts occurred to me.

One. All foodstuffs are composed of chemicals. As Lee says, just look at what's in coffee. Remember what WC Fields said about fish? I also noted when I visited the Eden Project this summer that coconut shell is used in the manufacture of some pretty weird industrial stuff like brake pads - I think its essentially fireproof.

Two. Food is not just fuel or nutrition. It's more (yes, more) importantly a cultural artefact. Mary Douglas and Claude Levi Strauss both pointed out some time ago that food classification are culturally determined. Foodstuffs aren't simply good to eat, they're good to think.

Whether we call food 'wholefood' or 'additive-free' or 'convenience' says more about our relationship with (and our cultural use of) food than it does about any objective food standards. But I'm sure that a greater understanding of how food is produced and what goes into it would benefit us all. maybe there's something in the government's domestic science for all agenda. As long as it's a genuine understanding of food, not just how to make a shepherd's pie.

Not so much healthy eating as healthy thinking.

1 comment:

Lee said...

Interesting post, Phil. I finally got around to posting a reply to your question on my blog.