Junk! Organic! Fair Trade! Have You Noticed The Food Fight's Heating Up?

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Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Food used to be a simple pleasure. But lately, it seems there are a million things to worry about when it comes to food. Even buying a plain-old bunch of carrots can induce anxiety:  Are they local?  Are they organic?  How much vitamin A do I need anyway?  Wouldn’t I rather spend my money on that giant bag of Doritos?

It’s certainly not new for food to be on everyone’s minds – it is a basic human need, after all.  But it seems that food occupies the cultural consciousness in new ways and more intensely than ever before.

Food-related headlines are a contemporary norm.  Consider the recent move to label obesity as a disease, or the super-sized soda ban in New York City.

Celebrity chefs are front-page news (think butter-worshipping Paula Deen’s owning up to her use of a racial slur.  We’re nuts about it!  But why is a famous donut advocate eliciting such widespread outrage)?

Public health officials are even more amped up in their stances on the future of nutrition.  A recent BMJ article laments the widespread failures of nutrition policy and urges policy makers to approach nutrition interventions with “brutal pragmatism”.

And then there’s the “personal is political” stance taking over many modern American kitchens. These are the raw-whole-natural-organic-local-fair-trade types who oppose the mainstream industrialization of food and food distribution.  One example: the recent viral post published by BuzzFeed that lists some of the alarming health horrors linked to chemicals in everyday favorites like Froot Loops and milk.

At the other end of the buffet table, there are those who view technical interventions, like food additives and various processing techniques as promising for the future. These folks sometimes view the “wholesome foodies” as food-hysteric, ignorant to the realities of science.  For instance, in response to the BuzzFeed list, one chemist wrote a blog post refuting the list point by point using his expertise as a scientist.  His post proved popular with the “science friendly” crowd, generating ample comments in support of his stance on food.

Somewhere along the great food wars spectrum falls an article recently published by The Atlantic that criticizes foodies for getting in the way of the junk-food industry's power to abate the obesity epidemic.

Why the crescendo of food-related debates?  What are we really fighting about? Dr. Sean Cash of Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy says it’s complicated.

“Food is something we all have an opinion on.  We all eat.  We’re all experts on it,” he says.

Cash agrees that food is on almost everyone’s mind in a different way than it was even 20 years ago.  He explains that half a century ago, simply being able to get enough food was a huge concern for the average American, but today, it's far less of an issue for many.

“We spend half as much now on food as a percentage of our total income than we did in our grandparents' generation,” he says.  “In 1950, 20% of income [was] devoted to food, now it’s around 10%.”

As food became less of a stressful uncertainty, it moved beyond simply being important in the domain of nutrition. Since World War II, as average household income rose and, for the most part, the real price of food declined, time and dollars were freed up for the average American.  This, Cash said, opened the door to a more cultural perception of what we eat: food as entertainment. Now, for instance, we can spend hours preparing a marinara sauce not because we have to, but because we want to.

It’s not uncommon for food writing to grace modern best-sellers lists – think the Omnivores Dilemma by Michael Pollan or Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer – or for food films to make considerable profits – Food Inc. and Supersize Me are among the best-selling documentaries of all time.  The surging popularity of the Food Network over the past two decades is also a notable indication of just how much spare time many are allotting to the modern culinary craze. Cash says the idea of food as something worthy of so much precious leisure time to is a contemporary phenomenon.

“A middle class mom and dad going to the local store after the kids are in bed to attend a class on knife-use is not imaginable 20 years ago,” he says.  “We’re entertaining ourselves arguing about food.”

But the ability to spend spare time exploring new epicurean intrigues like canning for pleasure or concocting your own sour-dough starter is not a privilege accessible to the average American.  For many under serious economic constraints, this type of endeavor may not be a priority, or even an option.

“Trying to reconnect with food takes a lot of time and energy and the new foodie movement embraces this,” Cash says, “but when we focus in on that we see that issues around providing food are still very real for folks here and internationally.  There is record enrollment in SNAP and food stamps are up.  There is sometimes a lack of empathy on the part of foodies about the realities of other people in society.”

Cash thinks the tendency to lump anything and everything that concerns grub under one umbrella labeled “food” is problematic.  He explains that standardizing anything that concerns food into one camp can sometimes reduce the perception of a particular food debate as having clear-cut supporters and opponents.

“People only see two poles, but it’s more complicated than that,” he says.  “The issue is the word “food” is too simple. Food is everything.”

Dr. Cash says the fact that various food advocates come from many different knowledge bases — combined with the increased media attention on their divergent stances --contributes to the increased clamor around food.

“In the media, we just say that someone is an expert in “food” but then that encompasses such a huge portion of human endeavor,” he says.  “How often do we see an agronomist or soil scientist in the news giving an opinion?  On the same day, we have stories in our media about Monsanto winning the Food Prize that show up simultaneously with coverage of the top local breweries.”

As fragmented and confusing as they are, Dr. Cash is pleased that food debates are so hot right now.

“Now is a critical time,” he says. “We have the public’s ear to send messages that might resonate in a way they never have. It may be that this won’t be the case in five years.”

He points out that there actually have been some small victories for public health — such as near-universal bans on trans-fats and the increasing presence of whole grains in peoples' diets — won without resorting to extreme policy measures.

“If we’re looking for big changes over night, that to me is fantasy,” he says.  “Don’t pooh-pooh the small changes.”

This program aired on July 1, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.