On Thursday, April 18, Dr. Charlotte Biltekoff, author of Eating Right in America: The Cultural Politics of Food and Health and Associate Professor of American Studies and Food Science and Technology, UC Davis, gave the final Humanities on the Edge lecture of the 2018-2019 academic year to a room filled to capacity at the Sheldon Museum of Art.
Dr. Biltekoff began by contextualizing the boom in awareness and interest in natural food through the history of Natural Products ExpoWest, a food industry trade show that began in 1981 with 3000 attendees. This year’s event took place in March in Anaheim, CA, where the number of exhibits was 3000, with some 86,000 attendees. ExpoWest exemplifies the food industry’s attempt to remake itself in response to what it sees as consumer demand for “real food.” This vague yet emotionally-laden term was championed at ExpoWest through promises and campaigns advertising “clean food,” “true food,” “natural food,” “chemical-free food,” etc.
Yet even as food industry companies try to remake themselves in order to convince consumers that their products are safe and healthy, the industry is also, Dr. Biltekoff said, “pushing back against what it sees as negative perceptions of food science and technology.” One example is the 2012 public education campaign launched by the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), which asks viewers to imagine a world without food science, demonstrating that this science has brought us longer-lasting food, nutrition labels (and thus, knowledge), affordability, convenience, and safety. IFT isn’t alone; in 2014, the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation president, David Schmidt, stated that it was necessary to address and teach consumers about the journey of food from farm to fork as well as to celebrate the food technologies that link them, using campaigns like “Process This,” which attempts to demonstrate how food science can help feed more people and can enable consumers to make informed choices about their food.
Campaigns like these are reactions to large movements such as anti-GMO activists, who are painted by both the industry and the media as anti-science, ignorant, and fake-newsy. This attitude is strengthened by the fact that researchers found that two Russia-based news organizations were responsible for the majority of negative GMO-coverage as well as blatant misinformation in 2016, thus amplifying distrust and unrest among American consumers. Yet on the other hand, 2017 brought the news of the sugar industry cover-up that stank of big tobacco tactics, so there is an apparent reason for concern.
If all of this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Dr. Biltekoff argued that the politics of truth are at the heart of contemporary food politics, much like other contemporary political issues such as immigration. But unlike in some debates, where the question is often which widely touted facts are to be believed, Dr. Biltekoff explained that this debate is less about facts. According to Dr. Biltekoff, it is more about what we should do with them, which facts matter, and who gets to decide. She cited an experiment done in schools to laud the power of preservatives: one piece of bread with preservatives and one without are sprayed with water and sealed into plastic bags before being set aside for a few days. When the schoolchildren examine the bread a few days later, they find that the first slice is moldy while the second isn’t. There’s no disputing the facts here: processing helps food stay fresh for longer and creates less waste. Yet an argument can also be made that this experiment shows, instead, that processing is unnatural, and that the long-lasting bread shouldn’t be consumed. As the Michael Pollan aphorism goes, taken from his 2008 book, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto: “Don’t eat anything incapable of rotting.”
Dr. Biltekoff posited that the issue is largely a framing contest, “different ways of seeing the same thing which lead to different courses of action,” between two kinds of approaches. In what she called the “Real Food Frame,” the problem is processed food (which is seen as bad for individual and public health, suggesting that the contemporary food systems are faulty). In this case, the solution is to avoid such food or change the food system, and its proponents are concerned consumers, the public health community, alternative food advocates, and some nutritional authorities. On the other hand, the “Real Facts Frame” sees the problem as misinformed consumers (full of irrational fears, lacking scientific literacy, and accessing faulty information via the amplification of social media). This frame casts the solution as education and scientific literacy, and its proponents are food scientists, the food industry itself, and other nutritional authorities.
While there is misinformation and misunderstanding afoot in the former frame, Dr. Biltekoff explained that her goal is to push back against the social imaginary of the ignorant, unscientific consumer. After all, she argued, there is an oft-touted idea that ignorance is dangerous and can destroy democracy, and yet the social imaginary of a public ignorance is its own kind of danger. It waives the validity of consumer concerns, on the one hand, while also selling the idea that consumers are all-powerful and can control the food industry. Meanwhile, in fact, the industry merely uses consumer fears to sell them more products. Additionally, by focusing on the deficit-- the lack of scientific understanding-- there is a focus on “what people are anxious about and what they are afraid of.” Dr. Biltekoff wants to shift the focus toward “what people are anxious for.”
Dietary ideals have changed a lot since the 19th century, but Dr. Biltekoff’s research shows that the relationship between dietary ideals and social ideals has remained the same. “Eating right,” she stated, “is not just a matter of biomedical health… but also of social status.” Our ideas about good food and good people are aligned in the neoliberal world: we relate dietary ideals, such as willpower, personal health, and a concern over public health, to similar ideals of good citizenship. For example, as the rhetoric of panic over obesity rates has risen since World War II up to the declaration of obesity as an epidemic in 2001 and beyond, it has come to represent a threat to the nation itself. It is no coincidence, then, that as the thinking around obesity has linked it to the rise in industrial processed foods, such foods have also been framed as a threat to the nation. Whether or not this is true, fair, or accurate doesn’t matter-- the fact remains that this is a commonly held belief, and thus powerful.
Meanwhile, an overlapping but distinct discourse has occurred in alternative food movements that push back against the industrial system specifically and attempt to change our relationship to food through a focus on pleasure, sensuality, authenticity, sustainability, and cultural ties. There has also been a growing concern around toxins, and removing them became another way to define what eating right looked like. This rhetoric, along with its continued ties to social status and good citizenship, was fully utilized by Whole Foods’s first national campaign for their Values Matter brand.
Dr. Biltekoff contended that in a world where consistent information about food is scarce, buying products that advertise themselves as natural, clean, toxin-free, etc. is the easiest and most widely accessible way-- within the systems that exist-- to “eat well,” that is, to eat in a way that consumers believe is healthy. In other words, she argued that consumers aren’t ignorant; they simply don’t have many options to choose from when trying to eat well.
One example she gave was the public discourse surrounding the word “natural,” which shows that consumers are neither ignorant nor in power, but that they are instead trying to push back against the power of the systems that control food today. The word “natural” wasn’t well-defined, even as it started popping up in advertisements and on products, and due to public concern, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a set of questions to the public in an attempt to define “natural” for policy and regulation purposes. The responses broadly fell into two camps. The first attempted to negotiate what “natural” means, while the second approached the word as if it were obvious, clear, and already known. The “negotiating” camp tended to draw on science, research, and expertise, while continuing to evoke the social imaginary of an ignorant public, and many of these commenters were representative of specific food industry brands, trade groups, and scientific outfits. The “known natural” camp was largely made up of an unaffiliated general public, and their comments evoked a common sense attitude: “natural is natural” or “natural is from nature,” as in, if you go outside and pluck an apple from a tree, that’s obviously natural, because it’s separate from anything that comes from a lab. The comments from this camp also betrayed the deep distrust of institutions like the FDA, implying that it’s interested in profit and colluding with big food corporations.
This second batch of comments seemed to reveal the public’s depth of ignorance, at least according to the scientific community. But Dr. Biltekoff believes that these comments betrayed a different and very clear desire of the consumer to know, to have a food system that is transparent and explainable to laypeople. So while the “known natural” definitions were not practical or even real, they didn’t imply ignorance so much as an attempt to gain power and a sense of expertise through the ideological invocation of nature, which shuts down scientific jargon and uses common sense authority-- just like how scientific jargon invokes a different kind of expertise and authority.
Dr. Biltekoff argued that instead of focusing information campaigns on the power and importance of food technology and science, such campaigns should focus on questions of process (Who gets to set research and innovation agendas? How is safety assessed? How is profit considered?) to create real transparency. As things stand, the discussion around ignorance merely maintains the current power dynamics. The politics of truth are ultimately about power, so we need to pay attention not to battles between facts, but instead to how, by mistaking anxiety as misunderstanding or ignorance, we keep dominant power systems in place.