The Myth of Food

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cornucopia

The biggest mistake we can make as individuals faced with the daily decisions about what to put in our body is: assuming there is such a thing as food.

There. Is. No. Such. Thing. As. Food.

Since I took time out to poke fun at the “everything is caused by culture” crowd yesterday (and almost every other day, really), I’d like to take a moment to help them make one argument. Our modern concept of food is a completely cultural construct. There… I said it. And thus begins our temporary descent into postmodern culinary theory…

Remember the 1989 classic John Cusack role of Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything? Lloyd’s sister (in the film and real life) launches this charge at him: “Why do you eat that stuff? There’s no food in your food.” That line, while a little off the point, is rather genius and has stuck with me ever since. Okay, that’s not surprising since I’ve only seen the movie about 500 times.

The Christian book tells us what food is, or… what is food (wine, fish, and loaves of bread anyone). The Jewish book tells us what is and isn’t food (where to start!).  The Muslim book(s) tell us what is and isn’t food (see parenthetical regarding Jewish food).  Hindu… Mayan… Inca… Yada yada yada. Our concepts of food are ingrained in us from birth. And not only by religion.

Onslaughts on the meaning of food by our governments and families are relentless. The food pyramid. The pasta stereotypes. The taco stereotypes. The potato stereotypes. All of that stuff crammed into Thanksgiving cornucopia imagery (apologies to the non-U.S. folks) And on and on and on…

This wouldn’t be that big of  a problem if food wasn’t conceptualized into a binary system of what is and what is not food. Comestibles do not fit nicely into good and evil, healthy and unhealthy, or Ben & Jerry’s (huh?). However, our minds categorize things by what is and isn’t food in a very binary way depending on our cultural exposure. When something is sanctioned by our god or our government or our parents, there is a part of us that acquiesces. Once something has been categorized, our brains use oversimplified heuristics to make time-saving decisions. Unfortunately, thinking about arithmetic realities in a binary way can lead to extreme imbalances.

I know people who have literally gone on multi-day diets consisting of Skittles and Diet Coke. “What’s wrong with that, Andrew? It’s food.” Yes, in our SAD culture, it is… sadly… food. I’ve known Atkins dieters who’ve taken the same approach, but substituting in protein shakes and pork chops. “What’s wrong? It’s food.”

There is no safe compartment in which to indiscriminately label anything as food. Everything we put in our bodies exists somewhere on a continuum from food to poison. To make matters worse, the continuum is made up of multiple axes. Something can be 99% food on the protein axis, 83% food on the vitamin R axis, but 0% food on the “lacking cyanide” axis and 17% food on the lectin axis.

All of this collides with evolutionary biology in a very real way. As humans, we’re adapted to certain flavor profiles for survival reasons. The prevailing hypothesis for morning sickness in pregnant women is an evolutionary adaptation to make mothers more sensitive to “foods” containing chemical components that are fine for adults, but potentially harmful to the fetus. A similar hypothesis exists for children’s rejection of certain foods (vegetbles?). Yes, there are variations within the population, but there are inherent tendencies that follow these generalities. As we’re socialized, people “learn” to override these natural instincts. In the U.S. we’re taught to avoid organ meats, blood, et cetera. In other cultures, these are prized components of nutrition. One person’s ugly clam is another person’s geoduck sashimi delicacy (yes please).

Perhaps more importantly, the things we refer to as food fail to recognize our classification system. Plants and animals will continue to assert that they are not food. Even the plants that “want” to be eaten by us develop defense mechanisms to ward off other species that decrease their ability to survive and reproduce. These measures are likely non-trivial in regard to human consumption. You see, it’s perfectly adaptive for a fruit to contain levels of toxins that are harmful to parasites in the short-term, sorta neutral to humans in the short-term, but harmful in the long-term. Chemical defenses do exist in many animal species, but adaptive parasitic microbes are probably the larger concern for animal consumption. Just ask the king of the Aztecs how he feels about smallpox.

Today of course, bread is almost universally in the food category. The more we learn about wheat, the more it seems we shouldn’t call it food. Maybe that’s an extreme example, but it applies to almost everything we put in our mouths (eh hem), though in varying degrees.

The question everyone wants to ask: Is it paleo? When there’s no such thing as food, who cares? :) The moment we think about food as a binary concept is the moment we will fail at thinking about food.