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.

  1. Susan 14 years ago

    I've seen first-hand just how restrictive the definition of "food" can be – when I was living in Uganda, there were only 5 "foods" – matoke (boiled plantain), sweet potatoes, irish potatoes, rice, and posho (boiled corn flour – similar to grits). Everything else was either "sauce" (boiled beans, chicken, beef, fish or goat – to be ladled over the "food") or "snack"

    Which led to some rather surreal conversations in restaurants. Once, I ordered a full course Indian meal (Kampala has some lovely Indian restaurants), with a goat curry, butter chicken, several different vegetable dishes, and a pate of naan. My Ugandan companion looked over at my meal in horror and whispered "but… you have no food!" She then proceeded to insisted that the waiter "Bring food" – i.e. a 5 cup bowl of rice.

    I've also been told by Ugandan waiters "we have no food" – which meant I was limited to ordering things like egg, sausages, kebabs, tomatoes, fruit… this would leave them quite distressed until I reassured them that I only wanted "snack"

    The worst part was that of the five "foods" I could only eat rice, irish and sweet potatoes – matoke made me ill, and posho turned my stomach. Bread was rarely served, as it was not considered "food"

    • Andrew 14 years ago

      So food is synonymous with starch and protein is kind of an afterthought? What category would have say… a green salad… fit into?

      Interesting perspective. How much of this do you think was based on language translation?

      • Susan 14 years ago

        I'd say protein isn't so much an afterthought as… too frequently unavailable. In poor families, girls in particular are shortchanged – the order of serving is men, women, boys, girls, and if the meat runs out before it gets to the girls, well… hopefully they get some tomorrow. (Note – I am talking about the very poorest families, not all of Uganda).

        Green salads were rarely served, although a small serving of bitter boiled greens was common. Other fruit and vegetables were certainly available, but not the focus of the meal – indeed, often only prepared for special occasions.

        I think you may be right about it being partly a language issue. Hospitality is very important throughout East Africa, and like many other cultures, that means serving "food" to your guests. If "food" is a commonly available starch, even the poorest families are able to fulfill their obligations as hosts.

        • Andrew 14 years ago

          Thanks. That makes sense.

          I was a little ambiguous, but I meant protein as an "afterthought" and green salad as they apply to language too. I hope I didn't imply that they were just shunning them intentionally. 🙂 I'd guess that availability would tend to shape the language initially. Once it's normalized, the language would retroactively influence the thought of those using it subsequently (likely over the course of generations).

  2. David Csonka 14 years ago

    Would you suppose there is a culturally agnostic term for objects, organic in nature, which we can consume and derive nutrition from?

    • Andrew 14 years ago

      In a culture in which food (the concept, not the literal word) is fundamentally thought about in binary terms, coming up with any meaningful term will be impossible. Any word assigned the intended meaning would almost immediately be subsumed by the cultural meaning and assume colloquial connotations.

      I would speculate that a shift in conceptualization would have to precede terminology. Then again, my understanding of linguistic theory is near zero. 🙂

      • David Csonka 14 years ago

        I'm sure there is a linguistic solution somehow within the context of Newspeak 😀

        • Andrew 14 years ago

          Wouldn't Big Brother just simplify the whole process by making food a binary concept in the first place?

  3. Fitz 14 years ago

    There is a really good rule of thumb to use to define what "food" is: if your great-great-great grandmother wouldn't recognize it as food, then don't eat it. Some examples of what she would not recognize: Fruity Pebbles, Oreos, chicken McNuggets, or Pepsi. These things weren't around back then because we didn't have the technology to create them. They're Frankenfoods, as one author would call them.

  4. David Csonka 14 years ago

    LOL, I love the term Frankenfoods – I wish I was the guy who coined it originally. 😀

    • Andrew 14 years ago

      This was bugging me! I had to look it up…

      "In June 1992, a Boston College professor and opponent of biotechnology wrote a letter-to-the-editor of The New York Times in response to an opinion piece supporting FDA oversight of biotechnology-produced foods. In the letter, Professor Paul Lewis coined the term "Frankenfoods"."

      …that's out of Google search "timeline"… don't see a way to link it directly.

  5. Author

    […] Friday, Dec 17th: The Myth of Food Food is a myth, or rather, a construct of modern society.  Food, insomuch as the word demarcates a line between “edible” versus “inedible” is certainly a useful concept.  But it can lead to poor decisions if the choices are not pondered further, especially in this time of abundance.  For a longer and more detailed description on the pitfalls of this binary (2 groups: food/not food) mental system, see Evolvify for The Myth of Food. […]

  6. katherine 13 years ago

    Besides Margie Profet, do you know of any info out there on "morning sickness as protection against food toxins"? I should probably look it up, I know. 🙂 One thing I (seem to) keep noticing is that women who go into pregnancy well nourished from optimal food choices (ie "biologically appropriate"as we currently understand it) have less or no morning sickness compared to women who enter pregnancy in a nutiritonally deficient state due to SAD. (and an aside, have you read up on Profet? Whoa…)

  7. majkinetor 13 years ago

    Epic post. Thanks.

    There must be some line to cross tho. Plastic is definitely not food… at least I thought so until recently:

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