This week I wanted to find a quick way of putting the forms, structures and patterns of our media culture into a shape that made it stand out because it seems strange. Using an analogy I wanted to demonstrate that the media and communication industries that we take for granted for most of the time, are in fact an industry that is structured around specific ideas of mass production, standardisation and homogenisation. Relating the media industries to the modern, Western, food industries, is a very useful way to draw attention to the artificial, constructed and contested world that we inhabit.
Food, like media is an everyday cultural practice that has great significance and importance to each of us as individuals, to us as communities, and as broader societies. As Zygmunt Bauman suggests “these matters are about our experiences and their relationship to our everyday practices, the control we have over our lives and the direction in which our societies are unfolding” (Bauman & May, 2001, p. 6). For Bauman and other students of social organisation, “the only way we can make sense of the human world around us is to draw our tools of explanations solely from within our respective life-worlds” (Bauman & May, 2001, p. 9).
Food is Culture is therefore a good place to start to think about how we interact with the world, how we interact and make sense of each other, and how we understand the mediation processes that are at play between different groups of people. As Jones and Hafner point out: ‘To learn to eat, you have to learn to use a spoon or a fork or chopsticks, which come between you and your food and facilitate the action of eating. To learn to read, you have to learn to use language and objects like books that come between you and other people and facilitate the action of communication’ (Jones and Hafner, 2012, p.2)
I posed a couple of questions and statements that we could reflect on when thinking about our relationship with food. After all, food is more than fuel.
• Food is a cultural thing. We need food, but we shouldn’t think of it simply as fuel, what about the erotic experience of eating?
• How often do we sit down for a meal with other people?
• How often do we take our time to eat?
• What choices of food do I have when I’m out? The DMU campus centre?
• I eat sitting at my desk because there is no other place that’s convenient or private, as a dedicated eating area, where I can take my own food.
• Whatever happened to dining rooms?
• Do I want to be ‘careful’ about my food continually (paranoid)?
• Do I want to be hungry most of the time, never feeling full or satisfied?
• I try to eat healthily, lots of fruit – at least five-a-day?
Indeed, we use food as a marker of significant events in our lives. We celebrate with food, we use food to comfort our egos when we feel stressed, we use food as a way of being accepted into our social networks and peer groups. My personal experience of food, and my relationship with food has changed over the year. From never thinking very much about food, to being obsessed, almost addicted to food, my weight has gone up and down. I’ve done diets. I exercise regularly and I think I eat healthily. And yet my weight is far higher than it should be, and the fat around my middle is persistent and difficult to spread. Is this just middle-aged-spread, or the consequence of eating habits that are out of synch and unbalanced?
Comfort & Emotion:
• If I had a problem I would have a drink, or a bag of crisps.
• When I would sit and write I would have crisps and caffeine for the stimulation.
• I’ve never had a sweet tooth, so avoided cakes & sweets.
• At a family celebration the sweets and cakes come out automatically.
• Look at how binge drinking is such a part of British life, it’s seen as being normal to fall about in the streets after a skin-full on a night out.
Fast Food Culture:
In Western, industrialised countries the consumption of food has taken on a highly regulated form. It’s largely based around the industrialised food production process. It’s based on products that are produced in mass-volumes, and it’s significantly reduced in nutritional value. Underpinning this processed-food culture is sugar, and the way that it is included and hidden in seemingly healthy products. As Bilton and Booth point out:
“In many cultures, with the possible exceptions of the traditional Inuit, sugar has become a ubiquitous source of pleasure and self-indulgence. Research in the new millennium has shown why many of us are hooked on sugar. There is now compelling evidence that sugar can alter our brain chemistry by the same biochemical mechanisms that drive addiction to hard drugs such as cocaine and heroin, and to a lesser extent, nicotine and alcohol. Furthermore, this effect is rein-forced by the presence of fat and salt in highly palatable sugar-rich junk foods” (Bilton & Booth, 2013, p. 32).
All of which has incurred drastic consequences for the health of people in Western countries.
“In 2000, the average American consumed an astounding 2 to 3lb of added sugar per week in their diet (USDA Economic Research Service), and Britain is not far behind with a Defra report indicating a consumption of 1.9lb per week in 2006. This is an average US consumption of 5,600 calories per week from sugar alone, and is almost three days’ worth of total calories every week with no nutritional value and the potential to gain at least 1lb of body fat per week” (Bilton & Booth, 2013, p. 35).
Hardly a week goes by now when news reports about the state of the health service crop up to alarm us about the epi-demic of obesity and diabetes that we are living through.
Where we are now, however, is unprecedented. Never before has human society, and particularly Western society, been faced with the problems of an over-abundance of food. As Bilton and Booth point out:
“Our present way of living has only become typical within the past two generations. Diets consumed in modern indus-trialised countries today have evolved considerably from those of our early Stone Age ancestors. It was the industrial revolution that completely altered our diet, along with the shift of populations from the country to towns and the limited success of town dwellers to fruits, vegetables and other fresh foods” (Bilton & Booth, 2013, p. 9).
And as a consequence, and as Michael Pollan argues:
“Rates of obesity in Europe are rapidly approaching those of the United States, and increases in diabetes and cardiovascular disease are certain to follow. This has been the sequence wherever traditional diets and ways of eating have succumbed to the modern diet of processes food” (Pollan, 2009, p. xiii).
This is a problem decades in the making, and can be traced back to the 1950s when nutritional thinking changed to focus more on the availability of saturated fats in our diets. As Michael Pollan describes:
“Beginning in the 1950s, a growing body of scientific opinion held that the consumption of fat and dietary cholesterol, much of which came from meant and dairy products, was responsible for rising rates of heart disease during the twentieth century. The ‘lipid hypothesis’, as it was called had already been embraced by the American Heart Association, which in 1961 had begun recommending a ’prudent diet’ low in saturated fat and cholesterol from animal products” (Pollan, 2009, p. 23).
There are some interesting films that are worth watching about these problems. “Food, Inc. is a 2008 American documentary film directed by Emmy Award-winning film maker Robert Kenner.] The film examines corporate farming in the United States, concluding that agribusiness produces food that is unhealthy, in a way that is environmentally harmful and abusive of both animals and employees. The film is narrated by Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser. “
- Food is a medium.
- Food is a cultural product.
- The experience of sharing food is culturally mediated.
- Western Diets have become highly industrialised.
- Sugar, salt and processed fats form the basis of the processed diet.
Processed Food & Industrialisation:
Access to food, then, has become highly mediated. It is controlled and shaped by the large supermarket chains who don’t sell food any more, but instead offer, as Michael Pollen says, ‘Food-Like Substances’. As Pollen points out:
“The supermarket has become the only place to buy food, and real food [is] rapidly disappearing from its shelves, to be replaced by the modern cornucopia of highly processed food-like products. And because so many of these novelties lie[…] to our senses with fake sweeteners and flavourings, we c[an] no longer rely on taste or smell to know what we [are] eating (Pollan, 2009, p. 14).
We have a food system, which prioritises the following:
• Industrialised, processed, simulated, convenience, addictive.
• High-Fructose Corn Syrup
• Long-life products.
• Refined to be attractive – roughage is removed from four, etc.
• Can be stored and centralised.
• Towns used to mill flour locally, then bake it very quickly.
• With improved milling in the 18th Century, milling became more centralised, flour could be transported, stored for longer. I have flour in my cupboard that’s been there for two years. Nothing else will eat it, so why should I?
• Obsessed with low-fat – they don’t tell you there are more calories.
• Predicated on simply calorie exchange model.
• Sugar is the next tobacco.
• Pepsi and Coke sell drinks in Third-World in places with poor water supply.
• Where the western diet has been introduced, the Western diseases soon follow.
There is some suggestion that we might rethink our attitude to food and return to some basic principles. As John Yukin pointed out long before this subject became a topic of popular discussion:
“It is generally agreed that our earliest ancestors, the squirrel-like primates of some 70 million years ago, were vegetarian. They continued as vegetarians up to 20 million years ago, for they had no difficulty surviving on fruits, nuts, berries and leaves. But then the rainfall began to decrease and the earth entered a 12-million-year period of drought. The forests shrank and their place was taken by ever-increasing areas of open savannah” (Yudkin, 2012, p. 8).
This is because “in order to survive, [early humans] had to forsake the vegetarian and fruitarian existence… and change to a scavenging and hunting existence that was largely carnivorous” (Yudkin, 2012, p. 8).
So we can look at our food culture and work out to what extent it is:
• Based on standardisation – through the supply chain.
• Products are frozen, dried, canned, and stored for long periods.
• Fruit is now grown to be high in sugar, and is available all year around.
• It’s very difficult to get fresh vegetables, locally to where we live.
• Leicester market has lots of fruit stands, but a declining number of veg stands.
• Supermarkets pre-package a lot of veg. The traditional grocer has disappeared from the high-street.
• Sugar, corn syrup and other carbohydrate products are used extensively in processed foods. Extends shelf life, palatability.
• Supermarkets stack the shelves high with low-cost sweets, crisps and biscuits.
One of the origins of the culture of fast food that we are now living with is the ‘drive-in’ fast food restaurant, typified by McDonalds and other American convenience food retailers. As Eric Schlosser describes, the “southern Californian drive-in restaurants of the early 1940s tended to be gaudy and round, topped with pylons, towers, and flashing signs. They were ‘circular meccas of neon’… designed to be easily spotted from the road” (Schlosser, 2002, p. 17).
However, “at the end of the 1940s the McDonald brothers had grown dissatisfied with the drive-in business. They were tired of constantly looking for new carhops and short-order cooks – who were in great demand – as the old ones left for higher-paying jobs elsewhere. They were tired of replacing the dishes, glassware, and silverware their teenage customers constantly broke or ripped off. And they were tires of their teenage customers. The brothers thought about selling the restaurant. Instead, they tried something new” (Schlosser, 2002, p. 19).
Schlosser gives an engaging and detailed account of how “the McDonalds fired all their carhops in 1948, closed their restaurant, installed larger grills, and reopened three month later with a radically new method of preparing food. It was designed to increase the speed, lower the prices, and raise the volume of sales. The brothers eliminated almost two thirds of the items on their old menu. They got rid of everything that had to be eaten with a knife, spoon, or fork. The only sandwiches now sold were burgers, replacing them with paper cups, paper bags, and paper plates. They divided food preparation into separate tasks performed by different workers” (Schlosser, 2002, p. 19).
All of which led to “the new division of labour meant that a worker only had to be taught how to perform one task. Skilled and expensive short-order cooks were no longer necessary” (Schlosser, 2002, p. 20).
• Western industrialised diets are based on ‘food like substances’.
• Processing, standardising and extending the shelf-life increase profitability.
• Humans evolved on a very different, and more varied set of diets.
• Employing the factory system of standardisation changed food consumption.
• A small number of corporations control the food supply.
There are some immediate questions that can be asked about the combination of industrial food production processes, centralised distribution networks, and factory-like distribution points that are aimed at consumers. For example:
• To what extent is this a process of domination and domestication?
• How much of this is about lowering costs and how much is about increasing profit margins?
• When the marketing of processed food is pervasive, how to we escape from the product placements?
• Why can food-like substances that have longer shelf lives, brighter packaging be allowed to display healthy mes-sage (one of five per-day, etc.) on their labels.
The Western food industry goes to inordinate lengths to ensure that we adopt processed foods: http://www.buzzfeed.com/jobarrow/you-butter-believe-it#1zg3wau
There are embedded beliefs, despite evidence to the contrary, that
• Fat is bad for you – no evidence.
• Low-fat is good for you.
• Calorie restricted diets work.
• Maintenance and careful observance – otherwise you are ‘slothful, greedy and unsocial’.
• Exercise is one way to loose weight.
• Willpower is essential to loosing weight.
WALL-E is a 2008 American computer animated science fiction romantic comedy film produced by Pixar Animation Studios and directed by Andrew Stanton. The story follows a robot named WALL-E, who is designed to clean up an abandoned, waste-covered Earth far in the future. He falls in love with another robot named EVE, who also has a programmed task, and follows her into outer space on an adventure that changes the destiny of both his kind and humanity. Both robots exhibit an appearance of free will and emotions similar to humans, which develop further as the film progresses. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WALL-E
• People are ‘domesticated’ into following the ‘convenient’ path.
• We are conditioned to think that low-fat is good, and fat is bad.
• Exercise does not lead to weight loss on its own.
• Just wishing you are lean and fit will not make it happen.
• Are we being led into a dystopian future?
Real Food – What are the Alternatives?
Here’s a quick set of hints and tips I’ve taken from some of the writing on the sugar and processed food crisis:
“People eating the Western diet are prone to a complex of chronic diseases that seldom strike people eating more traditional diets” (Pollan, 2009, p. 140).
“The solution to the problem would appear to remain very much the same: Stop eating a Western diet” (Pollan, 2009, p. 141).
“Avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable, c) more than five in number, or that included) high-fructose corn syrup” (Pollan, 2009, p. 150).
“Avoid food products that make health claims” (Pollan, 2009, p. 154).
“Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle” (Pollan, 2009, p. 157).
“Get out of the supermarkets whenever possible” (Pollan, 2009, p. 157).
As Bilton and Booth point out: ”The word diet is most often associated with sacrifice, hunger, guilt and unhappiness. Most diets involve restricting the amount of food consumed in an attempt to reach a given body weight, and this is al-ways accompanied by cravings and feelings of hunger. Common sense should tell us that a calorie controlled diet for weight loss cannot be continued indefinitely. What happens when the diet is over and a goal weight has been reached? We all know the answer. Usually the weight lost is regained and so the cycle begins again” (Bilton & Booth, 2013, p. 221).
“Stop smoking… take exercise… eat healthily… eat the right fats…” (Bilton & Booth, 2013, p. 222).
“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants” (Pollan, 2009).
While this has been a discussion about food, it has also been a discussion about media. I’ve added a couple of words to a statement from Jones & Hafner as I think it relates really well to the problems that we need to consider if we are to find a way out of the processed food/media crisis that we are facing:
“It should be clear from the above that [food] literacy is not just a matter of things that are going on inside people’s heads – cognitive processes of encoding and decoding words and sentences – but rather a matter of all sorts of inter-personal and social processes. [Food] Literacy is not just a way of making meaning, but also a way of relating to other people and showing who we are, a way of doing things in the world, and a way of developing new ideas about and solutions to the problems that face us” (Jones & Hafner, 2012, p. 12).
The question is, what would we do to enhance the skills of people when it comes to food?
Perhaps, as Henry Jenkins and others suggest “in an environment fostering spreadability, grassroots communities are embracing content from elsewhere, actively facilitating its circulation (often in advance of its commercial availability) and taking responsibility for educating their local public about its traditions and conventions” (Jenkins, Ford, & Green, 2013, p. 270).
Spreadability being those kinds of texts and media products that take on a life of their own, and which don’t sit so easily with the mass produced, corporate messages of the corporate media companies – or food producers. As Jenkins argues:
“The spreading of media texts helps us to articulate who we are, bolster our personal and professional relationships, strengthen our relationships with one another, and ‘build community and awareness around the subjects we care about. And the sharing of media across cultural boundaries increases the opportunity to listen to other perspectives and to develop empathy outside our own” (Jenkins et al., 2013, p. 304).
• There are alternatives, but they require a change of mind-set.
• Support traditional styles of eating.
• How do we avoid the yo-yo effect and achieve sustainably healthy living?
• Food literacy is essential.
• Change from the bottom-up, not the top-down.
• Awareness of others builds empathy and a sense of esteem.
Zygmunt Bauman writes a lot about the experience of living in late modernity, or what he calls ‘liquid modernity.’ Bauman suggests that:
“Individual exposure to the vagaries of commodity-and-labour markets inspires and promotes division, not unity; it puts a premium on competitive attitudes, while degrading collaboration and team work to the rank of temporary stratagems that need to be suspended or terminated the moment their benefits have been used up. ‘Society’ is increasingly viewed and treated as a ‘network’ rather than a ‘structure’ (let alone a solid ‘totality’): it is perceived and treated as a matrix of random connections and disconnections and of an essentially infinite volume of possible permutations” (Bauman, 2007, p. 2).
The consequence is that we live increasingly fragmented lives, with little security, many competing pressures to succeed and less of a safety-net to rely on. As Bauman points out: “A life so fragmented stimulates ‘lateral’ rather than ‘vertical’ orientations. Each next step needs to be a response to a different set of opportunities and a different distribution of odds, and so it calls for a different set of skills and a different arrangement of assets” (Bauman, 2007, p. 3).
This fragmentation can be seen in the way that “eating at fast food outlets and other restaurants [has become] simply a manifestation of the commodification of time coupled with the relatively low value many Americans have placed on the food they eat.” Andrew F. Smith ‘Encyclopedia of Junk food and Fast Food’ (2006).
Perhaps the final word, though, should go to Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates. “In terms of fast food and deep under-standing of the culture of fast food, I’m your man.” Bill Gates
• What if media companies are doing the same thing?
• What does real media look and feel like?
• What can we do about the totality of the system?
What skills and capabilities do we need to thrive in this system?
Bauman, Z. (2007). Liquid Times – Living in an Age of Uncertainty. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Bauman, Z., & May, T. (2001). Thinking Sociologically (2nd ed.). Oxford: Blackwell.
Bilton, R., & Booth, L. (2013). Know What to Eat. Formby: Supercritical.
Jenkins, H., Ford, S., & Green, J. (2013). Spreadable Media. New York: New York University Press.
Jones, R. H., & Hafner, C. A. (2012). Understanding Digital Literacies. London: Routledge.
Pollan, M. (2009). In Defence of Food. London: Penguin Books.
Schlosser, E. (2002). Fast Food Nation – What the All-American Meal is Doing to the World. London: Penguin.
Yudkin, J. (2012). Pure White and Deadly: Penguin.