Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Food Preferences and Culture: Changing our Tastes

In Stuffed and Starved, as the first of his ten recommended courses of action to improve the food system, Raj Patel calls upon us to “transform our tastes.” Certainly, this is something which needs to be accomplished before we can fully extricate ourselves from the familiar milieu of the supermarket snack isle, but can this really be accomplished on an individual scale entirely, or will this have to be a multi-generational task? With Twix bars easily within grasp, it’s difficult to shake the way we gravitate towards these kinds of impulse purchases. The topic of reframing our attitudes toward food as being something to savor rather than something we just eat has come up multiple times in class, and the counterargument is often made that we do savor our heavily processed and standardized Twix bars; however, I am not entirely convinced. First of all, the enjoyment from candy seems to come more from the notion that candy is a treat rather than the actual flavor itself. What does a Twix bar actually taste like? I can’t really answer that question definitively in the same way I can for specific brands of specialty chocolate or Camembert cheese, which suggests that my reaction is more psychological than physiological in the former case. I also find it interesting that when people do eat locally unique or specialty foods, the superior taste and pleasure derived from them are almost written off from the start. There seems to be some notion that “of course food X tastes better than the comparable supermarket item,” and also a lack of recognition that “food X” doesn’t need to be a specialty item. This brings us back to the question of how much choice and control we have over what we eat in the first place.

So, how are our preferences formed to begin with? Brute exposure? It turns out (not surprisingly) that development of food preferences is a multifaceted and complex process involving a combination of genetic predisposition toward sweet and salty foods, the tendency to reject new foods in favor of familiar ones after early childhood, and the tendency to associate foods with the context under which they were eaten and subsequently learn or unlearn food preferences (2). It turns out that availability is also important, and I think that this might especially be the case because greater availability creates greater opportunity for the creation of social associations with those foods. So, ironically enough, it is the social nature of food which currently reinforces our poor food choices and perpetuates our involvement in the modern global food system, despite what appears to be the absence of a significant food culture or appreciation for food, social or otherwise.

In fact, it seems that our preference for highly processed sugary goods rather than raw sugary products (such as citrus fruits, apples, etc) might primarily be a matter of social conditioning. In a paper published in 1980, Birch et al. reported their finding that children’s preferences for what would traditionally be considered snack foods were only significantly extant when these food items were presented as rewards or when paired with adult attention as opposed to when presented in nonsocial contexts or at a designated “snack time”(3). This suggests that the kinds of associations we make with these foods and the way in which they are presented (both in our daily lives and in advertising) heavily influence our preference for them.

One might then think that the best way to alter the consumption patterns in the US would be to have parents pass on new food traditions to the next generation; however, it turns out that parental influence on food preferences is actually fairly minimal. In fact, siblings and the overall food culture have a much more significant effect due to the coherency of the messages passed on about food in the society as a whole (4). Of course, parental influences are a part of that overall societal collective of food messages, but this information suggests that being individually conscious about our food choices is not enough to pass on new food traditions to our children. In short, we need to conscientiously seek broad change in the system as well as alter our individual habits in order for real, lasting change in the food system to occur. Educating the public, initiating substantive dialogues about food, and critically appraising our local food systems could go a long way toward making a dent in the overall societal message about food, particularly if these initiatives are focused on involving children as well as adults. Community involvement is the key.

Another complicating factor in the effort to alter our tastes to make environmentally sustainable and socially just foods the norm is the existence of strong cultural food taboos which might discourage us from choosing new food sources which otherwise would be viable alternatives. Disgust (and contamination from ‘disgusting’ objects) is an incredibly complex sociological phenomenon, and if we examine our food repertoire, we see that what we do eat regularly (let alone what we aren’t disgusted by) comprises a rather narrow portion of the overall possibilities. As researcher Paul Rozin notes, "Almost all disgusting food is of animal origin. There's all this animal food out there that's actually quite nutritious and rich, and people wouldn't be caught dead eating it" (5). Breaking these heavily entrenched cultural norms will certainly be a task (if it’s even possible in any reasonably short amount of time), but perhaps continued exposure to these alternatives will slowly alter our culturally ingrained reactions to them.

It seems as though our food culture is defined by what some might consider to be its nonexistence; much of our food is standardized, whether it comes from the supermarket or a fast food restaurant, and therefore it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that there isn’t much appreciation for any given food item. We seem to make social connections based on the standardization of food; it’s nice to find out that someone else shares a preference for our pet label, and how else could I recommend a restaurant to a friend who lives on the other side of the country without ever having been to that specific franchise? In some ways, this is just the expansion of the local food sharing community; however, given that the trend toward concentration in the food industry is showing no sign of slowing, I wonder how long it will be before the entire concept of “local flavor” is entirely inaccessible.

On a more proactive level, we not only need to reframe our preferences away from the standard fare but toward making the consumption of environmentally sustainable and socially just foods an enjoyable, intrinsically rewarding part of the food experience. Social and psychological forces already strongly influence our food choices, so it’s no stretch of the imagination to consider that in the future, the quality of being sustainable might make the given food item taste better if we care to take the leap in proactively altering our societal attitudes toward food. Our task is not only to avoid the foods and attitudes toward foods which we are currently accustomed to, but add a more socially conscious level of enjoyment to the alternatives.

1. Patel, Raj. Stuffed and Starved. Melville House Publishing. 2007.

2. Birch, Leann L. “Development of Food Preferences.” Annu. Rev. Nutr. 1999: 41-62.

3. Birch, Leann L., et al. “The Influence of Social-Affective Context on the Formation of Children's Food Preferences.” Child Development. Vol. 51, No. 3, Sep. 1980: 856-861.

4. Meiselman, Herbert L. Food Choice, Acceptance, and Consumption. Springer, 1996. 96.

5. Food for Thought: Paul Rozin’s Research and Teaching at Penn

6. Times: Why We Get Disgusted.

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