Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Food and Reductionism

So far this semester, readings and class discussions have dealt with the topics of the fast food industry, animal rights and vegetarianism, and most recently, the politics of nutrition. Our discourse regarding these topics has helped shed light on a root idea that is tying all of them together: reductionism. This concept can be interpreted as it relates to food itself, the path between its origins and our plate, our relationship with food, or food's social, economic, and cultural implications; but whatever angle from which you consider reductionism, its application to food has questionable results, some of which have already proven to contribute to social and economic problems and health problems in humans, animals, and the environment.

The fast food industry is the result of the [seeming] reduction of time and energy; time and energy previously spent by individuals or small groups of people obtaining raw foodstuffs and preparing meals. Before the advent of the fast food industry, feeding oneself and one's family was an important responsibility and might as well have been a full-time job. But the fast food industry offered to provide people with full meals at low costs and in no time at all. This reduction in the time and energy a consumer would invest in obtaining, preparing, and consuming food led to more serious and questionable forms of reductionism in relation to our food, including: a diminishing sense of food's social and cultural significance in our daily lives, a decreased sense of intimacy in our relationship with food, and the application of a technologically advanced assembly-line logic--reducing food production and preparation processes to their most fundamental mechanical steps and optimizing that system to promote corporate goals of mere convenience, efficiency, and profit.

"I have no desire to scale up or get bigger. ... As soon as you grasp for that growth, you're going to view your customer differently, you're going to view your product differently, you're going to view your business differently. Everything that is the most important-- you're going to view that differently," says Polyface Farms owner, Joel Salatin (1). This perspective implicitly warns against a form of reductionism that would result from prioritizing convenience, efficiency, and profit over product quality, consumer protection, sustainability, and human and animal health and welfare: reducing living beings to lifeless instruments merely meant for the efficient generation of profit. In the meat-packing industry, animals are considered as commodities and workers deal with unhealthy and dangerous working conditions, have little to no rights, and are easily replaceable. The root of many health problems for the workers, animals, and consumers can be traced to this grim aspect of the meat industry's business model.

'Nutritionism' is another important form of reductionism. It is the term that Gyorgy Scrinis uses to describe an ideology whereby food is evaluated and consumed according to its nutritional content. Nutritionism sort of abstracts all foods into quantitative models of the nutrients they contain (2) and this has proven to be helpful to players in the processed food industry. Experts would designate which nutrients, vitamins, and minerals are 'good' and 'bad' and food scientists could easily devise a way to engineer certain foods to hold large amounts of the 'good' nutrients (3). So you could be in the snack aisle at the supermarket and find yourself looking at a sack of greasy potato chips that have been nutritionally engineered to give you a refreshing boost of vitamins and minerals. It easily seems too good to be true and odds are, it is. The problem with nutritionism is that it assumes that isolated nutrients are responsible for good physical health, as opposed to, say, nutrients in chemical combination with each other or nutrients as they occur naturally in certain foods (4). One also has to consider the essential nature of processed foods. Usually, food becomes more unhealthy to consume as it becomes more processed. Although it may bestow certain foods with more meaningful nutritional content (at least according to nutritionism), nutritional engineering is still a [potentially harmful] industrial food process. Another problem with nutritionism is just the fact that it is so focused on nutritional content. What about a food's ability to satisfy hunger? What about the taste of the food? Or are humans just nutrient-fueled machines incapable of perceiving the complex and intangible dimensions of food?

Although the three topics discussed seem only vaguely related, their relation to the idea of reductionism demonstrates that our current food production models and attitudes towards food are not at all suited to our nature as human beings. Regarding humans and animals with indifference and forgoing social meals for vitamin supplements are obviously not appealing and yet we find ourselves in a position where these conditions are accepted and normal. We can't cut corners and be dishonest with ourselves when it comes to our food and health. Given the current food situation and what it has cost us, who would want to?

1. Food, Inc. (Film)
2. "On The Ideology of Nutritionism", Gyorgy Scrinis, pg. 39
3. "On The Ideology of Nutritionism", Gyorgy Scrinis, pgs. 44-45
4. In Defense Of Food, Michael Pollan, pg. 26


  1. Great post! Michael Pollan was talking about reductionism when he was on Oprah earlier last month. Any food, when not processed, is fine in moderation, be it carbs, or fat, or meat. When we demonize one type of food, we give another a free pass. The example Pollan gave was the no-fat craze that swept America. People abstained from meat products and instead ate loads of carbs and sugars. Then they were bewildered when they still got fat!

  2. This is such a thought-provoking post. I love the way you pull all of these themes together. And the quote from Joel Salatin is excellent!

  3. Thinking about the reduction of time and energy spent on food, both at the production point (farming) and end-point (consumption)....

    Is this all bad? Who benefits from spending less time farming? Children historically went to school around the planting and harvest cycles; now, they spend more time in school. Who benefits from spending less time preparing foods? Food preparation has historically been the domain of women; there is a strong argument to be made about the relationship between the industrialization of food and women's equality/freedom.

    All this aside from the fact that mega farms put small farmers out of business, that more time in school doesn't necessarily translate into social/economic gains, and that industrialized food has serious repercussions.

    Interesting to ponder nonetheless.