Classifying bio food and understanding its characteristics related to nature and health

by | Jan 24, 2024

Home 9 Food consumption ideas&research 9 Classifying bio food and understanding its characteristics related to nature and health

In order to not only understand bio food but also our complexity of food, food’s composition and origins, it is crucial to try distinguish between food’s ‘nature’ and ‘culture’. However, food is becoming more and more complex and increasingly more food cannot simply be classified as ‘natural’ or ‘cultural’(‘industrialized’). This holds true also for bio food. To make sense of the differences, I try to conceptualize and categorize bio food as ‘purely natural’ and ‘culturally natural’. I then also discuss the link between bio food and health and well-being.

‘Purely natural’ versus ‘culturally natural’ bio food

Bio food is strongly linked to and associated with nature (naturalness), healthiness and ethics, which go beyond this food and its consumer. As Roe (2006) also argues, people’s choice to eat bio food is not based only on knowledges concerning their own health but also on knowledges of environmental and social ethics. My aim is to show that these three most salient features of bio food are not just mental associations that exist in thought (in people’s minds) or in discourse but, above all, as my own experience and those of my interlocutors clearly prove, spring from bodily experiences with bio food.

Bio food’s naturalness is deduced from its natural origin and connection with nature, freshness, rawness (simplicity, ‘originality’), seasonality or locality. In fact, my interlocutors described bio food as natural (naturally cultivated), local, healthy, seasonal, fresh, raw, pure, ‘green’ (environmentally friendly), ‘chemical-free’, more nutritious and of a higher quality than non-bio food. Yet since bio food is also ‘cultural’, it can be divided into ‘purely natural’ and ‘culturally natural’.

From my own experience of talking about bio food with my interlocutors, family, friends or acquaintances, ‘purely natural’ bio food is the food that grows ‘freely’ in nature, in people’s gardens or on the fields. It is ‘purely natural’ because people ‘let it grow’ in the sense that they do not use any (possibly harmful) synthetic products such as pesticides or fertilizers. ‘Purely natural’ bio food refers, above all, to any vegetable or fruit, which one grows or can buy from a local farmer who grows them according to these principles.

Bio food, which one can buy in any food shop or supermarket, is mostly ‘culturally natural’. This type of bio food is more ‘cultural’ because it has a packaging with an official bio label, is more of a commodity (more entangled in the market than ‘purely natural’ bio food), and can also be processed.  Nonetheless, both types of bio food, or rather their edible materiality, are natural when also the materiality of ‘culturally natural’ bio food, that is, the ingredients it is made of, come from organic agriculture. As my personal experience and the research suggest, people who grow and eat ‘purely natural’ bio food do not buy and eat (a lot of) ‘culturally natural’ bio food and vice versa.

The most direct bodily experience of the naturalness of bio food is through its appearance and taste. ‘Purely natural’ bio food usually looks worse, ‘less perfect’ or is smaller than other food. However, ‘culturally natural’ bio food does not really look different from non-bio food. As for taste, it is an important determinant of the naturalness of bio food and its preference to non-bio food, as my own experience and that of my interlocutors prove. I developed the ability to taste and sense the naturalness of food mainly because I grew up mostly on homegrown vegetables and fruit. Bio food’s naturalness can be best tasted from ‘purely natural’, that is, raw and fresh bio food such as vegetables, fruits or meat, which are, in fact, bio foods that my interlocutors buy and eat most. Mainly this type of bio food is experienced as having a stronger, more natural and better taste in comparison to non-bio food.

Bio food’s link to health and well-being

Bio food’s naturalness goes hand in hand with its health benefits for humans when it is experienced as positively affecting health. If bio food is seen as ‘healthy’, it obviously does not mean it is healthy in any quantities and at any time.  Healthiness and well-being are not independent of the environment we live in; they are circumstantially determined states impacted by multiple factors we encounter and face in our daily lives.

The link between nature and health is based on the idea that we, as bodily beings, ‘are from nature’, and so if we want to ‘function normally’ (stay/be healthy and thrive), we need to stay connected to nature. Bio food is one of the most important ways to do so. But again, the naturalness of bio food’s edible materiality as a source of health and as good for one’s health can be experienced only through a bodily relation with it. As my respondents make clear, it is particularly ‘purely natural’ bio food that is seen as ‘naturally healthy’. ‘Culturally natural’ bio food is doubted due to its processing and ingredients that are added into it. As an interlocutor complained, food industry makes bio food impure.

Bio food and health meet each other mainly for two reasons. One of them is that people start eating bio food as a reaction to food safety scandals negatively affecting public health. They force people to think, learn and be more critical about the food they buy and ‘put into’ their bodies. The other reason which can lead to more permanent changes in diet, is when one experiences health issues, especially those related to digestion. Experiencing serious and recurrent bodily (psycho-somatic) symptoms, such as pain, vomiting, cramps, fainting, tiredness, loss of concertation or lethargy after eating a certain food prevent one from functioning normally and force one to reflect on one’s diet and its impact on one’s health and well-being. As my own experience and my two interlocutors evidence, one cannot simply rely only on external help. One also needs to ‘listen to’ or ‘tune in’ to one’s body (Lupton 1996), and be one’s own ‘doctor’.

Relating bio food to health when it is experienced as making oneself be and feel better and healthier does not mean to see it as a kind of medicine or drug. First of all, medicine is meant when there is a lack of health or a health issue, and, second, bio food’s health qualities and properties are not manmade like medicine. They can only be discovered, experienced and acknowledged as such. In effect, none of my interlocutors believe bio food is something one ‘takes’ like a drug, and expects to be better. Bio food is experienced as healthy thanks to its composition and the nutrients it contains and because it makes oneself be and feel healthy or healthier and help alleviate or even eliminate certain health issues.

The preceding blog Bio food’s inherent value and the nature-culture division can be found here

My other food consumption ideas and research blogs can be found here

This blog is a slightly adapted part of my thesis What is your relation with food like?: Examining the embodied relation between people and bio food in Belgium (Master of Social and Cultural Anthropology); References available upon request.

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