Food matters: The importance of (bio) food and our relation with it

by | Aug 18, 2023

Home 9 Food consumption ideas&research 9 Food matters: The importance of (bio) food and our relation with it

Food pertains to everyone. Everyone needs it, and has a certain relation with it. Yet the evident presence of food in our individual, as well as social, lives is often taken for granted and in a sense overlooked. Food is an ordinary and mundane thing and eating such a routine and mechanical activity that it might seem pointless to pay a closer attention to them. One does not find it important or necessary to think much about food’s origins, composition or way of production. Food is often just something one buys, prepares and eats. However, the opposite is true. Being an inevitable part of our everyday lives, food and food practices affect and shape us more than we tend to realize or admit. Food matters and, therefore, we need to develop a healthy and good relation with it.


Human uncertain relation with food

Given that we are formed through and in relations, it is vital to develop a good relation with food.  Any strong and lasting relation is not simply given, but requires a lot of effort, self-discovery and learning. In fact, our relation with[1] food is precarious and contradictory already when it comes to our ‘nature’ regarding food. As omnivores, we not only can but also should eat ‘everything’. This implies freedom, openness and adaptability but also dependence, confusion and anxiety, hence the ‘omnivore’s paradox’ (Fischler 1988). It appears that this paradox is not alleviated or resolved, but rather aggravated by our recent complex food situation (Fischler 1980).

From the second half of the 20th century, there has been some considerable changes in the Western world in food production, distribution and consumption (Lupton 1996, Fischler 1980). These changes have been going on hand in hand with the growing industrialization, urbanization and globalization. Food and foodstuffs[2] have been undergoing a process of complex and growing industrialization, processing, global circulation, mass production and so on. Food(stuffs) have also been ‘dematerialized’ when reduced to representations, images or symbols, which circulate through various media. Mapping food and globalization, Nützenadel and Trentmann see our complexity of food as a result of the projection of our anxieties and worries on to it:

‘Food serves as a lightning-rod for all sorts of anxieties and disquiet about the human condition in late modernity, about the speed of life(fast food/slow food), the dominance of science (‘Frankenfoods’), a loss of ‘authenticity’ and diminishing connection with nature (industrial versus organic foods), the invasion of the local by the global(McDonaldization), and physiological and mental stress and disease (obesity and bulimia)’ (2008:2).

Unfortunately, food does not serve only as a ‘lightning rod’ of these tensions and anxieties, but in fact ‘embodies’ or causes them. It then comes as no surprise that food is linked to physical and mental diseases and disorders, and seen as ‘a pathogen, a source of disease and ill-health’ (Lupton 1996:77). Undoubtedly, modern food is a highly complex and ambiguous biomedical phenomenon.

Modern alienation from food

Industrialization or ‘technologization’ of food not only enabled production of new foodstuffs and mass food production, but, in fact, also detached people from food. Therefore, even if it might be true that, as Guthman claims, it is ‘increasingly difficult not to think about what goes into our mouths’ (2004:2), people’s relation and daily engagement with food have been weakened[3], and food’s significance and impact, especially on the mind (self), interpersonal relations and overall life quite overlooked and neglected.

Food has become too complex and opaque to be easily understood. Not only the study of food is characterized by fragmentation (Nützenadel&Trentmann 2008) but in fact food itself. More specifically, apart from the fact that the increasing complexity of food does not go hand in hand with food education at school, one does not really produce one’s food and often eats food that requires minimal or no preparation prior to its consumption. One’s relation with food is then reduced to purchasing and consuming food.


Food’s complexity and opaqueness

In today’s Western world, the main problem is not food scarcity but rather a sort of confusion and uncertainty resulting from food’s complexity and opaqueness. What is crucial is to learn more about food, and develop a good relation with it. The ability to do so is connected with the ability to reflect on oneself and know oneself.

One’s relation with food points to and reveals not only something about one’s relation to one’s body, but also who one is. The identity of food and one’s identity are interconnected and interdependent. If we do not know what we eat, we simply cannot know how food shapes us, and ultimately who we are (Fischler 1988). This, of course, presupposes that people are not seen as disembodied minds with bodies at their disposal but rather as embodied beings with embodied minds (selves).

Why focus on bio food

However, even if my approach applies to food in general, I narrow down my research to so-called bio food [4]. Although this type of food has been spreading and becoming more and more visible, it is still quite a recent, uncharted and unknown phenomenon. It begs more attention also because it seems to ‘stand out’, namely be different from non-bio food when it comes to its packaging and, more importantly, its edible substance. Last but not least, bio food is seen as inherently healthy, natural and ethical when it is supposed to be not only the best (healthiest) for humans but also for other living beings, the environment and ultimately the planet.

[1] I speak of human relation with food rather than to it since the preposition with suggests mutuality, which is vital to a lasting and strong relation.

[2] I use the term ‘food’ as an overarching term to refer to everything that humans can eat or drink. However, it is important to differentiate between ‘food’ and ‘foodstuff’. The latter is usually a commodity that one buys, and usually does not consume in its entirety or in its original state. One does not consume the packaging or some parts of vegetables, fruits and so on. All foodstuffs are food, but this does not mean they are edible in their material entirety or in their original state. Ultimately, only a personal relation with food determines edibility – what and how one eats or drinks.

[3] It could be argued that people are also more attached or even ‘addicted’ to certain foods such as coffee, alcohol or sweets. But addiction is not what I am interested in, for it is rather a one-way attachment or dependence and not a mutually constitutive and dynamic relation.  

[4] Since in Belgium the prevailing and official term is ‘bio’, I employ this term. I talk about bio food to refer not only to the food that has an official bio label, but to any food that people call bio.

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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