The complexity of food identification, classification and selection

by | Aug 20, 2023

Home 9 Food consumption ideas&research 9 The complexity of food identification, classification and selection

In Purity and Danger, a central part of Mary Douglas’ argument is that ‘rational behaviour involves classification and that classification is a human universal’ (2010:XVII). Indeed, classification, categorization, division and organization are important mental and practical abilities. We need to classify and organize in order to understand, make sense and navigate through complex reality, and so avoid chaos, confusion or being lost. Needless to say, classification is also needed when it comes to food. But being capable of classifying presupposes that one is first of all able to identify food, and so, ultimately, that one really knows food. Obviously, we cannot and do not want to eat anything, anywhere and anytime. Above all, due to our omnivorous nature and our complex food situation, food identification and selection are of an utmost importance.

Crucial role of gastronomy and cuisine

Fischler (1988) argues that besides biological mechanisms we have also cognitive abilities and cultural practices and representations to resolve the omnivore’s paradox, and overcome the associated anxiety concerning food selection. For Lalonde (1992), ‘cultural patterns’, that is, cultural traditions of food preferences and culinary practices play the decisive role in regard to food selection and preparation. Gastronomy and cuisine are not only about choosing, preparing and eating food in a way that is characteristic for a region or a country, but also help us to deal with the omnivore’s paradox and alleviate anxieties regarding food.

For instance, Douglas comprehends cuisine ‘as a body of practices, representations, rules and norms based on classifications’ (Fischler 1988:279). For Fischler, cuisine is mainly about the transformation of ‘nutritional raw materials from the state of Nature to the state of Culture’ and so a matter of ‘classifications and rules ordering the world and giving it meaning’ (1988:284-5). Similarly, gastronomy ’is a complex set of interrelated rules and representations’ (1980:948).

Culinary orders and practices can thus have a strong social, cultural or symbolic power when they impose order, rules on food and food practices and classify, organize and cultivate them. But the problem is that, as Fischler (1980) argues, they have been disrupted. Although cuisines and gastronomies surely still play a role, practices related to food selection, preparation and eating are not anymore ruled and governed by them. In other words, they are (more) detached from our daily lives, and do not really determine what, when or how much we should eat. Given their development and ‘scientific’ character, they comprise a separate and specialized field, to which we do not have access on a daily basis.

Foodstuffs as unidentified edible objects

As Fischler points out, our modern food is quite an ‘unidentified edible object’ (1988:289). It lacks ‘identity’, and thus it cannot unequivocally be identified. Indeed, due to its complex processing and obscure composition, food identification, differentiation and classification become really problematic. For example, by adding sugar into ketchup or salami, our ‘taste perception and cultural classifications are at the same time used, fooled and by-passed by the mere addition of sugar, which acts at a subliminal level, as a pressure remaining largely unknown to the consumer’ (Fischler 1980:949). Sugar makes these foodstuffs taste better, and also increases food consumption, which is obviously what food industry aims at. Sugar also disturbs their classification as salty foods. In fact, processed bio foodstuffs also contain ingredients that ordinary customer cannot really identify and understand.

Intricacies of food identification and classification

Food identification and classification become problematic also because most people do not produce their own food and know little about its production. Food is also often reduced to signs, representations or images through the packaging, advertising or discourse. Moreover, food industry uses more and more sophisticated processes that not only try to imitate, but also change what, for instance, ‘natural’ or ‘traditional’ food is (Fischler 1988). We are then told, for instance, that milkshake from a fast-food is basically just a ‘real’, fresh and healthy milk (Lupton 1996), or that frozen pizza is as good as freshly baked one.

Even if we may still be able to tell them apart, it is true that we find it difficult to (precisely) analyse and evaluate food based on its taste, appearance or texture. Most of the time, in the shop we are not even given a chance to identify and evaluate foodstuffs with the senses other than sight. Since the vast majority of foodstuffs is concealed by the packaging, the role of the senses of touch and smell has significantly decreased.

We could look at not only food identification and classification but also choice, selection and preference, on the one hand, as a result of symbolic or mental relation with food – what food represents, stands for or is associated with – and, on the other, as a result of our affective, bodily or physical (visceral) relation with food. The connection between how we think about food, how food is approved or incorporated by the mind and how we affectively or bodily react to or relate to food when it is literally incorporated are of course based on the relation between the mind and the body. However, rather than by a relation, in the Western (philosophical) tradition, the mind and the body have been characterized by a separation or dichotomy. I propose a way out of it by bringing the senses in.

Overcoming the mind-body dichotomy through the senses

A way out of the ‘mind–body trap’ is to turn our attention to the senses. Since they cannot be clearly localized and limited to some parts of the body, they do not allow us to identify the mind with brain (head) and the body with everything below it. They affect the whole being. However, they have been entangled in the mind–body dichotomy and, therefore, divided. The most common division of the senses is into contact (close) versus distant and lower versus higher. Touch, smell and taste have been categorized as contact and lower senses, while sight and hearing as distant and higher ones. As Falk (1994) argues, from Plato, through Kant to our modern times, distant senses, especially sight, have occupied a higher position than contact senses. ‘To see’ has meant not only to be capable of vision but also of understanding or comprehending. Sight has also been associated with enlightenment.

Linking sight to the intelligent mind and taste and other contact senses to the body has been based on the idea that, as Wilentz puts it, ‘whereas sight and hearing are dependent upon the higher brain functions, taste is associated with the automatic or lower brain functions’ (Lalonde 1992:76). Distant senses have been prioritized because distance has been deemed ‘a necessary precondition for reflection and/or representation’ (Falk 1994:11). Indeed, sight and hearing are oriented outward, not inward, and so in a sense detach us from our body. Distance is about detachment and separation, which allows for objectification (detachment) and dichotomies like subject–object.

Undoubtedly, the above divisions of the senses are problematic. Distant senses surely do not guarantee flawless and complete or absolute knowledge of the reality. Being able to hear and see does not guarantee knowledge at all. Hearing and sight are selective, and can also be deceptive. We can hear but still not be able to understand. And, for example, optical illusions are a clear example of how deceptive sight can be. Clearly, any division or separation of the senses is misleading. My aim is to show that the senses should be taken together and seen as interconnected. This will be shown particularly on the sense of taste, which together with taste plays a central role in our relation with food and cannot be really understood separately from other senses.

Other thesis 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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