Friday 17 September 2010

Maia's Hand Mirror Reflections: Food

I've written a lot about the politics of the way food is discussed, but very little about the politics of food. I think to understand 'the obesity epidemic' you have to understand the politics of food as well as the politics of the discourse around food (yes I used the word 'discourse' in my first paragraph - I imagine it'll be a long post).

So far when I've been talking about the discourse around food I've generally been talking about individual foods and how they're discussed. In this post I'm going to talk more about diet. Just to be clear in this post when I say 'diet' I don't mean weight-loss diets, but the sum total of what we eat from week to week.

There are a number of assumptions that underpin 'the obesity epidemic' - one of which is that our diet has got worse over the last 50 years. Some people, such as the chair of Fight the Obesity Epdiemic, believe that our diet has got worse since the depression, since in the 1930s people grew their own vegetables. But I'll give most people who promote 'the obesity epidemic' the benefit of the doubt and assume that they don't think we'd be in better health if we died of starvation.

It was a reasonably standard article on obesity in the Dominon Post that made me question this assumption:
It's not difficult to see why obesity is becoming such a problem. We no longer walk or exercise nearly as much as we used to and our eating habits have deteriorated
. What did people eat in New Zealand 50 years ago? Would it past muster with those who hark back to a golden era.

To answer this question I turned to Towards Tomorrow: A Guide for the New Zealand Homemaker, an economics school text book published in 1968. Here's what it had to say about fat:
The fats used in the average New zealand diet are butter, bacon fat, dripping and lard.
and meat:
Meat is the protein food most used in New Zealand and we are among the world's greatest meat eaters because our country is so agriculturally rich. Many overseas visitors are surprised to find that meat is often included in every meal of the day.

Poultry has grown in popularity over recent years. Like meat it is a complete protein, but it is mroe expensive than meat. (There is alarm at the use of hormones to develop birds rapidly because these hormones could affect humans.) Poultry is a delicious 'special occasion' food.
So 40 years ago the New Zealand diet included red meat 2-3 times a day, and most cooking was done in animal fat.

My first thought was that either people are lying to us about what a healthy diet is, or our diet has improved considerably since the 1960s.* My second thought is that the main problem is that it's ridiculous to talk about 'the New Zealand' diet. For discussion of diet to have any meaning at all, we have to look at class, and how the amount of money you have has effects your diet.

In our society we don't make food for nutritional value, we don't make food to nuture us, we don't make food to promote long life and we don't make food to fee ourselves.

We make food to make a profit.

Every decision those producing food make about what goes into that food (starting way back at the genetically modified soy-bean seed, to when soya-oil ends up in a low-fat biscuit substitute) is made based on the need to make a profit. Nutrition is generally only a consideration into whether or not food makes a profit if the government has legislated about the nutirtional content of certain foods, or if it can help sell the product (more on this later).

There have been changes in food over the last 50 years, and those changes have been driven by the food industry's requirement to make a profit. I may be wrong, and I'm happy to discuss this with people who know more (or less) than me, but I think the most important change has been that calories have gotten cheaper, but other nutrition have gotten more expensive.** To give a really basic example, if the amount of vitamin C in an apple has halved, then even if apples have gone down in price a 1/3 vitamin C is more expensive.

That's why I hate Sue Kedgeley, and the Greens soft-drink charge so much. The solution to the change in our diets can't be to try and drive the price of calories back up, rather than try and bring the price of nutrients down.

This is a long, and kind of rambling post. I had a lot more to say, but this is a start, I'll try and expand on some of these posts in the next few days. I refuse to join into the current discourse on food for a reason, because I think it misses the problem. I think everytime we talk about 'healthy' food we're just creating another way they can sell things for us.

I think the any problems with food in our society can only be solved if we go attack the cause of the problem. The profit motive.

*This may or may not be true, I'm not hear to police individual debates on the value of different sorts of food. On an individual level I suspect part of the problem with talking about the dangers of one item of food in your diet, as it's not what you take out of your diet, but what you substitute it with, that makes a difference to your longevity and quality of life.

**I should go to bed, but there's a whole lot more detail in what this means, I'll write it up tomorrow.


Psycho Milt said...

My first thought was that either people are lying to us about what a healthy diet is, or our diet has improved considerably since the 1960s.

There is a third option: that nutritionists and epidemiologists aren't lying but have allowed an orthodoxy to develop that is simply wrong, and are trying to maintain it despite the evidence to the contrary. Won't be the first to do so, nor the last.

We make food to make a profit.

This was equally true 50 years ago. You're right though, it's now a lot easier to offer a cheap meal with a whole day's worth of calories in it, and we now have a highly-developed food tech industry refining the ways to make fthe food they're selling more attractive to people.

stef said...

I remember watching a TV series a while back that had people on diets (as in the food that one normally eats) from different eras and it is interesting to see that our idea of 'health' has changed markedly not just in the last 50 years but over the centuries.

DPF:TLDR said...

We all agree that profit motive is the problem. The disagreement mostly comes from what we see as arising from that profit motive. Anti-fat activists will tell you that the existence of cheap fatty and sweet food, and so-called "empty" calories, is a product of the profit motive. You recall Anne's theory that fat acceptance keeps corporate coffers full, right?

Carol said...

Yes, I'm agreed on the profit motive, and with the fact that even "fresh" fruit and veges have been tampered with. I do think it's the food corporates that need to be strongly challenged. But also, the whole extreme consumerist, neoliberal environment that puts too much focus on profits, competition etc. produces such profiteering, and needs to be countered.

As far as "healthy" diets go, the message I have gotten from most nutritionists, is that a balanced and varied diet is the way to go, plus some exercise, rather than being too prescriptive or rigid. They recognise that genetics play a part, so that not everyone responds exactly the same to the same foods/diets.

As I get older, and am aware of my family history of heart disease, I take the heart foundation risk factors seriously. And it is managing risk they talk about:

So they are not saying everyone eating a certain diet will certainly have a heart attack, or avoid it (depending on the diet). I look on it a bit like I do taking out third party insurance for my car (though I have considerable unhappiness about the profiteering of insurance companies too), getting my car serviced regularly, locking my door when I go out etc.

I could do none of those things and nothing bad may happen. But, it's less risky to take some precautions.

That's the same way I feel about exercising and a healthy diet.

But I think a reasonably healthy lifestyle and diet should be the right of all, and not something that food corporates manipulate for excessive profits.

tussock said...

Surely the increase in isolated sedentary lifestyles is the main reason for the increase in obesity related health problems. Cheap home entertainment and private cars, eh.

Sure, there's more sugar in food too, in forms easier to take in than boiled lollies, preserved vegetables, and endless cups of tea. More people get diabetic there, but a lot of that comes down to the anti-fat meme of the last couple decades. Less fat = more sugar.

Unfortunately, one can completely hide the sickly taste of excess sugar with salt, low temperatures, or bubbles.

Where were we? Profit, right. I don't think you can ban profit, eh. OK, regulate the content and price of everything, like in Muldoon's time, but who's to say what regulations we get? Whose interests will be served first? Last time it was the sheep and dairy farmers, subsidised like crazy. Anyone remember rancid school milk? It's just as likely to be CCA writing the regulations next time.

M said...

I'm really enjoying reading these posts on food. At my work we have an annual 'Wellness Week' and this year, along with the exercise focus, there is also a real push to get people eating 'healthy food'. Reading these posts is giving me a whole new perspective on the push within my workplace, and I'm thinking it needs a bit of challenging.