January 29, 2018

Food: From Micro to Macro

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

What we eat is deeply personal. It is also connected to our cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. We may seldom think about it, but what we eat has global ramifications.

Sociology teaches us that very few choices we make are only personal. Food literally shapes your personal biology, but the choices we have access to make are shaped by where we live, the groups we are part of, and the policies our lawmakers have made. And all of this cumulatively impacts our environment, locally and globally.

Before going any further, I need to say that I am not a paragon of ideal eating by any means, and this post is not intended to persuade you to change your diet. It is instead meant to help us think about something as vital and mundane as eating, and think about the connections between the micro and macro levels of sociological processes.

In fact, there is widespread disagreement about what we should eat at all. A simple online search for “best diet” will yield an overwhelming number of choices, some contradicting one another. Advice on whether you should eat meat, dairy, beans, and wheat changes significantly based on who is giving the advice, with sometimes fear-inducing reasons why some food categories should be eliminated from your diet.

Different countries offer varying dietary guidelines, albeit with quite a bit of overlap in promoting vegetables and fruits. A recent study, reported on by NPR, found that regardless of a country’s dietary guidelines, if people actually followed them there would be significant benefits to the environment: “Greenhouse gas emissions would fall, waterways would suffer less pollution from fertilizer, and less land would be required to feed people.”

Some countries’ guidelines include the environmental benefits of eating more or less of a particular category, but in the U.S. and other countries advice like this can potentially offend major food producing industries, so environmental impact is purposely omitted from dietary recommendations.

For instance, the cattle industry might not like us to reduce our red meat intake, as Oprah Winfrey famously found out after airing an episode of her show about mad cow disease and subsequently getting sued in the 1990s. Some states have food libel laws, which allow industries to sue if their products are publically disparaged.

Food is not just personal or cultural, it is also political and economic. As Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health wrote in her book Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, lobbyists play a major role in governmental recommendations about nutrition. Industries also fund research about health and diet, encouraging the public to focus on the dangers of one food group while ignoring their own, as journalist Gary Taubes writes in The Case Against Sugar. Taubes documents how the sugar industry helped fund research focusing on the alleged dangers of fat (especially animal fat) as the primary cause of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other health complications and deflect the researchers and the public from looking closely at sugar intake as a potential health problem.

The economics of food also shape the kinds of food choices we have access to. Obviously, personal finances shape what kinds of foods we can afford, and where we can afford to live determines whether we have access to grocery stores at all. Whether in rural or urban areas, low income communities are often considered food deserts, meaning residents lack reliable access to a range of healthy foods (as this recent story about a grocery march details).

And even for people with the resources to purchase and access to healthy food options, what your local grocery store decides to sell is rooted in economic realities. If there is not enough demand for a particular product, a store might not offer it. By contrast, I think about the quinoa in my dinner last night, which a few years ago I never even heard of, let alone ever considered eating. Learning about new foods has perhaps never been easier with the Internet, and globalization makes transporting food around the world easier as well (although there are environmental costs to this).

Economic pressures have led some grocery stores to increase the number of organic products, as competitors like Whole Foods have made their brand about selling organically grown and responsibly-sourced foods. This has led to more investment in organic farming and perhaps a reduction in prices that might encourage more people to buy organic food and more farmers to practice organic farming, which has traditionally been much more expensive.

So, what does this mean for your dinner tonight? Just a chance for you to think sociologically about the food on your plate.

Comments

I am very lucky to live in a place where there is an abundant amount of local farmers and producers who are selling their wares to "local hero's". People who consciously choose a more local product. Here in Western Massachusetts,and I know in other places in the country there is a massive market for and movement towards locally sourced food. By simply buying local we are reducing our impact on the environment while stimulating the local economy.

By moving toward more locally sourced products we can take control of our diets, and choose where our money goes. By buying locally you are investing in your local economy. You are keeping money local instead of spending at a company where the profits go to other states, or countries. Many places do not have access to local produce thus the term "food desert", and as time goes on with more awareness (and with more man made pressures put on the environment) American society will move towards a locally based food system.

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