The myth of ‘real food’
At the Abergavenny Food Festival last weekend, I took the opportunity to have a pop at the eco-friendly, locavore, organic, small-is-best food snobs. Here’s an expanded version of my comments.
The term ‘real food’ is bandied around a lot these days. Nutritionist Zoe Harcombe declares that the science is in and that ‘we must eat real food and not processed food’. Author Michael Pollan believes that real food is ‘the sort of food our great grandmothers would recognize as food’.
Over at the Real Food Challenge website, we read: ‘Real Food is food which truly nourishes producers, consumers, communities and the earth. It is a food system - from seed to plate - that fundamentally respects human dignity and health, animal welfare, social justice and environmental sustainability. Some people call it “local,” “green”, “slow” or “fair”. We use “Real Food” as a holistic term to bring together many of these diverse ideas people have about a values-based food economy.’
So for Harcombe, ‘real food’ is healthier. For Real Food Challenge, it is about ethics. For Pollan, it means both.
Now, of course, real food is better than imaginary food. A diet made up exclusively of imaginary food would be somewhat lacking in nutritional value. In fact, that appears to be exactly what happened in a case reported in April 2012. A Swiss woman took up the ideas of ‘breatharianism’ espoused by some clear charlatans and undertook a ‘sunlight’ diet - and died of starvation. Sadly, this appears not to have been an isolated case.
But if we exclude the surreal and the downright stupid, what can ‘real food’ really mean? There seems little intrinsic difference between foods cooked from raw ingredients and those that have been processed or produced on a mass scale. If there is a health difference between foods due to, for example, their nutritional content, then we will surely be able to find so-called real foods that are a match, both good and bad, for anything that anything mass-produced.
As for the ethics of food, these are generally treated in a one-sided way. The massive benefits to humanity of producing more food, more cheaply and supplying that food conveniently are invariably overlooked in favour of concerns about the environment. The assumption that mass production is bad for the planet is little more than a prejudice that is not borne out by reality. For example, organic food is promoted as being better for the environment, but it is also hugely wasteful of land compared to the best practices of ‘conventional’ agriculture.
This presentiment that mass production is bad and ‘real’ food is good is really a statement about ‘mass’ or ‘junk’ people versus ‘real’ or ‘ethical’ people. It is class snobbery through the prism of food. The ‘right’ kind of people eat the ‘right’ kind of food. Thou shalt be judged by the contents of thine shopping trolley.
This is a stupid and conservative attitude to food, where small and old-fashioned is deemed to be good, while big and modern are looked upon with horror. Instead of bullshit terms like ‘real’ food, it is far better to judge food on whether it is tasty and nutritious rather than by what it says about the world or the person who is eating it.