Revolution in attaching morality to how we eat

by Morton Sosland
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Even in these troubling economic times when value trumps every other marketing theme aimed at attracting consumer attention to food products, the search for different draws is ongoing. The temptation is great to look to concepts that won the day in the recent past like convenience and health and wellness. No one would say these are no longer important, only that they have been overrun by recession fears. In the face of this singular focus, some highly unusual, even radical, views have recently appeared.

The most astounding perception about food choices originates in one of the nation’s most conservative think tanks. In an article titled, "Is Food the New Sex?" Mary Eberstadt, a fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, writes in its Policy Review her belief that concerns about food have replaced morality about sexual behavior. She declares that people in Western nations "are free to have all the sex and food they want." The surprising result of this freedom is that moralizing about sexual conduct has been almost totally abandoned, while food has been surrounded by moral issues.

Ms. Eberstadt cites the example of a mother and daughter. The mother thinks food is a matter of taste whereas sex is governed by universal moral law, and the daughter thinks exactly the opposite in what she calls a "perfect reversal." Ms. Eberstadt underscores how important this is for understanding changing attitudes toward food. "Their personal moral relationships toward food and toward sex are just about perfectly reversed. The mother does care about nutrition and food, but it doesn’t occur to her to extend her opinions to a moral judgment, i.e. to believe that other people ought to do as she does in the matter of food and that they are wrong if they don’t. In fact, she thinks such an extension would be wrong. It would be impolite, needlessly judgmental, simply not done. The daughter similarly does care to some limited degree about what other people do about sex, but it seldom occurs to her to extend her opinions to a moral judgment. In fact, she thinks such an extension would be wrong, because it would be impolite, needlessly judgmental, simply not done."

Citing what she says are obsessions about food as evidenced by trends like the Atkins diet and how these resonate in the marketplace, Ms. Eberstadt declares, "Underneath the passing fads and short-term fixes and notices, deep down where the real seismic change lies is a series of revolutions in how we now think about food — changes that focus not on today or tomorrow, but on eating as a way of life." Along that line, she cites vegetarianism as one of the most successful secular moral movements in the West. "For many people, schismatic differences about food have taken the place of schismatic differences about faith," she says.

Ms. Eberstadt says this is particularly amazing for the speed with which it has occurred. Prior to the present day, throughout history, "practically no one devoted this much time to matters of food as ideas." She notes the way Europeans have introduced morality into food codes and regulations. "The once-universal moral code of European Christianity is being explicated for the masses by reference to the now apparently more-universal European moral code of consumption," she adds, saying that "consumption of food not only literally but also figuratively has become progressively more discriminate and thoughtful." Thus, she notes, "junk food" and "junk sex" have become virtually interchangeable vices, "even if many people who do not put ‘sex’ in this category of vice will readily do so with food."

In this magazine devoted to food, it may be surmised that few in the industry have thought about the business and its products in the Eberstadt context. Attaching moral certainty or stigma to the way people eat introduces truly amazing approaches that may be rightly characterized as revolutionary change.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, May 12, 2009, starting on Page 11. Click here to search that archive.

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