Recently, I’ve been thinking about religion. Not Religion religion. And not because I posted yesterday about GF foods for Passover. Rather, I’ve been thinking about food religion. More specifically, I’ve been paying more attention to the many ways in which food philosophies resemble religious denominations. Allow me to explain.
Within food circles, we tend to call different food philosophies movements or diets. The Slow Food movement. The locavore movement. The gluten-free diet. But let’s be honest – in reality, they’re all pretty darned close to being religious denominations. Each has an ideology and set of values (and within those values, certain foods and actions are deemed right and wrong). They have adherents. They gain converts. They can often be critical of other ways of thinking. And they align along a spectrum of very conservative to very liberal.
Conservative food denominations are the most restrictive – the most fundamentalist – in their approach to food, and tend to be not accepting of denominations that are more liberal than themselves. Conversely, the liberal food denominations are the most accepting, welcoming one and all with open arms. Roughly aligned from conservative to liberal, I could quickly make a list that might look like this: raw food, vegan food, vegetarian food, slow food, local food, gluten-free food, processed food, anything goes food, etc.
Now, before you criticize my ordering, I know that this is a gross oversimplification… There’s plenty of room for debate about who belongs where on the spectrum… And that, in reality, it’s not an easily aligned linear list… And that I’ve omitted plenty of other examples of food denominations. My point is simply…to make a point.
I started thinking about this topic after reading a Raw Food adherent’s heavy criticisms of foods such as pure maple syrup, pure agave nectar, and other foods that I personally consider to be “natural” and “healthy” and highly preferable to the alternatives: more refined sugar, “fake” syrup made of high fructose corn syrup, etc. But recognizing my own reaction to this Raw Food critic’s opinion, I realized that he was on a much more conservative end of the spectrum than me. I’d probably place myself somewhere in the middle, leaning toward conservative, at least in terms of my food ideology. And in the same way that the Raw Food foodie was critical of my views, wasn’t I in turn critical of still other denominations who were even more liberal than me? (Read enough of my posts, and surely you’ll see my loathing for heavily processed foods.)
Of course, such talk of religion – food centered or not – inevitably brings up questions of right and wrong. Can all food denominations be right, or are some food denominations right and others wrong? And how do we establish who is and isn’t right? Is there some food-centric “absolute moral authority,” or is food governed by relativism (where right and wrong can only be judged within the context of the culture, the denomination, the individual, whatever)? It’s a slippery slope, for sure.
Take the example of “processed food.” How processed is too processed, and can we answer that question objectively, or is it subjective? The Raw Food foodie would say that something like pure maple syrup is too processed, because it’s been “cooked” to produce it. (To the Raw Food foodie, I’d remind him that there are many wonderful foods whose nutritional power is unlocked by the cooking process, and still other foods that wouldn’t be edible at all, save for the transformative power of cooking.) For me, “fake” maple syrup is clearly too processed. Gimme the pure, natural stuff. But how do I make such a determination? How do I decide food right from food wrong? For me, the maple syrup distinction is intuitive. I just “know” what seems good and bad, at least within the context of my own food denomination.
But what if I had to clearly and succinctly explain my decision making process? Could I do it? Some thorny issues quickly pop up. For one, one of my principal objections (I have several, this is just one) to “fake” maple syrup is its abundance of high fructose corn syrup. And yet, I’m a proponent of using agave nectar as a natural sweetener, and it has a higher fructose content than even high fructose corn syrup. So what am I to make of it all? Do I have a double standard? For me, it largely comes back to that intuition. Intuitively, hfcs seems wrong, and agave nectar seems okay. Perhaps that partly has something to do with the intention behind it – mega-industrial agribusinesses use hfcs to super sweeten processed foods and trick our brains into craving more of the foods they’re trying to sell us. On the other hand, agave nectar is something I keep in my cupboard, I know how it’s been made, and I use it myself to sweeten foods. I’ve never heard of anyone keeping a bottle of hfcs in their pantry to sweeten their tea each morning.
I’ve never been one for labels, or for denominational divisions. But sometimes it does help to categorize yourself for the sake of explaining your perspective to others. Given that, then what’s my food denomination? I’m a gluten-free, largely lactose-free, mostly locavore, ethnically diverse, reasonably natural, fresh, from scratch foodie. Wow. That’s a mouthful… not quite as succinct as saying “Christian,” or “Buddhist.” But there it is, none the less. So what’s your food denomination?