The bland of the free

July 23, 2008

Health food, in particular, seems especially prone to the recent trend of placing lists on food packaging declaring all the substances of which the contents are “free.” These litanies can run up to half a dozen items, and are often placed in colorful boxes or even starburst designs — all of which adds an air of celebration and relief to the product.

Of course, celebration and relief are emotions appropriate to freedom (a word now so loaded it can perhaps best be approached through its use on food packaging) as it pertains to a heavy yoke having been lifted, or a burden which one learns that one does not have to bear after all. The idea of freedom, though, is rather meaningless without the possibility of oppression and necessity, which leads me to wonder what the opposite of these alimentary appellations might be: would a product which is not dairy-free be dairy-laden? or something which is not soy-free be held soy-captive? or be soy-sullied?

The degree to which these antonyms are ridiculous is the same degree to which it’s ridiculous that food manufacturers seem to hope that their “gluten-free” products will be greeted with a certain joy, whereas a phrase like “no gluten” on a label might look sullen by comparison. This, though, is only the rational way of looking at it — the side of us that knows the two phrases are perfectly equivalent — while consumption is a thoroughly irrational undertaking, containing as it does elements of both identification and aspiration. What we must consider is the idea of health food consumers as a discrete group with characteristic ideas about themselves and the modern world.

With brand names like “Back to Nature” (which I can’t help but interpret as a command in want of an exclamation point) and “Eden Foods,” it’s clear that health food manufacturers (and therefore the consumers [I should point out now that this includes me]) seek to distinguish themselves by their purity — the converse of this distinction being, of course, that mainstream manufacturers are estranged from nature and despoilers of what is otherwise Edenic. Collectively held ideas about what foods are polluting emerge, which means that we should refer to the anthropologist Mary Douglas; explaining her idea of food taboos as symbolic ways of maintaining the integrity of the body politic by closely guarding each body’s orifices, she writes, “I suggest that food is not likely to be polluting at all unless the external boundaries of the social system are under pressure.” This she writes specifically about the Brahmin caste and about Jews, both of whom are minorities the lapse of whose vigilance could quickly bring about their end as a distinct group.

This, to me, explains in large part why health food consumers seem to respond well to the notion of their food being “free” of various (and occasionally dubious) taints; rather than being a demographic, a certain sense of aspiring to be a fully functioning “social system” has developed among likely consumers of health foods — one that I think I can safely label environmentalist. The “freedom” from certain ingredients, then, becomes a way of creating in one’s body the idea of freedom from a mass culture where finding virtually anything without high-fructose corn syrup is a chore.

Later in her book Purity and Danger, Douglas writes that if a metaphysical system has no way of tilling the evil and tragic facts of life back into its system, it not only stultifies itself by creating a too-static environment, but risks asking its members to go through life with a forced smile and eyes closed to the easy falsifiability of its ideas and rites. This is what concerns me — that environmentalists want their freedom too free, and will continue to move the bar of purity from organic to biodynamic to local, from gluten-free to GMO-free to soy-free. These are the marks of coolness straight out of any high school, not the marks of sustainability.

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