I enjoy leafing through discolored and spotted old magazines, studying the advertisements. There’s something special about old ads, because ads are only effective during a narrow temporal context. They don’t age well. Cultural signifiers change. Time tempers the urgency of messages that once were so insistent. Even the most successful campaigns now feel exposed, blinking under our glare, naïve and naked. There was a time when “More Doctors smoke Camels than any other Cigarette!” worked, but now we just shake our heads in disbelief.
With some nostalgia I have been looking back at breakfast cereal ads from the 1970s and 1980s. These were sugar-heavy cereals, like Cap’n Crunch and Fruit Loops. Somehow, they all managed to convey the idea of health. Advertisements for cereals that were thirty, forty, or fifty percent sugar by weight would still shamelessly promote themselves as nutritious. Sure, they’d have to sidestep the whole sugar thing (call the sugar honey, call the sugar fruity, call the sugar a “secret frosting”). But they would be eager to point out that one serving contains ten percent of the iron or zinc your child needs. Never mind the tooth decay or the diabetes, your kiddo will have iron! That’s nutrition, right?
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it is working toward new guidelines for food to be labeled as “healthy.” Their goal is to further restrict the circumstances under which a product can be labeled or advertised as “healthy.”
My purpose isn’t to dig into all the details of their proposal. I agree with some of the reasoning justifying the proposal (warnings about sugar). And I find other aspects to be poorly considered (they are still stuck on the idea that saturated fat is a problem). But that’s a different set of discussions from what interests me today.
I simply want to consider the idea of “healthy food.” The motive force behind “healthy” isn’t about health. In our collective unquiet quest for more, “healthy” is a lever to drive consumption. Health is a marketable idea. By selecting products with health-connotations, we’re convinced we can buy and eat our way to health. We can purchase a box or bottle of health. We can sit on the couch chain-eating a bag of health while watching the ball game on Monday night. Health isn’t really about the food, it’s more about our aspirations and insecurities. It is just another tool of manipulation for consumption.
Perhaps the FDA will decide to move forward with this standard, and then they will enact some restrictions on the use of the word “healthy” for junk food. But will that make anything better? I think not. The work-arounds are too plentiful. Maybe the advertisement agencies will simply revert to using the more linguistically-correct word “healthful.” Or, by making a quick consultation of a thesaurus, arrive at: nutritious, nourishing, wholesome, or beneficial. Or they might use the old cereal ad trick to focus on specific nutrients while ignoring the harmful ingredients. Or they could bypass words entirely and simply convey the idea of health by presenting text-free ads, featuring happy, fit people climbing their way up a vertical rock face or practicing yoga in a picturesque forest clearing. All of these end-runs around regulation already exist and are constantly exploited.
No matter what regulation is enforced, manipulators will find a way to appeal to our anxieties about health and our gullibility to buy the ready-made, foil-wrapped solution. Fencing off one word isn’t going to change that situation. Health-based marketing is too effective; it’s too central to the workings of our consumptive economy.
Off the Grid
If we want to reclaim “healthy” in any meaningful sense, I’ll propose taking our food off the grid. By off the grid, I mean that we need to create some kind of firewall in our lives where advertisements, influencers, and mass communication can’t follow. This is the place where food is created from simple, honest ingredients. Where the ingredients are valued and appreciated. And where the meals are prepared, cooked, and enjoyed by people who live in meaningful relationships with each other. This is where we discover healthy food.
My solution isn’t easy or trivial. This is the opposite of the direction we’re pushed by society, to eat prepackaged, mass-produced, preservative-treated, anonymous snacks and meals in isolation from others. Moving in opposition is all hard, uphill climbing.
I’m not proposing this in any absolutist sense, so this isn’t an exact rule for every calorie that crosses our lips. But I think we’ll remain at the mercy of manipulative marketing to the degree we keep our food tied to the institutions and forces of consumerism. We need to step away from being consumers and move toward being producers.
I think we need to eat more food we prepare ourselves, or food that has been prepared by someone close to us. We need to spend time thinking about ingredients. We need to have some agency in acquiring those ingredients so they have value.
Ideally, we’d all grow some of our own food. It isn’t realistic or advisable that we’d each be self-sufficient, but in order to have a balanced understanding of our food, we need to have some close interaction with its production. Gardening, even if it only provides a small portion of our food, admirably fulfills this goal. For the items we couldn’t produce ourselves, we would take the time to really understand the farming practices, challenges, and consequences of the food we’re eating, so that for everything we put on the table we would have a sense of the relationship we bear to that plate of food.
I’m not here as the meat farmer to tell you to be healthy by eating more of my products. That would be a kind of hypocrisy after all I’ve written above. I really don’t care what percentage of your diet is meat versus vegetables or mushrooms. I’m just challenging you to consider how you can create more of your own food and, for the things you cannot create, how you can know more thoroughly what it is you are eating. And I’d encourage you to find meaningful ways to participate in eating with others.
When we have an understanding of our food, what it is, why we’re eating it, and who we’re cooking for, then I think we’ll be in a better position to know what healthy is all about.