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The Moral Significance of Modern Food | John Kainer

The French sociologist Émile Durkheim took moral questions very seriously. The descendant of seven generations of rabbis, he was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps and join the rabbinate. Instead, he pursued a career as a professor and established sociology—which he described as the science of morality—as a distinct discipline. 

In his masterwork on religion, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Durkheim contended that once one makes a distinction between what is “profane” (the ordinary and everyday) and “sacred” (that which transcends the ordinary and everyday), one has religion. Readers of First Things might disagree with such a reductive simplification. Yet Durkheim’s definition helps us grasp a profound truth: Humans are religious creatures. Indeed, all societies are filled with symbols that point beyond themselves to something else. When symbols point to something greater, you have the makings of Platonism. But when they point to something base or self-serving, you have anomie.

Usually translated as “normlessness,” anomie refers to a state of rule where there are no rules. It’s not that there’s a lack of prescriptions for social behavior, but rather that a pervasive suspicion surrounds social prescriptions that have lost their binding authority. Durkheim explored anomie in a variety of social institutions, including marriage, economics, and education. Yet his concept of anomie is useful for studying other social phenomena where elements of the sacred and profane operate—including the modern food system.

The modern food system is essentially its own religious system, using a network of symbols and phrases to make moral claims and create its own sacred-profane distinction. “Sacred” foods are thus given monikers like “super-food,” and are portrayed using the language of purity: “all-natural,” “non-GMO,” “sugar-free,” “gluten-free,” “fat-free,” “top-ten-allergens-free,” etc.

These sacred symbols adorn the packages, displays, and advertisements of food producers, conveying far more than simple nutritional information. In all religious systems, the sacred must be set apart; thus wrappers and packaging, while certainly practical, also serve the function of maintaining the barrier between sacred and profane foods. It is worth noting that “profane” for Durkheim did not necessarily mean “dirty” or “impure,” but instead meant something similar to Augustine’s conception of evil—a kind of deprivation. Thus it is not that profane foods are “unhealthy,” but rather that they lack the essential quality of sacred foods. 

This is compounded by the competing claims of various health experts and diet gurus who label certain foods as “sacred” and other foods as “profane.” For Atkins and Keto, fat is sacred and carbs are profane. For South Beach dieters, lean protein and low glycemic index carbohydrates are sacred while fatty meat and high glycemic index carbs are profane. For Whole 30 dieters, “whole” foods are sacred, while anything processed, preserved, or with added sugar is profane. Each diet, therefore, invites its adherents to keep themselves pure (“eating clean” is a well-known phrase).

The food labels, though, don’t merely signal to potential customers—they are also used by customers to signal their moral goodness to their peers. The goodness of one’s diet, one’s ingredients, and one’s snacks all point to the apparent goodness of the consumer. Indeed, many food companies’ marketing claims are designed to make consumers feel good about themselves for buying a product. Labels such as “fair trade,” “non-GMO,” “organic,” “sustainably-raised,” and even “never treated with antibiotics” are not merely health claims, but badges of moral significance. 

When someone says that he only buys fair trade coffee, we are led to infer that he cares about economic justice for producers and, therefore, that he is a good person. The claim that he only buys fair trade is meant to signal that the purchaser is fair and just—that he is concerned with the “right” things and is worthy of our admiration. Consider asking yourself why no one proclaims to never purchase fair trade goods.

Every meal is now an opportunity to signal one’s moral uprightness—and not only in person but by posting food pictures on social media and using hashtags to sort oneself into the categories one is striving to be a part of. In the oft-quoted words of Brillat-Savarin, “tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” 

Sadly, the biblical sense of consumption, “taste and see the goodness of the Lord,” has been replaced with an anomic conception of consumption where we consume, physically and metaphorically, to display our goodness, our discriminating taste, and our discerning judgment about what is good. Despite all of our appetites, we no longer hunger and thirst for righteousness, but for affirmation of our rightness. There is always more food and more affirmation to be had. While our cup overflows, we find that the more we consume, the more we hunger. 

John Kainer is assistant professor of sociology at University of the Incarnate Word.

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