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Clean Food: The Mantra of Relish and the Practice of Exclusion

© Victoria ChetleyBy Susie Orbach, convenor of AnyBody/Endangered Bodies UK 

I like clean food. As an idea, it’s hard to challenge, especially after the trend towards so-called dirty food. But what is it that these clever copywriters are capturing about the zeitgeist that has us believing that foods can be segmented into categories of clean and dirty?

It follows a well-established notion that that has penetrated all of our minds that food is either good or bad, naughty or nice, healthy or toxic, safe or dangerous. Food is no longer a neutral or pleasurable concept. It seems always to be set against its opposite, a lurking horror of some kind.

Britain came to food culture relatively late and has taken to it with enormous enthusiasm. Fancy restaurants, food emporiums, fast food eateries selling organically produced meats, fish, vegetables and fruits are plentiful and food supplements with beautifully arranged ingredients and dishes drive newspaper sales and draw our eyes on Instagram. Food porn has intensified. The food we eat and the way we prepare it is a signifier of class, of aspiration, of moral value, of self-control, of ethics and environmental awareness. As neo-liberalism puts the individual in charge of his or her health, our food decisions become charged with responsibility for our personal well-being and ‘clean food’ is the latest iteration of this duty. Health is increasingly becoming a dubious concept driven as it is by big pharma, the so-called alternative ‘health business’ and new food fads such as clean food.

Behind these concerns is the business of food and it is big business. At whatever level we look, food is in the forefront of economic activity. Cookbooks are our biggest sellers. Restaurants, supermarkets, speciality food providers, farmers’ markets, newly discovered berries, potatoes, and artisanal grains brought to us through enterprising producers and canny PR folk tantalise us and the spend on food increases. White strawberries, heritage carrots, multiple tomato varieties challenge the hegemony of agribusiness and industrial food production and encourage us to believe we are making wiser, healthier and more beautiful choices about what goes in our bodies. And we do. But paradoxically and sadly the trend towards non-industrial food is set against a background of an increasingly eating disordered environment in which the most basic aspects of our relationship to food have coincided with many many people becoming divorced from eating as a response to hunger.

Eating, not eating, fasting, the 5:2 diet, managing one’s appetite in one way or another has become a site of incredible distress as confusion about fat, about protein, about acid neutralising alkalines, about destroyed nutrients have jockeyed with confusion about body size – how large or small we should be – and the emotional valences we ascribe to food which vest it with magical powers of soothing, of comfort of solace or of disaster.

For many, food is a no-go area. The desire for it becomes guilt inducing and internal equations in which particular foods are on one side with obsessive thoughts and plans to nullify what’s been ingested on the other. So-called clean food, which is neither less nor more than an attempt to control food intake by sending some foods to Coventry and surrendering to the lure of others, is a way to cope with disordered eating. When I wrote Fat is a Feminist Issue four decades ago it was clear that alongside the many vegetarians who chose to avoid meat and fish for ethical reasons, were people so perplexed by their own chaotic eating that they were trying to manage the frenzy by excluding whole groups of foods. So to with clean food. I don’t say that unkindly. I say it sympathetically for creating borders around certain foods is the only way many people feel they can dare to eat. They have to police the foreign, the disdained, indeed, food in general in order to make order in a food force field whose magnetism is simply irresistible.

© Victoria ChetleyFood has become like email or Facebook or text: always on, always beckoning, always promising something and yet not quite delivering, because if it did, we wouldn’t have to keep going. A real conversation, or a real read is more sustaining than a tweet but like a seductive form of junkmail, the machinations of the food industry send us non-food food teasers through calibrating the bliss point of foods, the crunch and sweet/salt ratio so we are tempted to respond even as we know the more we have the less satisfied we are.

The question is why. Why is food in all its forms so alluring? Why is electronic messaging so compelling? We enter human culture through the acts of being fed and being seen. The arms that hold us, the eyes that see us, the smile that greets us, the breast that feeds us, introduce us to being human. Without attachment we fail to thrive, and food for us is linked with recognition and attachment; with what we call love. That love can be benign and gentle. It can be fierce. It can be cruel. It is  fundamental to our sense of self and how we relate. But food itself is not love despite the fact that today we are invited to use food as a way to self love.  

Clean food appears redemptive, it appears to wipe away unruly longings we can’t meet. It might work for individuals for a time but as long as the food industry – mainstream or independent - is mucking about with our minds, our taste buds and our emotions, we will be seeing many more food salvations coming down the pike to still the hurt that is food for many.



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