I spent most of my childhood eating milk and cereal for breakfast. Over the years and my increasing fascination with food, this shifted to soy milk and quinoa-based cereals, and finally to what it mostly constitutes these days: a savoury dish just like any other meal.

This is not meant to spark a debate on which option is ‘better’, but to illustrate how it is possible for us to challenge ’normal’ food culture.

Value food for what it is, not what it attempts to be

I often ask myself why should we call soy milk, milk? From ‘veggie burgers’ to ‘Cheddar-style, coconut-based alternative to cheese’, why do we feel the need to call perfectly respectable food as something else?

The only reason I can think of is to speak to a broader audience than the usual hard-core foodies, and start raising awareness about other food types they could be eating – a very noble reason! But if we ignore the bigger picture, we may fall short of what could truly be achieved. And while using oxymorons as food names may seem great in the short-term, we may be shooting ourselves in the foot by reinforcing the idea that the original food is the most desirable.

This triggers another problem too. It often implies that the alternative is ‘good’ while the original is ‘bad’, hence the ‘replacement’. This creates unnecessary divide, steering focus away from the underlying issues at hand.

Language betrays our relationship to food

What we call our food also highlights our increasing disconnection to food. It’s been fascinating to follow the technological advances of lab-grown meat, and while the science has made great leaps since the idea was first developed, the language used around it has also seen its own evolution, from lab meat to cultured meat to clean meat. Is this to reflect a transition in its production process, or a strategic way to sound more appealing to its audience? If language is to be a vehicle to reconnect people with food, then shouldn’t we call things for what they are?

Tackling underlying assumptions

Challenging our food habits can be a great way to think of different options.

Take our milk example. The impacts of the dairy industry on the environment and animals cannot be ignored, and in recent years we have seen a rise in popularity for alternative milks, from soy and almonds to rice and oats. While providing these alternatives may address (and open up!) some issues, they only fit within the assumption that we can only have milk and cereals for breakfast. They avoid the fundamental question of whether they should be part of our diet in the first place, and limits our ability to think outside the plate. Instead of debating which milk is the right one, could the real question be: should we be drinking milk the way we do in the first place?

This shift is already happening to some degree, as seen with the rise of vegetarian diets (should we be eating -so much- meat?), but perhaps not always in the most effective way. Cultured meat is a very exciting advancement of human scientific achievement, and if we have to operate within the food system we’ve created then it does present an interesting and potentially paradigm-changing innovation. But why do we have to operate within the status quo? As Dr Alexandra Sexton has argued in her research on recent food technologies, “Is saying that we need to operate within the status quo a convenient way of leaving certain and quite fundamental structures of power and capital completely undisrupted?”

Our tolerance of what is deemed acceptable to eat is constantly evolving, but as it does, how can we make sure we don’t lose sight of the impacts – both positive and negative – that inevitably occur with changing food trends? By asking the right questions.

Anna runs the Food Citizenship project at the Food Ethics Council and enjoys challenging assumptions in the food system.


Photo credit: Marco Verch