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Below is a picture of a bottle of Walden Farms Sesame Ginger Salad Dressing. But as I read the label I ask myself, “is this really a bottle of salad dressing?” Walden Farms seems intent on convincing me that this bottle of what is purportedly food is, in fact, a bottle of nothing: the murky reddish liquid is merely a gastronomic simulacrum. Within the bottle, there are neither carbohydrates, nor protein, nor fat, and the legally mandated Nutrition Facts panel assures me that a 2-tablespoon serving size contributes zero calories to my 2,000 calorie-per-day diet. On the Utopian Walden Farms, they have managed to make a salad dressing with no calories.
The calorie, the unit with which we measure the energy in our food and the unit that fuels our every move—the scientific essence of nutritional or energetic value—has somehow been eliminated from this condiment. Walden Farms takes every opportunity to remind the consumer of its nothingness, about which we are expected to be happy. We are expected to want to pay $4.99 for the pleasure of pouring nothing on our lettuce. I find this salad dressing both amusing and disquieting. It is amusing because Walden Farms seems thrilled to be selling a bottle of nothing, and we are supposed to be thrilled to be buying it. It is disquieting, however, because it points out just how much the language of “how much” has come to impact the way people think about food. As this example demonstrates, foods like salad dressing are often portrayed and understood in terms of this language of numbers, and consumers, at least in the developed world, are expected to celebrate nothingness in food form. The naughtness of Walden Farms’ salad dressing points to a larger trend of talking about food in terms of quantities broadly, and calories specifically.
Food has become, among other things, something we count. Empirical measurement, moreover, has become one of the bases upon which we judge food. Over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, scientific research about food and eaters helped developed an extensive discourse of quantification to describe and judge foods. That language includes facts about the quantity of carbohydrates, fats, protein, fibre, vitamins, and other nutrients that foods contain. More importantly, such a discourse includes a determination of the number of calories that make up any particular food. The calorie lies at the centre of nutrition science and discourses of quantification, just as it lies at the centre of how we are to understand Walden Farms’ salad dressing. The calorie, however, has a history—it is not a natural or eternal mode of understanding what we eat. Even the word itself was adopted from chemistry, where it was initially used to measure the heat of combustion in a chemical reaction. The word “calorie” now describes food as well. Public health agencies, government regulatory bodies, and the food and diet industries use the calorie as their trope. Calories fuel humans. Calories are edible energy. The calorie can stand in for the idea of food.
Politics, law, economics and public health have all taken up the calorie to delimit and regulate national diet, poverty levels, and food costs. Most major public policy regarding food rests on the use of the calorie, and, indeed, the word “food” is often replaced by “calorie” in official documents. The United States Food and Drug Administration talks about “calorie needs.” The United States Department of Agriculture speaks of “balancing calories,” while the World Health Organization ranks nations on their “per capita supply of calories,.” The International Food Policy Research Institute in conjunction with the Global Hunger Index worries about “calorie deficiency” and Health Canada describes the “estimated energy requirements” for men and women of different ages all in terms of calories. To say something has calories turns it into food, albeit with none of the cultural, social, geographic or historical trappings a food may have.
The implications of defining food in such a way are manifold, and this polysemy has several effects. First, the use of the word “calorie” to represent the category of food gives us a specific framework within which we can understand what food is. “Calories” become a lexical stand-in for “food.” To take this rhetorical analysis one step further, the calorie has a synecdochal relationship to food—the part comes to stand in for the whole. Although calories are merely a part of food, when we discuss calories, we know we are talking about food qua food. This rhetorical relationship stands, even in the case of Walden Farms, where the emphasis on the miraculous lack of calories reassures us that the salad dressing is, in fact, a food, despite this absence. Since we understand food through calories, the lack of calories renders this salad dressing special as a type of food.
Thinking about the calorie in these terms begs the question: how did a unit of heat used to measure the energy of chemical reactions move from the chemistry and physics labs into the domain of food, and what sort of meaning have we given to the calorie? To answer this question, one needs to think about the word “calorie” and the technology of the calorimeter. A calorimeter measures heat, and heat is energy: energy in reactions, in food, in supernovas, and in human activity. The calorimeter, therefore, turns food into usable human energy and allows us to “see” energy in people and in food, in the same way that the stethoscope allows us to “hear” health in the body. Applying the unit of the calorie to the heat produced by food and by the human body was a significant, transformative and inventive move from the standpoint of language and communication. This move helped to generate a new discursive framework for understanding food. Although the actual application of the word calorie to the metabolic reactions of an experiment subject, or to the heat emitted from a food burned in a bomb calorimeter was the simple part, the ramifications of imparting a scientific and enumerated discourse to food and the human body were manifold. One could argue that culture or country or tastebuds or tradition or identity or gender determines what counts as food. But the histories of the calorimeter and the calorie demonstrate that the entire food production system is underpinned by technologies, values and beliefs that help us circumscribe what food is, and what it may be. Scientific components mark food as one thing and not another—the ratio of fats to carbohydrates to proteins paired with a particular calorie count mark a butter tart as a butter tart and not a Nanaimo bar. Thus, it is the scientific profile of the butter tart that makes it a food, demarcating it from other edible things.
Thus, the word “calorie” and similar phrases like “energy requirements” or “net carbohydrates” serve an ontological function. They have the generative power, in their modern iterations, to make something food. Put another way, the word “calorie” is useful in producing the very idea of “food” in a modern, industrial society. Food is circumscribed by the calorie, and described by how many, or how few calories it contains, and this classification has helped to alter the purview of the food production system. To be a food producer means to produce calories, and to be a food consumer means to burn them.
The issue of food production is one that occupies many fields of scholarship: economics, anthropology, cultural studies, agriculture and food studies. In recent iterations it has referred to Marxist critiques of factory farming and agribusiness, genetically modified organisms and biotechnology, oligopolistic food distribution systems, and the global food chain. This kind of research often draws the conclusion that Fordist modes of food production are bad because they create and foster economic inequalities in the first, second and third world, they abet a loss of geographic and cultural knowledge, and they have harmful consequences for the environment and public health. This research, in other words, laments the loss of knowledge about where, how, and by whom people’s food is produced. But understanding food production is not just a matter of understanding how a banana gets from the tree to my fruit bowl, how a steak gets from a farm or feedlot to my barbecue, or how that butter tart gets from the wheat fields, corn fields, sugar cane fields, milking barns and hen house to my supermarket shelf or my oven. Understanding food production also means understanding the assumptions, theories, and values that underpin what defines the category of food. In the current food landscape we need to see the role science plays in making this distinction, and critical analyses of the current paradigm of food production must recognize the role of science, and its discourses and technologies in constructing food production in this way (in addition to culture and economics). The assumption is that we can better understand, and thus change, current food production systems if we look at how the boundaries that define food have been crafted.
In addition to availing the word “calorie,” a unit of chemistry formerly reserved for measurements of heat of reactions, to the human body, and to comestible goods, calorimetry became a scientific process fundamental to the production of food. How do I know that the butter tart and the Nanaimo bar are both food? This is a question of food production—how did we make these things into food? What unites these things in “foodness?” When answers to such questions are based on calories and other quantitative measures, then diverse cultural standards are eschewed in favour of numbers. The butter tart is not food because it has been in Canadian cookbooks for over one hundred years, nor because it has been the subject of fierce debate regarding the kind of sugar one uses for the filling, whether to add nuts, or whether the pastry should have butter or lard, nor because the recipe evolved to include corn syrup. A butter tart is food because it has calories. Lots of them.
Jessica Mudry is an Associate Professor in the Centre for Engineering in Society at Concordia University. Her past research focused on the relationships between quantitative scientific language and food and nutrition policy. She is currently working on a history of human calorimetry and on the epistemology of the calorie.
“Talk to your kids about The Nutrition Facts Label” United States Food and Drug Administration. [http://www.fda.gov/downloads/Food/LabelingNutrition/ConsumerInformation/UCM193075.pdf?debugMode=false] accessed June 17, 2011.
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Jessica Mudry est professeure agrégée au Centre du génie en société à l’Université Concordia. Ses recherches passées portaient sur les rapports en le langage scientifique quantitatif et la politique alimentaire et nutritionnelle. Elle travaille actuellement sur une histoire de la calorimétrie humaine et sur l’épistémologie de la calorie.