Dietary Literacy: Charlotte Biltekoff On New Questions for the Food Movement

October 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

Guest Blogger: Charlotte Biltekoff

The food movement has taught many of us to ask more, and better, questions about food than we have asked in the past. It has taught us to think about eating as a social and political act, to think about where our food comes from and the implications of those origins.

I want to push us a step further, and propose some new questions for us to ask not about food, but about dietary advice. Defining a good diet is also a social and political act. It’s important to think critically not just about the sources of our food, but also about the sources of our ideas about “good food” and their social implications.

Is it safe? Is it good for me? Advocates, activists, artisans and authors on the front lines of today’s food politics have taught many of us to rethink the meaning of these basic questions, to extend their significance, and take their implications to their logical extremes.

People are more eager than ever to know what is good to eat, but the question of food safety is no longer just about adulteration or spoilage. “Is it good for me” is increasingly a question that is considered inseparable from “is it good for us”?

We’ve learned to think about food safety in terms of labor, social justice and the long-term impacts of production practices on the environment. “Good food” is, for many people, no longer just about the health of individual bodies. Instead, it’s about connections to the land, communities, local economies, and the well being of future generations.

This reappraisal of the food system has also encompassed a critical examination of the ideas about good food that hold the industrial food system in place. In addition to questions about the quality and safety of our food supply, the food movement has taught many of us to be skeptical of nutrition as the arbiter of “good food.” 

My Plate is supposed to help people to choose nutritionally balanced meals, but its guidelines don’t add up to a “good diet” for people whose concerns bridge the nutritional and the environmental. There are lots of things that make food good that nutrition can’t measure; how and where it was grown, how and how much it was processed, its role within a larger cuisine, culture, history or tradition.

Nutrition advice like My Plate comes to us through a convoluted process, and many of us have become sensitized to the political imperatives and profit motives that shape nutrition guidelines.

These are important questions, but we need to push even further.

Dietary advice has important repercussions beyond validating a particular definition of good food and a particular set of production and distribution practices. Thinking about these repercussions has convinced me that we need to introduce a new set of questions into our current dialogue about food and health.

Studying the history of dietary reform movements and dietary advice in America, I’ve learned that ideas about good food also validate particular social values: ideas about morality, responsibility and what it means to be a good person. Dietary ideals have historically expressed the values of the American middle and upper middle class, so the moral aspects of “eating right” are very much entangled with the politics of class.

On the surface, dietary advice – whether it comes from the USDA or Michael Pollan – simply provides guidelines about what is good to eat. But since dietary advice also always conveys ideas about what it means to be a good person, when we are confronted with dietary advice we should think not just about the veracity of the science behind the advice, or production practices it endorses, but also the kinds of messages it conveys about morality and responsibility.

We should assume that all messages about “good food” have a purpose beyond communicating facts about food, and push ourselves to think critically about the social role that the dietary advice we are encountering might play.

What are the qualities or characteristics it equates with being a good eater? A bad eater? What is the implicit or explicit relationship between eating right and morality or responsibility?  Who is the author and who is the audience? How might different people interpret the message differently?

Being an informed consumer requires critical engagement –not just with the ethics and politics of food — but also with the ethics and politics of dietary advice. We should develop “dietary literacy” as a new set of tools to add to our growing engagement with the politics of food and health.


Charlotte Biltekoff is an Assistant Professor in American Studies and Food Science and Technology at UC Davis. Her book, Eating Right in America: Food, Health and Citizenship from Domestic Science to Obesity, will be published by Duke University Press in summer 2013.


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