Functional Foods: a Health Simulacrum

Jacob Ostberg, Lund University
ABSTRACT - The paper addresses the issue of so-called functional foods, i.e. a specific type of health foods. The basic idea is that the claims made in the framing of these products have the character of modern myths. The myth structure discursively obscures the ideologically loaded scientific/medical premises on which the claims are resting. Rather than being healthy in an absolute sense, these products are mimicking an abstract idea of healthinessCthey are a health simulacrum.
[ to cite ]:
Jacob Ostberg (2003) ,"Functional Foods: a Health Simulacrum", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 30, eds. Punam Anand Keller and Dennis W. Rook, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 129-134.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 30, 2003     Pages 129-134

FUNCTIONAL FOODS: A HEALTH SIMULACRUM

Jacob Ostberg, Lund University

ABSTRACT -

The paper addresses the issue of so-called functional foods, i.e. a specific type of health foods. The basic idea is that the claims made in the framing of these products have the character of modern myths. The myth structure discursively obscures the ideologically loaded scientific/medical premises on which the claims are resting. Rather than being healthy in an absolute sense, these products are mimicking an abstract idea of healthinessCthey are a health simulacrum.

Consumers today are faced with an unprecedented plethora of expert claims of how, what, and when to consume food in order to make sure that the body is taken care of in the best possible manner. There is also an ever-increasing variety of products available on the market supposedly following along in the paths cleared by the expert claims. In essence, there is both a large pool of information and a large pool of products for consumers to draw from in order to consume foods in a healthy manner. The epitome of this development is the so-called functional foods, described as "any modified food or food ingredient that may provide health benefit beyond the traditional nutrients it contains" (The American Dietetic Association, 1995). In this paper I will argue that many so-called healthy food products, and functional foods in particular, build on a false ontology. The healthiness of the products is portrayed as being detached from the consumption of the products, hence the meaning is seen as inherent in the products rather than in the subject-object relationship.

If the products were as functional as they are portrayed to be, why is it then that we have reached a situation where the curve depicting the number of food related diseases look so strikingly similar to the curve depicting sales of so-called healthy foods (Heasman & Mellentin, 2001)? Shocking as it may appear, the answer might lie in the fact that we have encountered a problem that cannot be solved with increased consumption. Inherent in the modern project, and the consumer society so closely intertwined with it, has been the improvement of the quality of life by expanding consumption possibilities (Firat & Dholakia, 1998). In the realm of food, this has been apparent as convenient, un-expensive food is available at an arms-length distance at virtually all hours of the dayBin the modern world no one should have to go hungry! But it seems like we have finally encountered the first serious ricochet of our abundant consumption practices. We have long heard horror stories about the ozone-layer, the pollution of the oceans, global warming, et cetera, but they have all been distant enough for us to let them bounce off the protective cocoons we build around us to ensure a basic sense of being in control (cf. Giddens, 1991). But now, however, with the food related diseases affecting our own bodies [Food related diseases are portrayed as being one of the main threats to the well-being of the western world (IASO 1999)] we can look away no more. The solutions offered by our consumer society, i.e. ones of increasing consumption of so-called healthy foods to battle the symptoms of the problems can no longer hold swayBthere seems to be something more fundamentally wrong at the core of the problem.

In this paper, some features of what is today called healthy food is discussed from a Baudrillardian perspective where I propose that what today is being presented as the salvation to many of our problemsBfunctional foodsBis merely a third order simulation of functionality, or in other wordsBa simulacrum of healthiness (Baudrillard, 1983). This argument is built on (poststructural) semiotics, a theoretical field that has previously been applied to consumer research (Levy, 1959; Mick, 1986). Levy (1981) discusses food from a structuralist standpoint using Levi-Strauss’ mythology framework. This paper is more inspired by Roland Barthes poststructuralist notions of mythology (Barthes, 1973). While both Levi-Strauss and Barthes where inspired by Ferdinand de Saussure’s linguistics, Barthes stresses the ideological aspects of the myth as the dominating forces in society have the power to discursively define the myths. A myth, according to Barthes, is made up of two semiotic systems. The first is a traditional system with a sign made up of a signifier and a signified. [An introduction to basic semiotic terminology is given in Mick=s 1986 JCR article "Consumer Research and Semiotics: Exploring the Morphology of Signs, Symbols, and Significance"] This system is the linguistic system built on the conventions of ordinary language. The connections between sign, signifier, and signified are completely arbitrary but shared among people speaking the same language. The second system uses the sign from the first system as the signifier in the second system. While the first system rests on the conventions of language the second system is politicized in that it is defined by its intentions rather that by its literary meaning, therefore it is imbued with value. What the myth does is to mask that the relationship between the signifier and the signified stems from historical conventions as defined by the dominating forces and instead gives this relationship a sense of being natural.(Barthes, 1973) What Baudrillard does is to take this argument a step further and argue that there are no longer any signifieds but merely endless chains of signifiers (cf. Baudrillard, 1983, 1996).

MULTIPLE DISCOURSES ON FOOD AND HEALTH

As a part of the modern project, the food industry, just like most industries, has been rationalized in various ways (cf. Ritzer, 1996). This development has been going on since the enlightenment where traditional practices gradually have been replaced by practices justified by scientific reasoning (Firat & Venkatesh, 1995). In the food area we have seen a breakdown of traditional food systems, such as the meat and potato-regiment in northern Europe and the Midwestern US. Furthermore, the family meal has been replaced to the sphere of nostalgia as a quaint happening unfit for the modern tempo of life. As the old meaning system breaks down, a vacuum is created where consumers are fed with a panoply of discourses of how to care for themselves with regards to food. Over the last decade there has been a change in the meaning structure given to food. Pasi Falk (Falk, 1996) divides messages about food into four dimensions: fuel, poison, medicine, and pleasurable, and asserts that there has been a shift in the meaning of food giving an ever more emphasized role to the duality of medicine/poison (p. 183). As a result, one of the most dominant discourses today is the scientific/medical discourse that proposes consumption of various healthy products as being the prime choice.

There are multiple actors involved in the creation of the available discourses on food and health. They range from spokespersons from the natural sciences on one end of a continuum to persons giving more holistically based, new-age inspired accounts on the other end. These messages are usually filtered through media, who, in the interest of "creating news", tend to focus on various fads either regarding the latest fatal risks or the latest elixir of life (cf. Falk, 1996). Consumers are therefore constantly bombarded with do’s and don’ts in a form that resembles what Giddens refers to as contrasting expert systems (1991). Within the coherent groups of experts the concepts of healthy and unhealthy are almost always dealt with in a taken-for-granted manner as if the dichotomy of the healthy and the unhealthy with regards to food is a God-given one with clear natural boundaries. This might very well be the case from a natural science standpoint, even though the natural scientists themselves so far have not been able to reach consensusBas a matter of fact the history of nutritional and medical research has been marked by many reversals and changes in received opinion (Giddens, 1991; Thompson & Hirschman, 1995, p. 146).

One least common denominator for the various available discourses is that it is important to care for oneself and that food consumption is a critical part of doing this. Under the conditions of late modernity there is an increased tendency to feel obliged to engage in various self-care-regimes to take care of oneself (Bauman, 1992; Beck, 1992; Falk, 1994; Giddens, 1991; Shilling, 1993). Individuals have become reflexive and are expected to engage in building a coherent life-narrative where the different parts should fit together. In this life narrative the body is increasingly seen as an unfinished entity that requires constant care and thought in order to be developed in the right direction or at least halted in its deterioration (Shilling, 1993). Bauman (1992) even argues that the loss of meta-narratives in the form of religion has left us without tools to deal with our future decay and death. The result is a fragmentation of the body where a more holistic view is lost to the advantage of a view of the body as a number of isolated problems that all have their particular solution. The medical sciences are fueling these fragmenting tendencies, as their scientific method is one of isolating problems and finding solutions for them in isolation. When meta-analyses are conducted the individual is the unit of analysis and all potential factors influencing an individual’s health are looked at. The results of these studies are much less clear-cut and many of the old "truths" are questioned such as the role of unsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids in cardiovascular disease (Ravnskov, 1998). Studies of this kind have been widely criticized, as individuals with their idiosyncratic lifestyles are seen as "too fuzzy" for scientific investigation. Hence, the fragmented view is dominating with the result that the symptom-cure logic is ruling the discourses on food and health.

THE MYTH OF HEALTHY FOODS

When food is discussed in scholarly work it is usually done with references to its function as producer and reproducer of culture (e.g. Counihan & van Esterik, 1997; Fischler, 1988; Mennell, Murcott, & van Otterloo, 1992; Rozin, 1998). This is one very important function and the structure in which it is presented usually follows what Baudrillard, in his 1968 book (1996), calls the traditional system of objects. One of the key ideas is that objects were once closely tied to rituals and the ceremonial, and ultimately to the entire ideology which used to make our surroundings into an opaque mirror of reified human structure (Baudrillard, 1996, p. 18). The function of objects in the traditional system was to, in essence, personify human relationships. These tendencies can be traced in many of the more traditional accounts of food and culture. Over the last decade or so, in the light of how the dominant discourses on food and health have changed and are constructed today, it seems like food has increasingly been moved into the realm of the functional, or to be more preciseBthe simulacrum of the functional. A simulacrum is a sign, image, model, pretense, or shadowy likeness of something else. Baudrillard (1996) draws a genealogy of the historical transformations of the signs to referent relationships from feudal times to the present condition of hyperreality. Hyperreality refers to the current condition of postmodernity where simulacra are no longer associated with any real referent and where signs, images and models circulate detached from any real material objects or romantic ideals. In today’s social order more and more areas of life are dominated by reproductions of models into a system of signs which function according to the codes of poststructural semiotics. Under these conditions, consumers are constantly bombarded with images rich in information and copes by accepting them only as signifiers without signifieds. As a result, the difference between the real and the illusion has vanished and we live in a world of "free floating signifiers".

The trend to only ascribe foods functional qualities can be noticed by studying how food and health issues are treated in advertising and magazine articles (cf. Warde, 1997), governmental policies (cf. National Food Administration, 2000), and accounts from medical personnel (www.doktoronline.se, 2000). Looking at the way these discourses are structured it becomes clear that they transcend and disavow the three components of the traditional system and more resemble what Baudrillard calls the functional system. The objects in the functional system no longer have any value of their own, but merely a universal value as signs. The materiality of objects no longer directly confronts the materiality of needs, these two inconsistent primary and antagonistic systems having been suppressed by the insertion between them of the new, abstract system of manipulable signsBby the insertion of the abstract idea of functionality (p. 64); their logic has become purely functional in a technical sense. In Barthes’ terminology the idea of foods as functional in a technical sense is a modern myth in which the dominating natural science/medical discourse has the power to define the relationships between a certain food product and its alleged function on the body.

RATIONALIZATION OF FOOD PRODUCTION (AND CONSUMPTION)?

In the realm of food consumption we have seen some rather drastic changes over the last decades. Fischler (Fischler, 1990) calls for attention to the direct relationship between anomy in the food culture, so-called gastro-anomy, and consumers’ increasing inability to govern their dietary regimes in a way that balances out nutritional and gastronomical aspects of human eating behavior. Food has in many ways been moved to the realm of the functional where a logic of "fuel for the engine" is dominating. When food first was moved into the realm of the functional the focus was on the preparation and serving of food rather than on the food itself. In postwar America, during the "Golden Age of American Food Processing" (Levenstein, 1993), the focus was clearly on the efficient processing of food and when Ray Kroc acquired the first McDonald’s restaurant in 1954 it was not long before the entire restaurant business was undergoing far-reaching changes in the name of rationality and functionality (Gladwell, 2001; Ritzer, 1996; Schlosser, 2001). The result of the automatization and rationalization of the food industry was extraordinary in two ways. On the first hand, the new production methods were highly functional in the ways they made fairly priced and convenient food available to the masses. On the other hand, they were extraordinary in their dysfunctionality. To be able to produce food in the new, fast and convenient way and still make them tasty the products have to be high in fat, sugar, and salt (Ritzer, 1996; Schlosser, 2001). Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of the nutrition information regularly reported in various media will recognize that these three ingredients are the same one’s that public policy makers repeatedly tell us to stay away from. So, while the fast food industry changed our eating habits radically and perhaps have some traits that could be dubbed functional [This is far from uncontroversial, see organization Slow Food www.slowfood.com "Slow Food Home Page", who actively try to preserve the world from every aspect of the fast food plaque.] they also have a large part to play in the rapid deterioration of the public health (Gardner & Halweil, 2000).

The last few years the functionality of food products has reached the actual food rather than just its production and serving and the dysfunctionality of fast food has been put in the spotlight, as illustrated by the subtitle of Malcolm Gladwell’s recent New Yorker article Fast food is killing us. Can it be fixed? (2001). This shift is largely due to the increased focus on the connections between food consumption and health. This is not exactly something new; Dr. Kellogg, the inventor of Corn Flakes, preached this wisdom back in the 19th century, during both the world wars the issue was high on the public agenda, and the cry for a return to natural foods resonated far outside its origins among the hippies during the late sixties (Levenstein, 1993). But it was not until the last two decades of the 20th century that this wisdom was widely spread in magazines and cooking books and truly reached the masses (Warde, 1997, p. 80). During the last decade more and more food companies have jumped on the health bandwagon and started launching either new healthy products or re-launching old products re-positioned as being healthy. The trend is for these products to become more and more specialized in the sense that they are targeting a specific problem that they promise to solve. Products having a more vague positioning, such as being wholesome in some more abstract sense, are giving way to these more specialized products. What is a common denominator for these products is that they all promise to be functional, i.e. if consumed they will solve a certain problem. The term "functional foods" has been coined to describe " any modified food or food ingredient that may provide health benefit beyond the traditional nutrients it contains" (The American Dietetic Association, 1995). Many countries are in the process of legislating about what types of products can be labeled as functional foods and what kinds of claims can be made about these products. It is beyond the scope and intent of this paper to dwell into the various definitions available and what kind of claims can be made. Regardless of the exact definition of functional foods they all have something rather problematic built in to them, they disregard the relational aspects of healthiness.

THE RELATIONAL ASPECTS OF HEALTHINESS

When health qualities in food are discussed, the point of departure is predominately the natural sciences. The fact that we need some basic nutritional substances to stay alive tends to obscure the fact that what is deemed "necessary", "healthy" and "unhealthy" in a diet is far from self-evident. An underlying assumption is that there are some basic nutritional needs. I am not denying that there are some levels of certain substances that must be consumed and certain substances that should not be consumed in order for an individual to stay healthy. Neither am I denying that natural scientists are able to quite accurately describe and prescribe what these substances are and in what kind of products they might be found. It should be added, though, as was pointed out in the introduction, that there is not one scientific voice but rather multiple contrasting expert systems (Giddens, 1991). What is problematic is when the natural scientific knowledge of these substances is first transferred to food products and these products are treated as standing in some clear relationships to something called consumers true needs. Again, what we see is the dominating natural scientific discourse constructing a myth of these relationships as being natural (cf. Barthes, 1973). A clear distinction cannot be drawn between true and false needs in this (or other) case(s). Baudrillard states that a theory of needs is in itself nonsensical; there can be only a theory of the ideological concepts of need, i.e. of need as an expression of a specific social system (Baudrillard, 1981). Furthermore, there is little anthropological evidence for the existence of a vital minimum, therefore "the concept of need represents a 'vulgar metaphysics’ by which we commit the fundamental mistake of naturalizing social processes of exchange and signification" (Baudrillard, 1981). In a similar vein, there is nothing inherent in a certain food product that makes it naturally healthy.

The scientific definitions of healthiness in various products are of a social, cultural, and political character. Furthermore, as a consequence of the medico-scientific methods, the "healthy" and "unhealthy" are held at an average level and moves exclusively within statistical probability statements. This is the only way in which the traits can be stably placed in the products. But investigations that start from an individual product can never determine the concentration in an individual consumer. What may seem insignificant for a single product is perhaps extremely significant when collected in the "consumer reservoir" (Beck, 1992, p. 26). Many times it seems like a unit of analysis error is made when we forget that the relevant domain for a single consumer is not the average but the particular consumer. What is "on average" is of limited interest to the victimized subject. The licorice-loving girl from Stockholm provides an illustrative example of how an ordinary "harmless" product deemed safe "on average" could be far from safe for an individual consumer. Two doctors report in Lakartidningen [The official publication of Swedish medical Doctors] (Lehtihet & Nygren, 2000) that a 24-year-old woman came in to the emergency room unable to walk and suffering severe pain in her legs. She reported that she had had similar problems over the last two years but nothing as severe as presently. The usual tests were taken and it was discovered that the woman was suffering from hypokalaemia, i.e. a lack of potassium. The doctors searched in vain for an explanation and finally figured out that the patient had been eating 100 grams of "salta grodor", a Swedish licorice candy, every single day for several years. This abnormal consumption behavior had transformed a seemingly "safe" product to a "dangerous" one. Of course I am not arguing for a ban on licorice, I merely want to illustrate the point that for a single consumer the "average" is perhaps of no interest. The relational aspect of both harmful and healthy products is essential. It is absurd to claim that these qualities reside in the products as they clearly only exist in the power of moving a consumer from one point to the otherBit is the particular subject-object relationship that is of interest rather than the mythological beneficial characteristics given to a particular object. The same products can have quite different meanings for different people according to age, gender, eating habits, type of work, information, education, and so on cf. Beck, 1992). Furthermore, it is known that taking of several medications can nullify or amplify the effects of each individual one. People do not (yet) live by medications aloneBeven though the producers of functional foods want to go thereBbut the various products that compose a diet might have the same effect. The kinds of meta-analyses needed to determine that are beyond the scope of traditional medico-scientific investigation (cf. Ravnskov, 1998).

The specific health-traits ascribed to products are not of a definitive kind. Rather, health is relational in that it bridges a persons existing state with a favorably looked upon future state. What can be said to be healthy is therefore dependant on the difference between the present and the dreamed of future state (Even though the future state might be status quo, e.g. many people seem to nurture a dream of being forever young (cf. Bauman, 1992; Shilling, 1993)). It is this trait of providing a link with a future state that is perceived as being the health-attribute of the actual product. It is thus not something constant and inherent in the particular object but rather a relation, a means of building a bridge. The knowledge about these relationships is many times so widespread that they are taken-for-granted by virtually everyone including dieticians, medical professionals, and consumers, and these relational traits are magically transferred to be residing within the products rather than in the subject-object relationshipBthey become modern myths.

Human beings do not desire to consume certain substances deemed essential by natural scientists because of some biological need to do so. The needs themselves are valorized by our consciousness of them. The ability to fulfill some need is not inherent in the object per se but rather in the meaning ascribed to the objects by the help of natural science. Consumers desire these products not because of their immediate gratification but rather because of the possibility of a certain potential satisfaction that might appear in the future. [The immediate satisfaction that consumers might feel from consuming products they believe to be healthy should not be understated but that has nothing to do with an inherent healthiness in the products.] There is thus no direct link between the healthiness of a product and a consumer’s choice of that productBhumans cannot "meet their needs" in a direct fashion but biological or bodily origins might influence what is expressed as a purely cognitive "want".

There is no direct link between the "scientific facts" of what is healthy and consumer’s choice of these products. Rather, these "scientific facts" are one part in a larger system, a system that is not fueled so much by "need satisfaction" as by the roles different ideas play as signs in an arbitrary relation to more or less abstract ideas about healthiness (cf. Baudrillard, 1996). Many of the "healthy" products have become objects in Baudrillard’s sense as they are released from their psychic determinations as symbols; from their functional determinations as instruments; from their commercial determinations as products; and are thus liberated as a signs to be recaptured by the logic of differentiation (p. 16).

THE FUNCTIONAL SYSTEM OF HEALTHINESS

The new functional ideal of food can be easily detected in advertising. For foods with a healthy profile it is rare to se anything else than advertisements that speak about food in terms of problems and solutions. It should be granted, however, that just like with Baudrillard’s interior design, food’s technical need for design is always accompanied by the cultural need for atmosphere. This is quite evident in commercials using tag lines such as "homemade", "authentic", and "traditional" to connect even the highly rationalized fast foods to these values. The long-lost traditional values reappear as signs to connote a kind of atmosphere in the food (cf. Baudrillard, 1996, p. 62) and seem to sometimes be reaching out for the non-functional valuesBsuch as witness, memory, or nostalgia (p. 82). But they merely mimic an abstract idea of these valusBit is a simulacrumBthey do no longer correspond directly to anything but only exist as difference. Analogous is the relationship with the actual taste of the food. It has been a long time since even the most nanve consumer actually thought that a cherry gum was flavored with real cherries. Furthermore, a gum flavored with real cherries would probably taste far too little to appeal to most consumers, and coloring would definitely have to be used to get that "authentic" purple cherry gum color. It is evident that what is strived for is not the real flavor and color of the cherry but merely the abstract idea of the perfect cherryBagain a simulacrum. Baudrillard touches upon a similar argument and asserts that the distinction usually made between natural and synthetic substances is strictly a value judgment. Objectively, substances are just what they are; we cannot distinguish between a true or a false, a natural or artificial substance. (1996, p. 38). This fits nicely with the area of food since the inherited nobility of a given food product or ingredient can exist only for a cultural ideology analogous to that of the aristocratic myth itself in the social world.

In the realm of healthy foods this tendency to ascribe traits to products and claim their direct correspondence to some healing power is easily detectable. Many times their framing is so cunning that one could probably talk about an aesthetic promise of use-value, created to trigger the sale (cf. Haug, 2000). Especially in the case of the frequent re-launching of products where nothing has been changed in the new version but the positioning this appears to be true. The above reasoning of the relational aspect of healthiness was aimed to show that there is no such thing as an unambiguous health trait. Consequently, products claiming to stand in a clear relationship to healthiness are merely standing in a relationship to the abstract idea of healthiness. Similarly, products claiming to be "natural" and thus healthier [The relationship between naturalness and healthiness is one of the most commonly promoted (Bratman & Knight 2001)] are merely signaling that they are in relation to the abstract idea of naturalness, which in this system means that they are devoid of certain substances deemed "artificial"Btheir raison d’etre is purely differential.

One type of food product where these arbitrary relationships between the product features and some abstract idea about health are particularly evident is the so-called functional foods (Heasman & Mellentin, 2001; Poulsen, 1999). These products resemble what Baudrillard calls metafunctional objects or gadgets and gizmos (Baudrillard, 1996). They are characterized as being pseudo-functionalBthey answer to no other need than the need to function (p. 112). The real referent of these products is not their healthiness but nature in its entirety reinvented in accordance with the technical reality principle: a total simulacrum of the automated nature (p. 116). A good example of a functional food is Benecol margarine, a Finnish product released in 1995. Benecol is seen as "the perfect functional foodBa proprietary, patent-protected technology, scientifically validated to reduce a near-universally [Notice the use of the term "near-universally"; this is attributable to the contrasting expert system described by Giddens (1991). The danger of high cholesterol level has been debated in a cyclical fashion over the years.] recognized biomarker for the risk of heart disease, all packaged as an everyday food to be consumed as part of a normal diet." (Heasman & Mellentin, 2001, p. 34) What Benecol does is to lower cholesterol levels. High cholesterol is one of the most common problems in the western world and one of the main reasons for high levels is over-consumption of the kind of fat common in fast food products. A problem that arose largely from the early rationalization of food processing is hence being solved by the fruits of the continuing rationalization processes in late modernity. The possibility that cutting down on consumption could solve this problem is (of course) out of question as there should be no problems in our highly evolved society that could not be solved by increased consumption.

What we see here is the wish for everything to work by itself, for every object to perform this miracle of minimum effort in carrying out its assign function (Baudrillard, 1996, p. 111). Benecol is even so functional that it is "packaged as an everyday food to be consumed as part of a normal diet"Byou will not even notice that you are eating medications for your heart problems. Not that there is anything wrong with lowering peoples cholesterol levels, just like there is nothing wrong with improving people’s dental hygiene as is the case with the fluoride enriched chocolate-bars on the market in Japan (Ruderus, 1991). But these products are merely gizmos giving the illusion of being functional; they are the epitome of the trend towards development of healthier products. In an isolated instance they can appear to keep their promises but in consumers’ everyday-life they become and illusion of functionality or pseudo-functional. The question is where we are heading, how are we to keep track of all these more and more specialized food products whose function is that they should be part of the ordinary diet so we do not have to worry about them? Are we not likely to get lost in an endless maze of finding the perfect combination of functional foods so that we can continue to live our unproblematic lives? Furthermore, it is ironic that Baudrillard comments on the metafunctional objects anthropomorphic qualities, how it mimics the most functional of all machines. It is precisely to the desire to uphold this image of Man as ultimately functional and indestructible (Bauman, 1992) that functional foods cater.

DISCUSSION: ARE CONSUMERS RATIONAL ENOUGH FOR RATIONALIZED PRODUCTS?

The notion that every problem in our consumer society is a consumption problem, or rather, a problem that can be solved with increased consumption needs to be problemized. Public policy makers and legislators in many countries are trying to decide what kind of claims they should allow companies to make about their products and how to legally define what products can be called functional foods (e.g. Swedish Nutrition Foundation, 2001). There is nothing inherently bad about these efforts, just like there is nothing bad about companies trying to develop products that they think will help consumers live better lives, or consumers who choose to rather spread Benecol on their toasts than to radically alter their eating habits. However, the functional food products are built on a false ontology wherein their magical power (cf. Bauman, 1992; Falk, 1996) is placed within the products. In the semiotic system in which they gain their magical powers there is no doubt that they stand in a relationship with a healthier future for their consumers. But this obscures the fact that they do not necessarily have the power to alter consumers’ bodies and thus to come to grips with the increasing health problems we are allegedly grappling with in large parts of the western world.

Even more alarming is the premise on which the whole idea of public policy makers and legislators seem to rest with regards to food consumption. The logic is once again that of consumers as rational decision makers. As a consequence the problems described regarding the state of their health are reduced to being information problems. As has been shown in this paper the ontological status of so-called healthy products, and especially functional foods, is problematic in itself. Furthermore, the idea that consumers, given effective communication, would choose the alternative suggested by the medico/scientific complex finds no empirical evidence. It is unlikely that even the powerful functional food products, no matter how intriguing their framing may be, will be able to change consumers any more than previous health campaigns. What we are dealing with here are not uninformed consumers fumbling around for lack of better knowledge or suitable consumption opportunities. Instead it is highly knowledgeable and even at times motivated consumers being aware of what they should be doing and the consequences for not doing so. It seems clear that the logic of functional foods only works as long as they are consumed in a highly controlled manner as the promises they are making only exist n a sterile world of controlled eating behavior. But that is not the context in which food consumption takes place and therefore the promises of the functionality of the products are even more peculiar. Food consumption must be re-contextualized to the situations in which it occurs, i.e. in situations where consumers are overcome by uncontrollable urges. It seems like the crux of the matter is that the potential long-term gratification of consuming what various expert groups deem healthy does not stand a chance against the assured short-term gratification of polishing off yet another Big Mac.

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