How do we decide what food to eat and when?

The more familiar term for this exercise is developing a food philosophy, but the p-word turns too many people off. I will leave it as food choice. I use David Kaplan’s book as a jumping off point, but I will steer the discussion to a less lofty level. He divides the book into six topics with big fancy, pretentious words. I will bring the discussion down-to-earth, addressing the topic through the lens of a food scientist. The questions asked in the book are esoteric on one level, but ones we should confront. As a scientist the question I ask most often is WHAT. But shouldn’t we also be asking WHY?  If you have made it this far, please stick with me for at least a few more paragraphs.

What is food? The author starts with a discussion of real food presumably to distinguish it from unreal food. He does not like food additives or processed foods, but neither does he condemn them as nonfood. These ingredients and products are less than desirable from his perspective. He does wonder if frozen pizza, cultured meats, or egg-free mayo are real foods. The book questions considering beverages or drugs as foods. Food science declares beverages as liquid food. The lines between drugs and food become blurred when chewing vitamin gummies for instance. Also, is overdosing on a food-like drug the same as overdosing on a real drug?

Authenticity of a food and its name are critical to the status of a food. Kaplan places much weight on authenticity and such concepts as terroir (“a real geographic location, related to climate, soil, and other physical things”). But what happens in the era of climate change where changes in rainfall, temperature, and other factors affect characteristics of crops also change? These changes are real, not hypothetical.

In this book the author subdivides the meaning of food into 13 conceptions. I will discuss four of these conceptions:

  • Food as nutrition embraces the essential nature of the nutrients contained in foods. These nutrients are chemicals we need to grow and thrive. We obtain these chemicals through our dietary choices. When I was growing up, nutrition was about consuming enough protein, vitamins and minerals. Now it seems that nutrition is about not consuming too many calories, fats, and sugar.  
  • Food as medicine views food as the source of good health. Weight control, prevention of chronic disease, and longevity fit into this conception of food. We select foods to help us sleep, ward off depression, and increase our athletic or sexual performance.
  • Food as pleasure can have both positive and negative consequences in our lives. Food does more than relieve hunger. Flavor elevates the eating experience to epicurean delights where only the best of experiences satisfy. Gluttony also seeks fulfillment in food delights at the expense of good health.
  • Food as recipe presents it as a function of its ingredients and preparation steps. We think of recipes in terms of home cooking, but we find them in restaurants (fast or slow) and as industrial formulations. Home recipes are more flexible depending on the mood and diligence of the cook. Restaurant dishes and processed foods adhere more closely to the levels of ingredients and cooking conditions such that they deliver a similar sensory experience every time. Consistency is a major attribute for commercial items.  

How do we experience food? Our perception of food falls within preconceived narratives wrapped within our core beliefs. Kaplan describes eight of these narratives. I discuss three of them below and add a fourth:

Stories about food shape our perceptions. How we experienced food as a child leads to behaviors as adults. Food nostalgia overrides otherwise key components housed within our standard narratives. Consuming food we once loved elicits delightful experience when consumed except when it doesn’t. Who hasn’t become perplexed reacting “Why did I ever think that was any good?”  

poster advertising an acceptability test for sweet onions
Acceptability testing of sweet onions in terms the consumer understands

What is good taste when it comes to food? Nothing raises the hackles of a sensory scientist as confusing the concepts of taste and flavor. And no they aren’t taste tests. They are sensory panels. The book frequently confuses taste and flavor. When it comes to food, taste has four basic components: sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. A more recent addition includes umami, also known as savory. When we put food in our mouths, we perceive flavor as a combination of taste and aroma. There are many more aroma than taste sensations. Aroma is perceived both by our nose before the food enters the mouth and through the back of our throat during chewing.

Another point of contention is the difference between perception and acceptability. The author assumes that similarities in perception lead to similarities in acceptance. When conducting descriptive sensory analysis, the panel leader finds consensus on perception in most cases. A comprehensive list of descriptors for each food comprise a lexicon. An occasional outlier finds differences in perception from one or two panelists. Panel trainees unable to conform find themselves on the outside looking in when selecting the panel. For most people, perception is similar, but similar perceptions do not produce similar acceptability responses. Two of us can perceive the earthiness in arugula, but we may disagree on our preference for the flavor of the leafy herb. Panelists can agree on perception while disagreeing on acceptability.

I never mixed my sensory descriptive panels with whether a food was acceptable or not. Acceptability tests required many more panelists and a different scale. I rejected the common 9-point Hedonic scale and employed my own 3-point acceptability scale (superior, acceptable, unacceptable). I did not average these values but presented them as percent superior and percent superior plus acceptable. Any further differentiation is meaningless in my mind.   

Confusing the issue even more is that ‘taste’ serves as a social construct. We are said to have good or not-so-good taste in music, art, food, and other aspects of our lives. We prefer items that resonate with our experiences and tend to reject the unfamiliar. Daring individuals push the boundaries of familiarity to partake in unfamiliar cuisines. But who decides what is in good taste and what is not—the arbiters of superiority? This is the point where my freedom narrative kicks in. In a previous life I was in demand as a lecturer on chocolate science. I ended most of these presentations with the question “What is the best chocolate?” My answer was “the chocolate you like the best.” Don’t let others be the arbiter of what is good and what is not good dictate your preferences. Make that determination yourself.

Take home lesson. Allan Griff’s take on the issue of why we eat what we do varies widely from Kaplan’s and mine. His message deserves another look, however. As food scientists or consumers, it is important to consider why we decide what we eat and when. Is it rational? Can we make minor or major changes to fit our conceptions of food and the narratives on how we experience food? Do we truly appreciate the food we eat? Or do we just shovel it down to get it out of the way so we can get on with the rest of our lives? 

Coming soon: The ethics and politics of food. Why does what we eat matter?


4 thoughts on “How do we decide what food to eat and when?

    1. Thank you so much. The book was very good at introducing topics to consider when we talk about food. Although I have a very different food philosophy than the author, I was able to react to his general outline. Look for a discussion on ethics and politics of food in the coming post.


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