The food industry has hijacked our plates. Two new books might show us a way out, says Benson Issac
INDIA IS not new to obsessing about food. Food has been at the centre of pleasure, love, disease, deprivation, self-esteem, wealth and Ayurveda. Food has also never been this big a business in India — from ‘fine dining’ to south Indian fast food to the new wave of interest in processed and precooked foods, it’s all in your face. However, in the midst of the euphoria surrounding increased consumer choice, there are voices striking a dissenting note.
Two new books — Food Rules by Michael Pollan and the End of Overeating by David Kessler — join these voices in addressing the issue of hyper-consumption.
Is super-tasty food that destroys our self-control actually being designed to do precisely that — in its colour, smell, taste and texture?
In The End of Overeating, Dr Kessler examines the conditioned hyper-eating epidemic across the United States, through a chilling journey into the period staring in the early 1980s when the food and advertising industries, along with lifestyle changes, colluded to transtransform the fundamentals of eating. They succeeded in short-circuiting the body’s self-regulating mechanisms, leaving many at the mercy of reward-driven eating.
Though contextualised to the US, the rise of the Indian processed foods industry seems to mirror the conditioning and food chemistry conspiracies that triggered the over-eating epidemic in the US. Traditional slow foods, eating norms and taboos survive at two ends of the class divide — as designer, ‘ethnic’ foods or as the poor man’s food. Food politics is intrinsically connected to the politics of deprivation and access, of which India has a long and continuing history.
Kessler, though, stops at the consumption end of the food spectrum, leaving an entire range of important production issues unaddressed. The attempts to control seed production by large agro-corporations, the use of pesticides, the food scarcity propaganda and the promotion of genetic engineering in agriculture do not get linked to the larger conspiracy Kessler focusses on.
Michael Pollan is no nutritionist but uses his experience as a journalist to tell us what and how one should eat, through a series of straightforward, seemingly commonsensical rules. What results is Food rules —An Eater’s Manual — a well packaged food wisdom pocket book of 64 rules to eating and shopping with short explanations and no preaching.
For the Indian reader it might feel slightly amusing to read things that you have heard growing up and probably still practice. But this is changing. The Green Revolution altered the Indian food equation in bewildering ways by changing crop patterns, crop technologies and the very nature of agriculture. With it started an erosion of our food practices and the science around it. This, coupled with lifestyle change, is breaking many of the rules that Pollan writes about. There is a significantly active agriculture and consumer movement in the country that is emphasising the importance of a more locally rooted, socially, environmentally and economically sustainable system of living. This movement is trying to link the farmer, the kitchen and the foodie. Pollan’s eating manual reflects the concerns and efforts of these groups in the rules it lays down for the eater.
For this country where hyper-eating and wasteful feasts coexist with starvation, the politics of food and its debates are not new. It is the nature of these new ways of fuelling hyper-eating and deprivation that needs to be explored. We must realise that much of what we took for granted about Indian food is fast disappearing.
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