From the Series: Embodied Ecologies
Eating dissolves boundaries between the body and environment, as that which is outside the body is literally and figuratively incorporated into it. The mouth is a liminal space that begs the question of where body ends and environment begins. Recent studies on metabolism have emphasized the porosity by which food substances and bodies become intermingled (Landecker 2011; Solomon 2016). How might this understanding of food inform its manufacture, and what are the consequences when corporations take this body–environment relationship as a site of management? For scientists in the U.S. processed food industry, the constitution of taste and the bodily effects of incorporation represent pressing questions.
We might think of foods as an incorporated environment, constituting collective perception as taste and thus shaping population-wide sensory impressions. At the 2011 meeting of the Institute of Food Technologists in New Orleans, an expert panel discussed reducing sodium in processed food products. Panelists emphasized the negative health effects of excess sodium intake; however, fears that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration might force the industry’s hand by regulating sodium levels in foods lent urgency to the reformulating of products. The vast majority of the sodium that Americans consume comes in the form of processed food. Thus, in an almost humanitarian vein, the panel chair implored the food companies in the room to pull together as an industry and “train” the American populace to accept lower levels of sodium in their foods. If the industry were to present a united front and reduce sodium levels in concert, he suggested that it could achieve a 5–50 percent drop in sodium levels. Seated next to me was James, a young flavor chemist; at this point, he snorted loudly and got up to leave, remarking to me on his way out: “50 percent?! Don’t you think you would notice?”
On the trade show floor, food scientists expressed similar skepticism that sodium reduction would work in the long term. Sodium chloride—salt, —is very difficult to replace in a food product. Salt does not merely make things taste salty: it is added in high levels to processed foods because it enhances overall flavor and consumer ratings, and it functions as a preservative. Suddenly removing salt is challenging: for example, in 2010 the Campbell Soup Company announced that it was reducing sodium by up to 45 percent in over half of its condensed soups. In 2011, the company signaled a reversal; it was adding salt back into its products due to falling sales. Around the same time, the journalist Michael Moss was invited by Kellogg to taste its Cheez-Its and Corn Flakes, as reformulated with the salt removed. Moss described the Cheez-Its as “not merely bland but medicinal” and the Corn Flakes as “metallic.” Food scientists also worry that consumers are repelled by the very idea of low-sodium products and will refuse to buy products with “low sodium” on the label. To counter this resistance, for years some companies have been quietly reducing the levels of sodium in their products without advertising this, in what is known in the industry as “stealth reduction.”
Stealth reduction is an incremental attempt to “train” the palates of the consumer populace. Rather than viewing taste perception as idiosyncratic, this systemic intervention into a population’s sensory environment suggests that food industry professionals encounter taste as “second nature” (Cronon 1991, xvii)—that is, as a biology fundamentally shaped by capitalist processes, such that tinkering with taste as a large-scale environment will produce effects on individual bodies, intentionally (but imperceptibly) shaping them.
Scientists today thus grapple with the biological changes wrought by preceding generations. Americans, historically exposed to high levels of salt in all sorts of processed food products, have had their palates tuned. As such, consumers must now be gradually retrained to accept lower-sodium products, because a sudden drop in salt would be experienced as a rupture, with foods registered as tasteless.
The idiom “you are what you eat” expresses the idea that food is a part of an environment that we consciously and deliberately internalize so as to constitute ourselves, not just as social actors but also as biological beings. The work of food industry scientists suggests a parallel idiom: “you are what you taste.” Indeed, in sodium reduction efforts, the constitution of the body through taste is both problem and possible solution.
Consider the related example, from the flavor industry, of so-called phantom aromas. There is a physiological difference between the sensation of taste (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, umami) and the perception of flavor, which is largely the effect of odor molecules. Phantom aromas both capitalize on and blur this distinction. The theory behind phantom aromas is that the relationship between particular tastes and flavors is learned over a lifetime. In the words of one chemist, consumers are “trained” to anticipate the pairing of particular tastes and flavors. Common pairings are thought to form congruent neural connections from childhood; think of the flavor of sardines and the taste of salt, or the flavor of vanilla and the taste of sweetness. A phantom aroma describes the inclusion in a product of a trace amount of an aroma chemical that is undetectable to conscious awareness but that triggers an association with a particular taste: the eater experiences a heightened perception of taste intensity through an embodied memory. Here, the shaping of a body through its taste environment is deliberately built into food products. The embodied history of the individual is consciously exploited as a feature of product design.
Strategies of sodium reduction shed light on how consumer products companies might engage with the concept of a responsive human body materially intertwined with its surroundings. On the one hand, product developers confront their own histories in the form of embodied commodity environments. On the other hand, bodily receptiveness may also provide a slowly shifting threshold that can be manipulated in attempts to corporeally produce the consumers of the future.
Cronon, William. 1991. Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York: W. W. Norton.
Landecker, Hannah. 2011. “Food as Exposure: Nutritional Epigenetics and the New Metabolism.” BioSocieties
6, no. 2: 167–94.
Solomon, Harris. 2016. Metabolic Living: Food, Fat, and the Absorption of Illness in India. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.