Food is fundamental, fun, frightening, and far-reaching

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Food Is Frightening
Paul Rozin
” The frightening part of food, in the past, was largely the prospect of no food. There were also the possibilities of foods contaminated by micro-organisms or with high levels of toxins. A few things have happened in the middle to late 20th century that have turned the tables on food.

First, in the developed world, we now have an excess of food. The worry has shifted from having too little to eat, to having too much.

Second, the technology of food manufacture has allowed for an exquisite variety of highly palatable foods. The human biological urge for sweets, and probably fats, can be indulged with foods that are higher in both than any in nature.

Third, advances in microbiology and nutrition, often implemented by government regulations make the food supply very low in toxins or harmful micro-organisms. Nutritional supplementation and guidelines make it relatively difficult to consume a seriously imbalanced diet.

Fourth, as a result of what is sometimes called the epidemiological revolution, infectious and other acute diseases have been greatly reduced in incidence, and can be cured in the great majority of cases. The result of this has been a substantial increase in human longevity, and a shift from acute infectious to chronic degenerative diseases as the main cause of death.

Fifth, information about the health effects of different patterns of food intake, and different foods, has become widely available, through the media. These results are frequently reported, “as they happen,” on the basis of single experimental or epidemiological studies. This availability of information has not been accompanied by education of the public on risks and benefits, basic concepts of probability, and on the gradual and rocky road, in science, from ignorance to knowledge. Hence, the public often takes findings to be facts.

This has led, at least among Americans, to frequent new concerns about particular dietary items, and has promoted tendencies to ignore it all, or to overact to it all, or to develop simplifying heuristics that take the uncertainty out of every bite. One unfortunate heuristic is that foods are either good are bad for health. The level of intake drops out of the equation. Thus, a substantial percent of Americans think of fat and salt as toxins” even a trace of each in food is considered unhealthy (Rozin, Ashmore, and Markwith, 1996). This belief establishes a goal that is both extremely unhealthy, and unattainable.

So, in modern life in the food world, we have many more opportunities for pleasure, and many more perceived opportunities for harm. Food is both a pleasure and a poison. In the balance of these beliefs lies much of the quality of life, and something of the quality of health, as well. It is my perception that the American upper and upper-middle classes have gone too far toward the poison end of the dimension, in their excessive worries about body weight, calories, the presence of toxins in foods, and the proper diet to maximize health. Every bite, for some people, is fraught with conflict. Many Americans, especially women, would seem to be willing to give up eating, one of our greatest pleasures, rather than face the battle between pleasure and poison with every bite. This is less illustrated by the explosion of anorexia and bulimia among American women, than by their “normative discontent” (Rodin, Silberstein, and Striegel-Moore, 1985) about weight, body image, eating, and food. Thus, for example, in a recent survey of college students on six campuses across the United States, over 10% of women claim that they would be embarrassed to buy a chocolate bar in the store, and about 30% say they would be willing to opt for a nutrient pill, safe, nutritionally complete, and cheap, as a substitute for eating (Rozin, Catanese, and Bauer, 1999). These American phenomena are primarily expressed in individuals of upper-middle and upper classes, and serve to further increase class differences among Americans; we are creating a health as well as wealth aristocracy (Leichter 1997).”


Rozin (1999) P. Rozin, Food is fundamental, fun, frightening, and far-reaching, Social Research 66 (1) (1999), pp. 9–30.

Review of the book The Hungry Soul, by Leon Kass.

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David Tribe is an applied geneticist, teaching graduate/undergrad courses in food science, food safety, biotechnology and microbiology at the University of Melbourne.