Food For Thought: What Montaigne Can Teach Us About Ultraprocessed Foods

Michel de Montaigne

In Des Cannibales, Montaigne contrasted wild and cultivated food. Creative Commons-licensed image via Flickr/Skara kommun.

 

The wisdom of Michel de Montaigne extends to most spheres of human life, not excepting agriculture and matters of the palate. In his 1580 essay Des Cannibales (Of Cannibals), in which he lambasts Europe’s hypocrisy in its perception and treatment of the people of the New World (in particular the Tupinambá people), Montaigne also draws some striking comparisons between cultivated and wild food. These comparisons not only strike a chord with the forager within me (who delights in the taste of what is to be found growing in the most unlikely of places), but also to the grower, who notes the difference in flavour when food is cultivated with a little care.

According to Montaigne, it should not be wild fruit that we call “sauvage” (carrying the implication of “savage”), but “[those] fruit which we have artificially perverted and misled from the common order”[1]. He affirms that “living”, “vigorous”, “natural” fruit has been “bastardized …by merely adapting them to our corrupt tastes”[2]. This last thought has particular resonance when we consider it in light of the mass­-produced and ultra­processed food that has come to dominate so much of people’s diets around the world today. In high-­income countries, ultra­processed foods can make up more than 60 per cent of total energy intake [3]. This would not be a problem if these foods provided people with adequate nutrition, but according to recent studies, ultra­processed foods are currently responsible for more than 18 million deaths each year through non-communicable diseases such as high blood pressure, high body­mass index, high fasting blood glucose and high­ total cholesterol [4]. More troubling still is that these multinational companies, that have become so adept at manipulating the fats, sugar content and textures of foods, market these products aggressively to the poorest societies, where they will make most of their profit in the next five years [5]. Just as the eating of meat has become a marker of prosperity in many societies, so the giants of the processed food industry have come to embody the capitalist dream across the world.

As the child of an immigrant family brought up on the concept of cucina povera (or “poor person’s cooking”), I find the rise of such trends troubling. I was lucky enough to have gained a good knowledge of how to cook satisfying, healthy food for myself cheaply; to feel and smell the produce on sale to ascertain its quality; to pay attention to the seasons, and how they affect not only prices, but also flavours. But for many people, this isn’t the case. As a society, we are increasingly time-­poor, resource­-poor, and knowledge­-poor – factors which all fall in favour of so-
called “convenience” options (a term better used to describe latrines).

Baudelaire once declared that “tout ce qui est beau et noble est le résultat de la raison et du calcul” (“All that is beautiful and noble is the result of reason and calculation”)[6]. For Baudelaire, Nature and the natural world represented the grotesque and the unruly; a source of disgust, ultimately to be tamed and sculpted by the intellect, a view mirrored in many agricultural and scientific practices, made manifest in the market by our increased detachment from our food sources, and our conditioning towards uniform, boneless, skinless food products. We may have become better at farming and cultivation, but we remain wasteful, hungry, and lacking in nutrition – indicators that do not represent the kind of “progress” these industries promise. On the contrary, reason and calculation have created a multi­billion­-pound ultra­processed food and drinks industry that exploits the fear and ignorance created by this void with products that ultimately destroy our health. All the while, the industry distorts and obscures evidence by corrupting research through sponsorship that renders studies four­ to­ eight times more likely to favour the financial interests of the sponsoring company [7]. Even the tobacco industry didn’t manage to get away with that in the long ­term.

According to Moodie et al., “the ten largest food companies control more than half of all food sales” in the USA, while internationally, “this proportion is about 15% and is rising rapidly”[8]. It is a damning indictment of our hubris that over 400 years on, Montaigne’s words on Nature still ring true:

We have so overloaded the richness and beauty of her products by our own ingenuity that we have smothered her entirely. Yet wherever her pure light does shine, she wondrously shames our vain and frivolous enterprises. [9]

And shine on she does. Quietly, the old wisdom of leaving fields fallow and growing crops in polycultures to maintain the structure of our soils is being proven to be integral to maintaining and encouraging biodiversity and improving and protecting soil fertility for future generations. In many parts of the world, Artifice is working hand­ in­ hand with Nature to create vertical growing space and enclosed, sustainable desert farms [10] in hitherto barren regions of the world. Though the challenges are significant, the solutions are numerous, provided that we are able to rein in our tendency towards greed, and see beyond our unrealistic desire for exponential profit growth. But this will require effort. As Baudelaire put it: “Le mal se fait sans effort, naturellement, par fatalité; le bien est toujours le produit d’un art.”  (“Evil produces itself without effort, naturally, by fatality; goodness is always the product of an art.”) [11]

[1] “Ceux que nous avons alterez par nostre artifice, et destournez de l’ordre commun.” Montaigne, Michel, Des Cannibales, Essais, 1580.

[2] Montaigne, M., On the Cannibals, Essays, Trans. M.A. Screech, Penguin, UK, 2004.

[3] Moodie, Rob et al., Profits and pandemics: prevention of harmful effects of tobacco, alcohol, and ultra­processed food and drink industries, The Lancet , Volume 381, Issue 9867, pp. 670 ­-679.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Baudelaire, Charles, Éloge du Maquillage, Le Peintre de la Vie Moderne, 1863.

[7] Moodie.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “Nous avons tant rechargé la beauté et richesse de ses ouvrages par noz inventions, que nous l’avons du tout estouffée. Si est­ce que par tout où sa pureté reluit, elle fait une merveilleuse honte à noz vaines et frivoles entreprinses.” Des Cannibales.

[10] Asef­asso.fr,. “Association Santé Environnement France ­ Mai 2013: ­ 87% Des Enfants Ne Savent Pas Ce Qu’est Une Betterave!”, Association Santé Environnement France. April 19 2015.

[11] Baudelaire, Charles, L’idéal artificiel, Les Petits Poèmes en Prose, 1869.

Concepta Cassar

About Concepta Cassar

Concepta is a journalist, forager and food writer, with a particular interest in food anthropology, sustainability, and agricultural affairs. Her recipes have been featured in the Guardian, and she writes for a number of organisations, including BuzzFeed, Aftertastes, and the Soil Association. Her other great loves are literature and modern languages. Concepta speaks French and Italian, and has a working knowledge of Spanish and Russian.

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