“How did something as basic to our existence as food get transformed into an instrument for profit?”
This quote from Eric Holt-Giménez’s book, “A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism: Understanding the Political Economy of What We Eat,” encapsulates the problematic concept of food capitalism. There is value to the question, especially considering that food – a basic component of human survival just like sleep, water, or oxygen – has become so engulfed in a system of overproduction and overconsumption that its original function has been forgotten. There was a time when the sole purpose of food was to provide nutrition and energy, but it is now constantly manufactured to maximise profit. No matter how much we choose to ignore it, the commodification of such a basic human need and right has escalated to a global crisis.
Take the example of bread. Processed white bread is a staple in many homes around the world because it is cheap, versatile, and easily accessible. Most of the bread on your local supermarket shelves has been engineered to contain high gelatinised starch levels and minimal fibre, making it easy and fast to break down during digestion. This is why even after three pieces of toast you may feel unnourished, unfulfilled, and still hungry, when one slice of whole, nutritionally-rich bread should provide you with ample carbohydrates and leave you satiated for hours.
The overconsumption that results from eating food lacking in nutrients is the primary strategy manufacturers use to make money. Sugars and additives are pumped into cheap, processed foods so that we become addicted to them and therefore buy and eat more. Overproduction makes food cheap, and cheap food encourages the proliferation of larger portion sizes, the popularity of fast food, and the pervasiveness of health problems such as obesity and diabetes. As Holt-Giménez writes, “We need food to live. But the purpose of food companies is not to promote our life, health, or happiness; it is to make money.” When it comes to food, profit comes before our wellbeing.
Recent efforts within the wellness industry to promote the trendiness of healthy eating perpetuate the issue. I challenge you to think of a “healthy” food or concept that has not been turned into a product and strategically marketed to you. Superfood supplements, green juice cleanses, yoga and meditation classes– everything we are told is “healthy” demands a price that is out of reach for most. Few people want (or are able) to pay £3.70 for low-sugar granola from Tesco instead of a pack of Weetabix for just 95p. Yet capitalism thrives when prices are high and there are people willing to pay, and those people will always exist. The capitalising of food has become so extreme that it doesn’t matter if something is an organic, free-range, grass-fed chicken breast or a Big Mac, it doesn’t matter whether it is good for you or not, whether you need it or not, whether it was locally-sourced or travelled across the seven seas to reach your kitchen– as long as there are enough people willing to buy it, someone will turn it into a commodity and sell it.
So if food is such a basic necessity, why aren’t we seriously questioning the food manufacturers who take advantage of it? A key aspect of the issue is the general lack of accessibility, education, and awareness around truly healthy food. Humans are creatures of habit, and we like what we know. Why would those raised in communities where whole, fresh, minimally-processed foods are a scarcity suddenly desire anything but the fast food chain down the road? And even if they did wish to seek out more sustainable, fresh, “natural” foods, the chances that these are physically available are low. Having access to the food we want is an extreme privilege.
In order to eat well, minimise hunger, and educate people about the importance of high-quality food, we need to understand capitalism. Economic and physical access to nutritious food that has not been genetically modified or manufactured in a lab should be normal, not a luxury. The same criticism of capitalism could be applied to clothing, or real estate, or anything that has been manipulated and marketed in order to produce and sell as much as possible. However, food is fundamental to our survival and health. It’s time we stop supporting the companies that endorse overproduction, overconsumption, diet-related disease, poverty, environmental damage, and cheap labour, and instead demand that our governing bodies regulate the price and accessibility of truly healthy food. It’s time we change how much control we have over what we put in our bodies.