By Myriam Durocher
Advice on how to adopt a ‘healthy diet’ abound in nowadays Western food cultures. Whether it is to improve one’s body, to prevent possible health conditions or to lose weight, there is an overwhelming abundance of information in circulation stressing the importance of ‘eating healthy’. But what are we referring to when we are talking about ‘healthy food’? While it seems to be a universally accepted notion, a closer look at it raises questions on what it even means. Most importantly, what seems ‘healthy’ for some bodies might not be ‘healthy’ for others. Whose body is concerned when it comes to defining what is ‘healthy’?
In this piece, I engage in a reflection on what makes a food ‘healthy’ in our current Western food cultures and propose that we might need a renewed conceptual apparatus if we want to generate fairer, more sustainable and inclusive ways of approaching (‘healthy‘) food and food systems. I mobilise a relational approach to food1 to discuss some of the issues raised when we approach food in isolation from the broader social and environmental impacts that frame them as ‘healthy’.
Whether it is to improve one’s body, to prevent possible health conditions or to lose weight, there is an overwhelming abundance of information in circulation stressing the importance of ‘eating healthy’. But what are we referring to when we are talking about ‘healthy food’? While it seems to be a universally accepted notion, a closer look at it raises questions on what it even means.
“According to Carolyn Brown, a New York-based nutritionist, the combination of healthy fats, vitamins and minerals make avocados a superfood. ’Avocados are fantastic for you because they contain over 20 vitamins and minerals — vitamin C, vitamin E, many of the B vitamins (energy vitamins), magnesium and potassium,’ she said. ’They are also loaded with ‘good fat’, aka monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs).”2
This description of the avocado’s nutritional properties represents quite perfectly what nutritionism is and how it informs the way we approach ‘healthy’ food in contemporary Western food culture. Nutritionism has informed the production of nutritional knowledge since the 19th century. It fosters an approach to foods that is reductively concerned with their nutritional composition in order to assess their ’healthiness’.3
According to Gyorgy Scrinis, we are now in an era of functional nutritionism which not only promotes the ingestion of ‘good’ nutrients but also fosters the identification and consumption of specific nutrients that are believed to “enhance your health and target particular bodily functions and processes”.4 In other words, functional nutritionism contributes to giving the impression that we – eaters – can act directly on our body and health through the ingestion of specific nutrients.
This way of defining what is ‘healthy’ relies on scientific studies that isolate the nutrients and try to single out the biochemical processes associated with their ingestion. In reality, these biochemical processes do not happen in isolation – they happen in relation with the overall diet, with the particularities of the body ingesting, and with other elements that affect the digestion processes.
Critics have raised how this reductive approach neglects to take into consideration the multiplicity of factors (environmental conditions, stress, genetics, systemic and structural inequalities, and so on) that inform health, and that cannot be reduced or limited to the food ingested. They also argued that nutritionism fosters an understanding of health as strictly defined by the physiological state of a body, without any consideration for other vital dimensions of health, food and eating such as emotional, psychological and affective ones.5 Nutritionism also limits the consideration of the contexts in which the food is consumed, produced and engaged in heterogenous networks of relationships that it impacts.
In reality, these biochemical processes do not happen in isolation – they happen in relation with the overall diet, with the particularities of the body ingesting, and with other elements that affect the digestion processes… This reductive approach neglects to take into consideration the multiplicity of factors (environmental conditions, stress, genetics, systemic and structural inequalities, and so on) that inform health, and that cannot be reduced or limited to the food ingested.
Avocados have emerged as a new trendy food with the help of international marketing campaigns, dietary guidelines and medical studies that praise its associated health benefits.6 The fruit became symbolically associated with a healthy diet.7
An increase in global avocado consumption and trade has caused transformations in commercial, agricultural and trading practices in producing countries.8 The promotion of the fruit on international markets orients consumer preferences, which in return impacts the agricultural practices and livelihood of the local farmers who have been producing avocados for a long time.9
The surge in financial value associated with avocados’ growing demand also contributes to increased competition in local markets, fostering the emergence of conflicts and violence.10 Expansion of cartels and criminal groups, outbursts of violence targeting producers, and fights for control over avocado-producing regions11 are examples of the violence emerging in these new bustling markets. Local farmers are put under pressure as they cope with threats, property destruction, kidnapping and even killings,12 to the point where some local producers have also organised an armed response to the violence.13
The bodies of those producing the fruit, of those ensuring its transportation, distribution and commercialisation in producing countries, of those living in the areas marked by increased violence, and of those enduring the pressures linked to changes imposed by new market demands are not the ones for whom ‘healthy’ food knowledge is thought for and with. The nutrients the avocado may include are not thought in relation to and for the bodies who work the soil, manipulate the fruit, and ensure its circulation up to the plate of a health-conscious Western eater.
Likewise, ‘healthy’ is not thought for or in relation to the chain of interrelated species that constitute the ecosystems where the fruit is grown. The overproduction of the avocado in countries such as Chile or Mexico is denunciated for having disastrous environmental consequences that deplete biodiversity as well as the quality of the soils where the fruits are produced and harvested.14
Deforestation, overuse and depletion of water sources, monocultures and use of pesticides are all outcomes of practices set into place to maintain if not increase the speed of avocado production.15 Soil contamination, increase in carbon emissions,16 and a decrease in genetic biodiversity17 serve as troubling examples of the consequences of such intensive mass production. This results in the creation of impoverished environments where a limited range of living beings – human and more-than-human alike – can grow, flourish and be ’healthy’ in the present as much as in the future.
The bodies of those producing the fruit, of those ensuring its transportation, distribution and commercialisation in producing countries, of those living in the areas marked by increased violence, and of those enduring the pressures linked to changes imposed by new market demands are not the ones for whom ‘healthy’ food knowledge is thought for and with.
’Healthy’ food – whether it be avocados or anything else – should be defined in relation to broader food systems that unevenly interconnect human bodies to each other, and to the more-than-human that constitute these foods and the environments in which they are grown, cultivated, and circulated. ’Healthy’ food needs to be questioned in its capacity to further imbalance global food systems and while doing so, increase social and environmental inequalities. A critical and relational approach to ‘healthy’ food encompasses considering the embeddedness of food matters within interconnected webs of policies, profits, agricultural practices, farmers, environments and species that affect differently, different bodies engaged in its emergence – and not necessarily the eaters’ bodies.
1. Abrahamsson, Sebastian, Filippo Bertoni, Annemarie Mol, and Rebeca Ibáñez Martín. “Living with Omega-3: New Materialism and Enduring Concerns.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 33(1): 4–19.; Overend, Alissa. 2020. Shifting Food Facts: Dietary Discourse in a Post-Truth Culture. London, UK: Routledge.; Probyn, Elspeth. 2016. Eating the Ocean. Durham: Duke University Press.
2. Carolyn Brown as cited in Weingus, Leigh. 2018. “How Much Avocado Is Healthy To Eat In A Day?” Huff Post. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/how-much-avocado-to-eat_n_5b87fd84e4b0511db3d58eae
3. Scrinis, Gyorgy. 2013. Nutritionism: The Science and Politics of Dietary Advice. New York: Columbia University Press.
4. Scrinis. 2013. 4.
5. Overend, 2020; Williams-Forson, Psyche. 2019. “‘I Haven’t Eaten If I Don’t Have My Soup and Fufu’:Cultural Preservation Through Food and Foodways Among Ghanaian Migrants in the United States.” In Food and Culture: A Reader, edited by Counihan, C., Van Esterik, P. and Julier, A., 4th ed. New York: Routledge.; Yates-Doerr, Emily. 2012. “The Opacity of Reduction.” Food, Culture & Society 15(2): 293–313.
6. See for instance Gonçalves, André. 2018. “Avocado Lovers: Your Precious Fruit Is Far from Being Sustainable.” Youmatter (blog). https://youmatter.world/en/benefits-avocados-production-bad-people-planet-27107; Hoy F., Carman. 2019. “The Story Behind Avocados’ Rise to Prominence in the United States.” ARE Update 22(5): 9–11.; Ferdman, Roberto A. 2015. “The Rise of the Avocado, America’s New Favorite Fruit.” Chicago Tribune. https://www.chicagotribune.com/business/chi-avocado-america-favorite-fruit-20150124-story.html
7. Serrano, Angela, and Andrew Brooks. 2019. “Who Is Left behind in Global Food Systems? Local Farmers Failed by Colombia’s Avocado Boom.” Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space 2(2): 348–67.
8. Serrano & Brooks. 2019; Hoy. 2019.
9. Serrano & Brooks. 2019.
10. Agence France Presse. 2019. “Notre surconsommation d’avocats a des conséquences dramatiques.” HuffPost Québec, https://quebec.huffingtonpost.ca/2019/01/29/consommation-avocat-consequences-environnement_a_23656177/.; Leprince, Jean-Michel. 2017. “L’avocat, or maudit du Mexique.” Radio-Canada.ca. http://ici.radio-canada.ca/nouvelle/1060574/avocat-fruit-plantations-illegales-production-mexique-michoacan-deforestation.; Montreal Gazette. 2018. “‘Avocado Police’: This Mexican Town Is Fighting Back against Cartels.” Montreal Gazette. http://montrealgazette.com/news/world/mexican-avocado-farmers-fight-back-against-cartels/wcm/e14fe9f5-93b7-400e-8e84-21d392e7db11.
11. Agren, David. 2019. “Up to Four Avocado Trucks Stolen in Mexican State Every Day.” The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jun/14/mexico-avocados-stolen-michoacan.; Wagner, Christian. 2019. “Are Mexican Avocados The Next ‘Conflict Commodity’?” Verisk Maplecroft. https://www.maplecroft.com/insights/analysis/are-mexican-avocados-the-next-conflict-commodity/
12. Phillips, Tom. 2019. “Mexico Cartel Hangs Bodies from City Bridge in Grisly Show of Force.” The Guardian. World news. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/aug/08/mexico-bodies-police-uruapan-drug-cartels.; Stevenson, Mark. 2019. “In Mexico, Avocado Industry Brings Both Riches and Violence.” CTVNews. https://www.ctvnews.ca/business/in-mexico-avocado-industry-brings-both-riches-and-violence-1.4651800
13. Montreal Gazette, 2018.
14. Bravo-Espinosa, M. et al. 2014. “Effects of Converting Forest to Avocado Orchards on Topsoil Properties in the Trans-Mexican Volcanic System, Mexico.” Land Degradation & Development 25(5): 452–67.; Espinoza, Miguel Bravo et al. 2009. “Impactos ambientales y socioeconómicos del cambio de uso del suelo forestal a huertos de aguacate en Michoacán.” Mexico: Instito Nacional de Investigaciones Forestales, Agricolas y Pecuarias. http://www.inifapcirne.gob.mx/Revistas/Archivos/libro_aguacate.pdf.; Metapolítica. 2019. “La guerra por el Aguacate: deforestación y contaminación imparables Biodiversidad en América Latina.” BioDiversidad. http://www.biodiversidadla.org/Noticias/La-guerra-por-el-Aguacate-deforestacion-y-contaminacion-imparables
15. Bravo-Espinosa et al., 2014; Metapolítica, 2019; Rothman, Lauren. 2018. “Your Bottomless Hunger for Avocados Is Causing Droughts in Chile.” Vice. https://munchies.vice.com/en_us/article/435w9b/your-bottomless-hunger-for-avocados-is-causing-droughts-in-chile?utm_source=vicefbuk; The Independent. 2016. “Mexico’s Avocado Boom Causing Deforestation and Illnesses in Local Population, Experts Say.” The Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/why-you-should-stop-eating-avocados-immediately-mexico-environmental-damage-chemicals-a7397001.html.
16. Powell, Tom. “Revealed: The Enormous Carbon Footprint Linked to Eating Avocado.” Evening Standard. http://www.standard.co.uk/news/uk/revealed-the-enormous-carbon-footprint-linked-to-eating-avocado-a3591501.html
17. My translation, Metapolítica, 2019.
Read more about this research in a recently published article in BioSocieties.
Myriam Durocher is a postdoctoral researcher at Carleton University (Canada) and at the University of Sydney (Australia). Her research interests revolve around critically addressing the power relationships and issues that take form at the intersection of (healthy) food, bodies, health and environment(s). Her work so far has included questioning the social construction of ‘healthy’ food in Quebec’s (Canada) contemporary food culture and how it contributes to the (re)production of uneven relationships between human and more-than-human bodies. She currently investigates the development of practices that aim to prevent health-related risks associated with food and diet. In her work, Myriam seeks to reveal and raise awareness on the social and environmental injustices and power relationships that permeate the construction and framing of ‘healthy’ food, the ways by bodies are cared for in Western biomedicalized food cultures, and the norms, moral judgments and processes of exclusion that take form at the intersection of food, bodies and health.
Header image: Wimber Cancho via Unsplash.