Tag Archive for 'Food'

TECH3022 Lecture Summary Number Two

This is a short video that gives an overview of the topic covered in the second lecture for TECH3022 Advanced Social Media Production.

TECH3022 – Sweet Truth Campaign

I’ve finished marking the coursework blogs for TECH3022 Advanced Social Media Production. The assignment focused on developing a social media campaign that engaged a group of participants in the debate about sugar and it’s role in the obesity and diabetes epidemic.

The idea was to develop a campaign that used social media to raise awareness of the role of sugar that the way that messages about processed food are embedded in our food culture. The impact that sugar and refined and processed foods have on people has become more prominent in recent years, with a lot of attention being paid to the issues in the press, and the government announcing plans for a Sugar Tax in the last budget.

Sweet Truth Logo

Sweet Truth Logo

The campaign that was developed by the learners on TECH3022 is described and explained in their collaborative wiki post on the DMU Commons Wiki. It gives a good overview of the shift in attitudes by the learners from thinking about media as something that is predominantly industrial and focused on mass entertainment, to something that is participative and based on DIY principles.

Given the seemingly unending increase in rates of obesity and diabetes in the UK, it’s essential that we use all forms of media to form communities that are equipped and empowered to make changes in their lives, to go back to the simple skills of family cooking, and to avoid the crap that is promoted by the major food manufacturers.

While this project is limited in its scale, we’ve identified some important lessons that will help to develop projects that are better equipped and funded. After all, prevention is always better than cure.

TECH3022_15 Lecture Week Nine: Research Management Plan

This week’s lecture gives us an opportunity to review some of the central issues that we have been looking at during the previous eight weeks, and to start to build a plan so that we can research into the life-worlds of our intended communities. During the last week there has been considerable press interest in the issue of obesity and diabetes, what some newspapers are calling the ‘fat plague,’ and others describe as an ‘epidemic’. According to the BBC a report published by the McKinsey Global Institute said worldwide obesity will “cost £1.3tn, or 2.8% of annual economic activity” and the “UK £47bn.” According to the report obesity is now reaching “crisis proportions.” http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-30125440

Recently published government statistics note that between 1993 and 2012 the proportion of adults in the UK who are overweight (not just obese) increased from 57.6% to 66.6% for men, and 48.6% to 57.2% for women. http://www.hscic.gov.uk/catalogue/PUB10364

BBC-Obesity-002As The Guardian explained, according to the McKinsey report “Obesity is a greater burden on the UK’s economy than armed violence, war and terrorism, costing the country nearly £47bn a year.” http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/nov/20/obesity-bigger-cost-than-war-and-terror. The chief executive of NHS England has warned that “obesity will bankrupt the health service unless Britain gets serious about tackling the problem.” Reported in the Guardian, Simon Stevens told public health officials at a conference in Coventry that “Obesity is the new smoking, and it represents a slow-motion car crash in terms of avoidable illness and rising health care costs.” http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/sep/17/obesity-bankrupt-nhs-warning. During the same week the Mail Online reported that NICE, the National Institute for Clinical Excellence has approved the widespread use of gastric bands as a treatment for diabetes. According to the Mail Online “up to two million obese Britons will be eligible for weight-loss surgery on the NHS under new guidelines.” And that “NICE is telling doctors to suggest the operations to all patients above a given weight with type 2 diabetes.” http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2851060/Two-million-eligible-gastric-bands-operation-bill-12billion.html. Is this going to be the primary medical response to the growing number of people who are overweight or obese in the UK? According to the Mail Online, “more people are dying in Britain due to being overweight or obese than anywhere else in Europe.” “Around one in every 11 deaths in the UK is now linked to carrying excess fat – 50 per cent more than the rate in France.” http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-171497/Britains-obesity-death-rate.html. With so much interest in this issue emerging into the mainstream media, it would be useful, therefore, to review some of the ideas that we have explored in the lectures to date.

TECH3022_15-Lecture-009-Research-Management-Plan-001a-2014-11-23Western Diets The diet that has been adopted in the West, (i.e. the industrialised countries), is designed to secure a cheap supply of calorie rich and carbohydrate-loaded food. And because there is an excessive level of production of these foods, with the subsidies that are given to the food producer, it means that corn, wheat and other commodity foods are often sold for less than the cost of production. The ever onward drive towards producing seemingly new and  diversified consumer food products is based on the premise that corn, wheat and sugar are in plentiful supply. In turn this is supported by the ‘low-fat’ public health campaigns that suggest that foods that are low in fat are better for heart health and other metabolic diseases, such as hypertension and diabetes. The processed food industry has been able to market technically engineered food-like substances in massive quantities to consumers with the promise that they are healthy. However, the problem is that the Western Diet is nutritionally deficient and lacks the essential nutritional qualities to be a sustainable part of people’s healthy lives. The incidence of heart disease is not dropping, despite better medical treatments and interventions that we now have to correct the chronic problems that people end up with. There is now increasing evidence that suggests that saturated fat does not cause heart disease by increasing cholesterol levels as has been claimed for the last forty years. The lipid-hypothesis is looking shaky. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/11246112/High-fat-diets-not-as-dangerous-as-high-carbohydrate-plans-claim-scientists.html

Mail-Obesity-001Big Food The food manufacturers have invested millions of pounds over the last forty years into standardising and industrialising the food economy. This has led to a breakdown in the social infrastructure that supports tacit and community food engagement. Local traditions, passed from generation to generation, within families and local communities, are being lost at an ever-greater rate as food is designed for processing as a packaged product rather than as something that is created from basic core ingredients. By undercutting decent labour practices, squeezing suppliers to adopt mass production and farming methods, the processed food industry has generated thousands of meaningless and nutritionally deficient food-like-substances that are branded to suggest that they are healthy. Take orange juice for example. It’s effect on blood-sugar levels are virtually the same as cola, but most parents insist they are supporting the nutritional health of their children by packing a carton of juice in a lunchbox, or giving their kids a glass of orange juice with their breakfast for their. The food industry is content to leave parents in a state of ignorant bliss, not knowing the effect that sugar is having on their children, from in whatever food it is packaged up in. The big food manufacturers control the advertising of consumer products, they lobby for government policies that benefit them at the expense of consumer rights, and they attempt to control the information that is given to consumers by obfuscating the food labels that are produced with their packaged goods. The use of high levels of carbohydrates in processed foods increases the shelf-life of the products, it reduces the amount of fat in the products, and it bulks out the products so that they appear to be better value for money. But what is most important, is that this process massively increase the profits of the manufacturers who are turning out these good on an industrial scale.

insulin-01Hormonal Correction So, why is thinking about carbohydrates so important, and can’t people just eat less and exercise more if they want to stay slim? The central fallacy, often repeated by experts, doctors and nutritionists, is that all calories that go into the body are equal. As Gary Taubes points out, the common belief is that a calorie eaten must be burnt in physical activity. The problem with this hypothesis is that it is wrong. If we take different elements of food, such as protein, fat, fibre and carbohydrates, we see them acting on the body in very different ways. Eating generous portions of protein and fat will not result in weight gain under normal circumstances, and may even result in weight loss. Eating fibre is generally good for us because of the impact it has on our health as green vegetables and low-sugar fruits are loaded with micronutrients. The real culprit, it seems, are the carbohydrates that we consume. The sugars and carbohydrates that are associated with processed food are killing us. Processed food is carb-loaded and has a detrimental effect on our body’s ability to deal with high blood sugar levels. To get to grips with this problem we have to shift our thinking that weight gain is the product of greed, gluttony or sedentary lifestyles. Rather the problem is founded on the cycle of hormonal imbalances that are centred on how the body uses insulin to control fat deposits. Insulin is the key hormone for signalling to the body that it should deposit excess blood sugars as fat. In the process insulin clobbers glucogon and leptin on the head and stops them from doing their jobs. Their job is to convert fat to usable energy reserves, and to tell us to stop eating because we are full. As our insulin levels are being thrashed almost continuously because our diets are excessively loaded with carbohydrates, we enter a cycle of increasing weight gain, food addiction and a loss of energy. If we get our comprehension of this process right, therefore, then much else follows that allows us to correct the dietary imbalances and health problems that Western society is plagued with. Weight gain is not a moral issue. It is a hormonal and an environmental product.

(Here’s a useful article that explains the process) http://breakingmuscle.com/nutrition/insulin-and-glucagon-how-to-manipulate-them-and-lose-fat

Food Literacies The call for an alternative approach, then, is based on some simple and uncomplicated thinking. Local food production and distribution that puts the emphasis onto the supplier to clearly differentiate the good food from the bad. So much of the food that is sold in our supermarkets screams health claims at us, and yet they are dubious at best, and harmful at worst. So dealing with food packaging and advertising is essential. But what is lacking most are the skills and capabilities that people need to act confidently when they are cooking their own foods. Food literacies. Keeping away from processed food sounds great, but it has to be seen in the context of the busy and demanding modern lives that people lead, and the access that they have to good quality, yet affordable food resources. The lack of local grocers store in the UK is a major problem. People are forced to keep food for longer periods in their homes, so the food requires a longer shelf-life. The food production cycle since the 1950s has been one that drives down the quality and nutritional value of foods so that they last longer in the home, and yet still have a sense of satisfaction that is associated with non-processed foods. Perhaps we should look at taxing food flavourings so that processed food that is reliant on artificial chemical stimulants start to become unattractive to producers. After all has been part of the success story of eliminating smoking. Processed foods are stuffed with salt and sugar. The fat is removed to extend the shelf-life, so as to make the food seem more healthy, and to ensure that it can be transported easily. The problem is that it isn’t worth eating, it is making us sick.

Premise: Insulin Management

Key Advocates
If you want to read more about these debates and find resources, then it is worth looking at the key advocates associated with the campaign to change our food thinking:

Gary Taubes

Robert Lustig

Michael Pollan

John Yudkin

Booth & Bilton

Low-Carb-PyramidFood Pyramid What is now becoming evident is that the recommendations of the health and diet industry, that we consume a diet that is heavy in grains, cereal and pasta is no longer tenable. It is the overconsumption of these foods that has caused the problem. We therefore should be looking to adopt a different model of food distribution, such as the low-carb food pyramid. Sticking to the main groups of food that we have evolved with, such as green vegetables, fruits, fish, moderate amounts of meat, moderate amounts of dairy, plenty of unprocessed oils and fats and only occasional or few grains. Not only is this more likely to satisfy our nutritional requirements, it is also likely to leave us feeling fuller and more satisfied for longer. http://lowcarbfoodshere.com/


This Study Will So to look that the way we will develop this study, there are a couple of methodological points to note. This study will:

  • Be based on Netnographic/Qualitative Research principles.
  • Use mixed modes of constructivist qualitative data collection and interpretation such as participant observation.
  • Use reflexive critical methods to contextualise the situatedness of the re-searcher.
  • Use case studies to contrast contextual environments.

Food-Literacies-Research-Plan-001-2014-11-24Research Plan The documentation and discussion of the research plan will be undertaken on the module wiki page, and will be used to provide a framework for the investigation, the protocols and the ideas development that we need to be effective researchers.


Questions that we are going to raise include:

The Role of the Researcher:

  • What is the role of the researcher in the design?
  • How will the researcher relate and describe their own personal involvement in the research study, and what is the ongoing relationship between the researcher and the informants?
  • How will the researcher account for their involvement and how will this affect the research?
  • How will the researcher manage potential conflicts between the research role and the professional/personal roles?

As Robert Kozinets asks “is the ethnographer studying some phenomenon directly related to online communities and online culture? Or is the ethnographer interested in studying a general social phenomenon that has some related Internet group aspect? How important, or not, is the physical component that is always attached to human social behaviour?”(Kozinets, 2010, p. 63).

There are a series of questions we can think about that will help us to enter the field, such as:

  • How will the researcher gain entry to the situation being studied?
  • What are the parameters for the data collection?
  • What is the setting?
  • Who are the actors?
  • What are the events?
  • What is the process being followed?
  • What and who are being excluded from the study?

As Guimaraes Jr notes… “As Cohen points out: ‘the reality of community lies in its members’ perceptions of the vitality of its culture. People construct community symbolically, making it a resource and a repository of meaning, and a referent of their identity’” (Guimaraes Jr, 2005, p. 146). So we have to ask:

  • Why was the site chosen for study?
  • In what way does the researcher have direct access to the field they are studying?
  • How full will the researchers involvement be with the activities in the field?
  • Will the researchers professional and personal interests in the outcomes of the research direct any relationship they have with respondents?

“In order to conceptualise both the place of this group and its boundaries, I employed the idea of social environment, a symbolic space created in cyberspace through programs which allow communication between two or more users” (Guimaraes Jr, 2005, p. 148).

  • What will be done at the site during the research study?
  • How will the researcher observe, interact and collect data from informants?
  • What type of data collection will the researcher deploy?
  • Will it be disruptive?
  • How will this data collection be conducted unobtrusively and without disruption?
  • How will the researcher collect data ethically?

In undertaking our study we will be collecting data from many and multiple sources:

  • What form will any observations take? [Mixed-media recordings of discussions?]
  • What form will any interviews take? [Structured or unstructured? Recorded and annotated?]
  • What documents will be referred to? [Online media, email communications, Twitter Feeds, Facebook groups, station planning material, participant journals?]
  • What audiovisual materials will be referred to?
  • How will these activities be conducted simultaneously? [Collecting a range of data at the same time is going to be essential, how will the integrity and continuity of this data be ensured?]
  • What is to be recorded?
  • How is it going to be recorded?
  • In what way will the process of qualitative evaluation be based on data ‘reduction’ and ‘interpretation’?
  • How will the results be reported?

As John Creswell points out, “In a qualitative researcher works inductively, such as when he or she develops categories from informants rather than specifying them in advance of the research” (Creswell 1998 p.77).

Book CoverFood Literacies We are starting, therefore with a loose series of questions that we will be able to narrow and make more specific as we progress with the evidence gathering and the data collection. So our questions will take the form of the following:

  • What are the concepts of food and nutritional literacy held by agents in different [online] communities?
  • What characteristics of food and nutritional literacy are relevant to participation and experience in different types of [online] communities?
  • What are the experiences of food and nutritional literacy of agents in different types of [online] community?
  • How are the concepts of food and nutritional literacy understood by agents in different types of [online] community?
  • How do concepts of food and nutritional literacy relate phenomologically to different agents forming a [online] community?
  • What relevance do agents acting in an [online] community ascribe to their own concepts of food and nutritional literacy?
  • What can be derived from the conceptual debates between theories of food and nutritional literacy and [online] community engagement?
  • Can inferences, hypothesise and models be derived from an evaluation of participation and experience in [online] communities as a phenomenon in food and nutritional literacy?
  • To what extent, then, can the discourse of food and nutritional literacy be tested and validated, both in principle and in experience in [online] communities?

It’s important to keep in mind that the ethnographic process is founded on the study of people’s lived experiences, and the practical realities that they interact through, the ideas and actions that they seek to make sense of.

ecogastronomyeducation_1322260980_76Nothing, however, is unique or novel in this sense, most things usually have precedent characteristics and associated challenges that they share, coming together in our present sense-making activities and stories. For example, the whole issues of taking control of our food supply chain has happened before, it is nothing new that we talking here about attempting to do this. During World War Two there was a general mobilisation for food in the UK. The aim was that we would be a nation that was self-sufficient in food. This meant doing without things such as sugar, large amounts of imported flour, and other none essential basic foods. Food rationing shaped the food choices and memories of a generation, so perhaps looking at this period again would be productive for today’s generation?

If I was to sum up, therefore, the research question that we are aiming to answer at this point, it would take this form:

  • What do people do with food and nutritional literacy?
  • What do they say that they get from discussing food and nutrition, and
  • How does the use of social media change the things that they discuss and practice?

Bauman, Z. (2007). Liquid Times – Living in an Age of Uncertainty. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Bauman, Z., & May, T. (2001). Thinking Sociologically (2nd ed.). Oxford: Blackwell.
Bilton, R., & Booth, L. (2013). Know What to Eat. Formby: Supercritical.
Jenkins, H., Ford, S., & Green, J. (2013). Spreadable Media. New York: New York University Press.
Jones, R. H., & Hafner, C. A. (2012). Understanding Digital Literacies. London: Routledge.
Pollan, M. (2009). In Defence of Food. London: Penguin Books.
Schlosser, E. (2002). Fast Food Nation – What the All-American Meal is Doing to the World. London: Penguin.
Yudkin, J. (2012). Pure White and Deadly: Penguin.

Sugar: The Bitter Truth

I’ve started a YouTube playlist of videos, talks, documentaries about the sugar and carbohydrate crisis. This lecture by Robert Lustig is very clear and well explained, and ties in well with his book of the same title ‘Fat Chance: The Hidden Truth about Sugar, Obesity & Disease‘.

TECH1002_15 Lecture Week Two: Fast Food Media

This week I wanted to find a quick way of putting the forms, structures and patterns of our media culture into a shape that made it stand out because it seems strange. Using an analogy I wanted to demonstrate that the media and communication industries that we take for granted for most of the time, are in fact an industry that is structured around specific ideas of mass production, standardisation and homogenisation. Relating the media industries to the modern, Western, food industries, is a very useful way to draw attention to the artificial, constructed and contested world that we inhabit.

Food, like media is an everyday cultural practice that has great significance and importance to each of us as individuals, to us as communities, and as broader societies. As Zygmunt Bauman suggests “these matters are about our experiences and their relationship to our everyday practices, the control we have over our lives and the direction in which our societies are unfolding” (Bauman & May, 2001, p. 6). For Bauman and other students of social organisation, “the only way we can make sense of the human world around us is to draw our tools of explanations solely from within our respective life-worlds” (Bauman & May, 2001, p. 9).

Food is Culture is therefore a good place to start to think about how we interact with the world, how we interact and make sense of each other, and how we understand the mediation processes that are at play between different groups of people. As Jones and Hafner point out: ‘To learn to eat, you have to learn to use a spoon or a fork or chopsticks, which come between you and your food and facilitate the action of eating. To learn to read, you have to learn to use language and objects like books that come between you and other people and facilitate the action of communication’ (Jones and Hafner, 2012, p.2)

I posed a couple of questions and statements that we could reflect on when thinking about our relationship with food. After all, food is more than fuel.

• Food is a cultural thing. We need food, but we shouldn’t think of it simply as fuel, what about the erotic experience of eating?
• How often do we sit down for a meal with other people?
• How often do we take our time to eat?
• What choices of food do I have when I’m out? The DMU campus centre?
• I eat sitting at my desk because there is no other place that’s convenient or private, as a dedicated eating area, where I can take my own food.
• Whatever happened to dining rooms?
• Do I want to be ‘careful’ about my food continually (paranoid)?
• Do I want to be hungry most of the time, never feeling full or satisfied?
• I try to eat healthily, lots of fruit – at least five-a-day?

Indeed, we use food as a marker of significant events in our lives. We celebrate with food, we use food to comfort our egos when we feel stressed, we use food as a way of being accepted into our social networks and peer groups. My personal experience of food, and my relationship with food has changed over the year. From never thinking very much about food, to being obsessed, almost addicted to food, my weight has gone up and down. I’ve done diets. I exercise regularly and I think I eat healthily. And yet my weight is far higher than it should be, and the fat around my middle is persistent and difficult to spread. Is this just middle-aged-spread, or the consequence of eating habits that are out of synch and unbalanced?

Comfort & Emotion:
• If I had a problem I would have a drink, or a bag of crisps.
• When I would sit and write I would have crisps and caffeine for the stimulation.
• I’ve never had a sweet tooth, so avoided cakes & sweets.
• At a family celebration the sweets and cakes come out automatically.
• Look at how binge drinking is such a part of British life, it’s seen as being normal to fall about in the streets after a skin-full on a night out.


Fast Food Culture:
In Western, industrialised countries the consumption of food has taken on a highly regulated form. It’s largely based around the industrialised food production process. It’s based on products that are produced in mass-volumes, and it’s significantly reduced in nutritional value. Underpinning this processed-food culture is sugar, and the way that it is included and hidden in seemingly healthy products. As Bilton and Booth point out:

“In many cultures, with the possible exceptions of the traditional Inuit, sugar has become a ubiquitous source of pleasure and self-indulgence. Research in the new millennium has shown why many of us are hooked on sugar. There is now compelling evidence that sugar can alter our brain chemistry by the same biochemical mechanisms that drive addiction to hard drugs such as cocaine and heroin, and to a lesser extent, nicotine and alcohol. Furthermore, this effect is rein-forced by the presence of fat and salt in highly palatable sugar-rich junk foods” (Bilton & Booth, 2013, p. 32).

All of which has incurred drastic consequences for the health of people in Western countries.

“In 2000, the average American consumed an astounding 2 to 3lb of added sugar per week in their diet (USDA Economic Research Service), and Britain is not far behind with a Defra report indicating a consumption of 1.9lb per week in 2006. This is an average US consumption of 5,600 calories per week from sugar alone, and is almost three days’ worth of total calories every week with no nutritional value and the potential to gain at least 1lb of body fat per week” (Bilton & Booth, 2013, p. 35).


Hardly a week goes by now when news reports about the state of the health service crop up to alarm us about the epi-demic of obesity and diabetes that we are living through.




Where we are now, however, is unprecedented. Never before has human society, and particularly Western society, been faced with the problems of an over-abundance of food. As Bilton and Booth point out:

“Our present way of living has only become typical within the past two generations. Diets consumed in modern indus-trialised countries today have evolved considerably from those of our early Stone Age ancestors. It was the industrial revolution that completely altered our diet, along with the shift of populations from the country to towns and the limited success of town dwellers to fruits, vegetables and other fresh foods” (Bilton & Booth, 2013, p. 9).

And as a consequence, and as Michael Pollan argues:

“Rates of obesity in Europe are rapidly approaching those of the United States, and increases in diabetes and cardiovascular disease are certain to follow. This has been the sequence wherever traditional diets and ways of eating have succumbed to the modern diet of processes food” (Pollan, 2009, p. xiii).

This is a problem decades in the making, and can be traced back to the 1950s when nutritional thinking changed to focus more on the availability of saturated fats in our diets. As Michael Pollan describes:

“Beginning in the 1950s, a growing body of scientific opinion held that the consumption of fat and dietary cholesterol, much of which came from meant and dairy products, was responsible for rising rates of heart disease during the twentieth century. The ‘lipid hypothesis’, as it was called had already been embraced by the American Heart Association, which in 1961 had begun recommending a ’prudent diet’ low in saturated fat and cholesterol from animal products” (Pollan, 2009, p. 23).

There are some interesting films that are worth watching about these problems. “Food, Inc. is a 2008 American documentary film directed by Emmy Award-winning film maker Robert Kenner.] The film examines corporate farming in the United States, concluding that agribusiness produces food that is unhealthy, in a way that is environmentally harmful and abusive of both animals and employees. The film is narrated by Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser. “


  • Food is a medium.
  • Food is a cultural product.
  • The experience of sharing food is culturally mediated.
  • Western Diets have become highly industrialised.
  • Sugar, salt and processed fats form the basis of the processed diet.

Processed Food & Industrialisation:
Access to food, then, has become highly mediated. It is controlled and shaped by the large supermarket chains who don’t sell food any more, but instead offer, as Michael Pollen says, ‘Food-Like Substances’. As Pollen points out:

“The supermarket has become the only place to buy food, and real food [is] rapidly disappearing from its shelves, to be replaced by the modern cornucopia of highly processed food-like products. And because so many of these novelties lie[…] to our senses with fake sweeteners and flavourings, we c[an] no longer rely on taste or smell to know what we [are] eating (Pollan, 2009, p. 14).

We have a food system, which prioritises the following:

• Industrialised, processed, simulated, convenience, addictive.
• High-Fructose Corn Syrup
• Long-life products.
• Refined to be attractive – roughage is removed from four, etc.
• Can be stored and centralised.
• Towns used to mill flour locally, then bake it very quickly.
• With improved milling in the 18th Century, milling became more centralised, flour could be transported, stored for longer. I have flour in my cupboard that’s been there for two years. Nothing else will eat it, so why should I?
• Obsessed with low-fat – they don’t tell you there are more calories.
• Predicated on simply calorie exchange model.
• Sugar is the next tobacco.
• Pepsi and Coke sell drinks in Third-World in places with poor water supply.
• Where the western diet has been introduced, the Western diseases soon follow.

There is some suggestion that we might rethink our attitude to food and return to some basic principles. As John Yukin pointed out long before this subject became a topic of popular discussion:

“It is generally agreed that our earliest ancestors, the squirrel-like primates of some 70 million years ago, were vegetarian. They continued as vegetarians up to 20 million years ago, for they had no difficulty surviving on fruits, nuts, berries and leaves. But then the rainfall began to decrease and the earth entered a 12-million-year period of drought. The forests shrank and their place was taken by ever-increasing areas of open savannah” (Yudkin, 2012, p. 8).

This is because “in order to survive, [early humans] had to forsake the vegetarian and fruitarian existence… and change to a scavenging and hunting existence that was largely carnivorous” (Yudkin, 2012, p. 8).

So we can look at our food culture and work out to what extent it is:

• Based on standardisation – through the supply chain.
• Products are frozen, dried, canned, and stored for long periods.
• Fruit is now grown to be high in sugar, and is available all year around.
• It’s very difficult to get fresh vegetables, locally to where we live.
• Leicester market has lots of fruit stands, but a declining number of veg stands.
• Supermarkets pre-package a lot of veg. The traditional grocer has disappeared from the high-street.
• Sugar, corn syrup and other carbohydrate products are used extensively in processed foods. Extends shelf life, palatability.
• Supermarkets stack the shelves high with low-cost sweets, crisps and biscuits.

One of the origins of the culture of fast food that we are now living with is the ‘drive-in’ fast food restaurant, typified by McDonalds and other American convenience food retailers. As Eric Schlosser describes, the “southern Californian drive-in restaurants of the early 1940s tended to be gaudy and round, topped with pylons, towers, and flashing signs. They were ‘circular meccas of neon’… designed to be easily spotted from the road” (Schlosser, 2002, p. 17).

However, “at the end of the 1940s the McDonald brothers had grown dissatisfied with the drive-in business. They were tired of constantly looking for new carhops and short-order cooks – who were in great demand – as the old ones left for higher-paying jobs elsewhere. They were tired of replacing the dishes, glassware, and silverware their teenage customers constantly broke or ripped off. And they were tires of their teenage customers. The brothers thought about selling the restaurant. Instead, they tried something new” (Schlosser, 2002, p. 19).

Schlosser gives an engaging and detailed account of how “the McDonalds fired all their carhops in 1948, closed their restaurant, installed larger grills, and reopened three month later with a radically new method of preparing food. It was designed to increase the speed, lower the prices, and raise the volume of sales. The brothers eliminated almost two thirds of the items on their old menu. They got rid of everything that had to be eaten with a knife, spoon, or fork. The only sandwiches now sold were burgers, replacing them with paper cups, paper bags, and paper plates. They divided food preparation into separate tasks performed by different workers” (Schlosser, 2002, p. 19).

All of which led to “the new division of labour meant that a worker only had to be taught how to perform one task. Skilled and expensive short-order cooks were no longer necessary” (Schlosser, 2002, p. 20).

• Western industrialised diets are based on ‘food like substances’.
• Processing, standardising and extending the shelf-life increase profitability.
• Humans evolved on a very different, and more varied set of diets.
• Employing the factory system of standardisation changed food consumption.
• A small number of corporations control the food supply.

There are some immediate questions that can be asked about the combination of industrial food production processes, centralised distribution networks, and factory-like distribution points that are aimed at consumers. For example:

• To what extent is this a process of domination and domestication?
• How much of this is about lowering costs and how much is about increasing profit margins?
• When the marketing of processed food is pervasive, how to we escape from the product placements?
• Why can food-like substances that have longer shelf lives, brighter packaging be allowed to display healthy mes-sage (one of five per-day, etc.) on their labels.

The Western food industry goes to inordinate lengths to ensure that we adopt processed foods: http://www.buzzfeed.com/jobarrow/you-butter-believe-it#1zg3wau

There are embedded beliefs, despite evidence to the contrary, that
• Fat is bad for you – no evidence.
• Low-fat is good for you.
• Calorie restricted diets work.
• Maintenance and careful observance – otherwise you are ‘slothful, greedy and unsocial’.
• Exercise is one way to loose weight.
• Willpower is essential to loosing weight.

WALL-E is a 2008 American computer animated science fiction romantic comedy film produced by Pixar Animation Studios and directed by Andrew Stanton. The story follows a robot named WALL-E, who is designed to clean up an abandoned, waste-covered Earth far in the future. He falls in love with another robot named EVE, who also has a programmed task, and follows her into outer space on an adventure that changes the destiny of both his kind and humanity. Both robots exhibit an appearance of free will and emotions similar to humans, which develop further as the film progresses. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WALL-E

• People are ‘domesticated’ into following the ‘convenient’ path.
• We are conditioned to think that low-fat is good, and fat is bad.
• Exercise does not lead to weight loss on its own.
• Just wishing you are lean and fit will not make it happen.
• Are we being led into a dystopian future?

Real Food – What are the Alternatives?

Here’s a quick set of hints and tips I’ve taken from some of the writing on the sugar and processed food crisis:

“People eating the Western diet are prone to a complex of chronic diseases that seldom strike people eating more traditional diets” (Pollan, 2009, p. 140).

“The solution to the problem would appear to remain very much the same: Stop eating a Western diet” (Pollan, 2009, p. 141).

“Avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable, c) more than five in number, or that included) high-fructose corn syrup” (Pollan, 2009, p. 150).

“Avoid food products that make health claims” (Pollan, 2009, p. 154).

“Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle” (Pollan, 2009, p. 157).

“Get out of the supermarkets whenever possible” (Pollan, 2009, p. 157).

As Bilton and Booth point out: ”The word diet is most often associated with sacrifice, hunger, guilt and unhappiness. Most diets involve restricting the amount of food consumed in an attempt to reach a given body weight, and this is al-ways accompanied by cravings and feelings of hunger. Common sense should tell us that a calorie controlled diet for weight loss cannot be continued indefinitely. What happens when the diet is over and a goal weight has been reached? We all know the answer. Usually the weight lost is regained and so the cycle begins again” (Bilton & Booth, 2013, p. 221).

“Stop smoking… take exercise… eat healthily… eat the right fats…” (Bilton & Booth, 2013, p. 222).

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants” (Pollan, 2009).

While this has been a discussion about food, it has also been a discussion about media. I’ve added a couple of words to a statement from Jones & Hafner as I think it relates really well to the problems that we need to consider if we are to find a way out of the processed food/media crisis that we are facing:

“It should be clear from the above that [food] literacy is not just a matter of things that are going on inside people’s heads – cognitive processes of encoding and decoding words and sentences – but rather a matter of all sorts of inter-personal and social processes. [Food] Literacy is not just a way of making meaning, but also a way of relating to other people and showing who we are, a way of doing things in the world, and a way of developing new ideas about and solutions to the problems that face us” (Jones & Hafner, 2012, p. 12).

The question is, what would we do to enhance the skills of people when it comes to food?

Perhaps, as Henry Jenkins and others suggest “in an environment fostering spreadability, grassroots communities are embracing content from elsewhere, actively facilitating its circulation (often in advance of its commercial availability) and taking responsibility for educating their local public about its traditions and conventions” (Jenkins, Ford, & Green, 2013, p. 270).

Spreadability being those kinds of texts and media products that take on a life of their own, and which don’t sit so easily with the mass produced, corporate messages of the corporate media companies – or food producers. As Jenkins argues:

“The spreading of media texts helps us to articulate who we are, bolster our personal and professional relationships, strengthen our relationships with one another, and ‘build community and awareness around the subjects we care about. And the sharing of media across cultural boundaries increases the opportunity to listen to other perspectives and to develop empathy outside our own” (Jenkins et al., 2013, p. 304).

• There are alternatives, but they require a change of mind-set.
• Support traditional styles of eating.
• How do we avoid the yo-yo effect and achieve sustainably healthy living?
• Food literacy is essential.
• Change from the bottom-up, not the top-down.
• Awareness of others builds empathy and a sense of esteem.

Zygmunt Bauman writes a lot about the experience of living in late modernity, or what he calls ‘liquid modernity.’ Bauman suggests that:

“Individual exposure to the vagaries of commodity-and-labour markets inspires and promotes division, not unity; it puts a premium on competitive attitudes, while degrading collaboration and team work to the rank of temporary stratagems that need to be suspended or terminated the moment their benefits have been used up. ‘Society’ is increasingly viewed and treated as a ‘network’ rather than a ‘structure’ (let alone a solid ‘totality’): it is perceived and treated as a matrix of random connections and disconnections and of an essentially infinite volume of possible permutations” (Bauman, 2007, p. 2).

The consequence is that we live increasingly fragmented lives, with little security, many competing pressures to succeed and less of a safety-net to rely on. As Bauman points out: “A life so fragmented stimulates ‘lateral’ rather than ‘vertical’ orientations. Each next step needs to be a response to a different set of opportunities and a different distribution of odds, and so it calls for a different set of skills and a different arrangement of assets” (Bauman, 2007, p. 3).

This fragmentation can be seen in the way that “eating at fast food outlets and other restaurants [has become] simply a manifestation of the commodification of time coupled with the relatively low value many Americans have placed on the food they eat.” Andrew F. Smith ‘Encyclopedia of Junk food and Fast Food’ (2006).

Perhaps the final word, though, should go to Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates. “In terms of fast food and deep under-standing of the culture of fast food, I’m your man.” Bill Gates


Critical Questions:
• What if media companies are doing the same thing?
• What does real media look and feel like?
• What can we do about the totality of the system?
What skills and capabilities do we need to thrive in this system?

Bauman, Z. (2007). Liquid Times – Living in an Age of Uncertainty. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Bauman, Z., & May, T. (2001). Thinking Sociologically (2nd ed.). Oxford: Blackwell.
Bilton, R., & Booth, L. (2013). Know What to Eat. Formby: Supercritical.
Jenkins, H., Ford, S., & Green, J. (2013). Spreadable Media. New York: New York University Press.
Jones, R. H., & Hafner, C. A. (2012). Understanding Digital Literacies. London: Routledge.
Pollan, M. (2009). In Defence of Food. London: Penguin Books.
Schlosser, E. (2002). Fast Food Nation – What the All-American Meal is Doing to the World. London: Penguin.
Yudkin, J. (2012). Pure White and Deadly: Penguin.

What’s the Matter with Sugar?

How can we harness social media for the public good? That’s the question I asked today when I introduced the module I’m teaching this year, TECH3022 Advanced Social Media Production. Across Western society we are facing a whole series of pressing issues that don’t get a lot of coverage in the media, but which are important to people on a day-to day-basis.

As issues of social justice, there is growing concern that we take for granted some key aspects of our daily lives, and indeed what amounts to some of our most personal and intimate moments. There is, I believe, a growing awareness that we are no longer in control of ourselves, or able to make sense of the way that we think about some of the most basic issues that we have to deal with, especially as we try to cope with the demands that are placed on us by large corporations, marketing campaigns, governments, the medical profession, the health industry, and even pressure from our families, our friends and our fellow citizens.

I’m talking about sugar, and the mass delusion that carbohydrates are an essential part of a balanced diet. In the Western world we are part of a culture that views the mass production and processing of food as an essential way to obtain nutrition. To put it simply, mass produced and processed food is said to be good for us, but increasing evidence is telling us that it’s not.

In the Western world we are experiencing an epidemic of obesity and diabetes that is costing our health services billions of pounds to deal with. Why are people getting fat and fatter? Is it because they are greedy and lazy? Is it because they gorge themselves on cheap food and don’t do any work? Are fat people just moral shirkers who can’t exercise self control? The answer to each of these questions is no, it is not the fault of individuals that they can’t stop putting weight on or making bad choices about their diets.

Many of us, like myself, exercise intensively on a regular basis, but still don’t see any benefit on the bathroom scales, so something else must be going on. And after reading books by Michael Poolan, Gary Taubes, John Yudkin and others, I’ve come to see that food and the way that we package and process food is essentially exploitative.

The Western industrial food production model does a number of things. It exploits the animals that it turns into burgers. It exploits the land that the cattle and crops are grown on by decimating their nutritional value. It exploits the workers who are attempting to make a living and demonises their trade unions, making people work in harsh and insecure workplaces, while accepts little responsibility for the welfare of those employees. Lastly, this system exploits us, the consumer.

As consumers we are said to have almost limitless choice, but the truth is that we have few alternatives to the carbohydrate rich food model. We have to go with the flow and accept what the major food producers, drinks manufacturers and supermarkets want to foist on us. Try telling your friends that you are having a high fat diet and they will insist – mostly because they are concerned – that you are deluded and that you can’t possibly expect a diet without starchy food to be good for you. The peer pressure that we face is immense, the limited range of choices that we have are getting narrower, and the whole system of food production is designed around the carbohydrates that the food industry churn out, but which are doing so much damage.

So in my lecture today I asked learners to think about the way that their food is replete with carbohydrates and sugars, and to think about how they are sold to us as if they are automatically healthy, i.e., sunshine in a glass! How much sugar would we expect in our food, other than that which we add directly ourselves?

Over the next few months, we are going to look at this in some detail, and we are going to experiment and test out some ideas about how social media can be used to spread the message that the levels of sugar that we have in our diet are going to kill us. I’m going to keep a regular blog about this, hopefully a couple of times each week. I’ll post my lecture notes and any links to sites and stories I think are interesting. Let me know what you think about this on Twitter, it would be great to read about your experiences of giving up sugar and getting off the processed food treadmill.

What are the pressing issues of social justice in society?
What are the challenges of living in our modern society?
What do we need to think about and understand about ourselves in order to solve some of these social issues?


Standardistation Isn’t Innovation


I’m reading Eric Schlosser’s book Fast Food Nation about the rise of the junk food industry in America and how the multinational corporations have taken over the global market in food for themselves. Schlosser describes in vivid detail how the McDonalds fast food chain pioneered the use of production line techniques in their restaurants in order to drive down employment costs. Rather than employing chefs and ‘carhops’ the kitchen was divided into units of production, with ‘team members’ working one section only and working to a proscribed set of routines. This factory model has been used in numerous other places and industries since. According to Schlosser, Walt Disney’s innovation was to turn the art studio into a production line for his animations. Subsequently everything from tele-sales to dentists to funeral care has been standardised and homogenised.

In higher education at the moment there is a drive towards the standardisation and industrialisation of learning. The model is similar to the McDonalds principle of management, you have a set of highly trained and motivated managers who are given a set of clear instructions and routines that they must enforce – in this case in the name of academic quality – and then reduce the skill levels of all the subordinate contributors. So there is no individual academic judgement to be made about the performance of learners, rather academics work towards an algorithm that churns out a degree classification at the end of a students studies. Higher education isn’t much different now than the fast food industry. We are in show business. We find out what the dreams, hopes and desires are of our market and we turn it to our advantage, much in the same way that the processed food industry sells us health by making us by products that are making us fat and giving us diabetes.

And yet, the result of all this standardisation has actually been counterproductive – for ordinary people at least. For the corporations it has embedded their power as a corporate oligarchy and driven their profit margins ruthlessly. Even in times of crisis the corporations can’t fail because they have socialised risk to the rest of us. But working peoples income hasn’t risen over the last forty years. We feel richer because more of us work, and we have access to more credit, but the proportion of wealth that goes back to working people continues to decline.

So all of this makes me wonder, why are we so inthrall to the process of standardisation and centralisation that the corporate management model promotes? On the one hand we have the marketing people telling us it’s all about choice, but then the only places that you can get a coffee is Starbucks, or to get something to eat is McDonalds or to buy your groceries is Tesco, who only supply a limited range of foods anyway. Obviously something isn’t working or we’d all be getting fitter and healthier, spending more time dedicating our lives to higher pursuits and enjoying the families and friends that we are bonded to. Instead we are running around trying to pay the bills, to compete and keep up with our neighbours and to keep hold of our jobs by being compliant and following the charismatic corporate leaders we are told have all the answers.

The process of standardisation has to be obdurately resisted, then, and only then, might we create some space for some real innovation to happen.