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Against Healthist Fermentation: problematizing the 'good' of gut health and ferments

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Despite its history, fermentation is currently celebrated as both a food and health intervention. In the context of healthist discourses, fermentation is no exception to the sticky reaches of singular food truths: eat this, not that, because "it's good for you[r gut]." However, the mandate to eat fermented or probiotic foods requires time, know-how, and material resources that are not accessible to all who eat. This framing of fermentation also fails to account for the multiplicity of health needs and ignores other barriers to food/health access. By privileging self-reliance (e.g. "I don't buy bread; I bake my own") and control (over one's body, over microbial life), fermentation practices enable a culinary stance of moral superiority, which reinforce a healthist paradigm that it claims to subvert. This paper examines healthist fermentation, or pursuing fermentation in the name of gut health, to problematize assumptions about choice and control in fermentation contexts. It argues that health is not a fixed state but rather enacted with more-than-human agencies and (re)negotiated at every eating event. Using a combination of approaches from critical food studies, feminist theories, and communication studies, this paper analyzes fermentation as a way to reimagine health as being co-constructed with other scales of life.
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Journal of Critical Dietetics
ISSN 1923-1237
Vol 5, Issue 1
Copyright 2020
Toront o , O N
Against healthist fermentation: Problematizing the ‘good’ of
gut health and ferments
By: Maya Hey
Abstract
Despite its history, fermentation is currently celebrated as both a food and health intervention. In the context of healthist
discourses, fermentation is no exception to the sticky reaches of singular food truths: eat this, not that, because “it’s good for
you[r gut].” However, the mandate to eat fermented or probiotic foods requires time, know-how, and material resources that
are not accessible to all who eat. This framing of fermentation also fails to account for the multiplicity of health needs and
ignores other barriers to food/health access. By privileging self-reliance (e.g. “I don’t buy bread; I bake my own”) and control
(over one’s body, over microbial life), fermentation practices enable a culinary stance of moral superiority, which reinforce
a healthist paradigm that it claims to subvert. This paper examines healthist fermentation, or pursuing fermentation in the
name of gut health, to problematize assumptions about choice and control in fermentation contexts. It argues that health
is not a fixed state but rather enacted with more-than-human agencies and (re)negotiated at every eating event. Using a
combination of approaches from critical food studies, feminist theories, and communication studies, this paper analyzes
fermentation as a way to reimagine health as being co-constructed with other scales of life.
SPECIAL ISSUE
Introduction
This paper examines the baseline assumptions around
fermentation particularly when it is practiced as a food
or health intervention because they fuel reductionist and
universalist ideas about health. This form of fermentation
praxis—what I am calling healthist fermentationdeparts
from the historical necessity of preserving nutrients
that would otherwise spoil and, instead, focuses on the
added-value that fermentation confers to foods, such
as improved digestibility or a more ‘authentic’ taste
or ‘cooking’ method. By seeking ferments for their
essentialized traits, healthist fermentation continues to
support narrow definitions of what is nutritious, healthy,
and ‘good’ and, as a result, can limit our understanding
of how health is co-constructed with others.
Healthism, as defined by Robert Crawford (1980),
frames health as being attainable through changes in
lifestyle choices and positions personal health as a
primary mode of achieving wellness. A similar fixation
on health can be seen in the current hype surrounding
fermentation, fermented foods, and gut health. For
example , probiotics like Bio-K+® have been institutionally
prescribed to combat hospital-acquired Clostridium
difficile infections while also being commercially available
at drug stores in Quebec (Bio-K+®, About us, 2019).
In a recent article about food cravings, the Bio-K+®
blog explains the scientific research that correlates
gut flora and appetite, hinting at the promising future
of probiotics: “efforts are now going to be looking at
ways to over-ride these unhealthy urges by altering the
gut microbiome with beneficial supplementation and
proper food recommendations. The good news is, it
won’t take you years or even months to regain control of
your cravings” (Bio-K+®, 2018, emphasis added). While
a surface reading of this article could accept it as a
piece of soft marketing, the ideological underpinnings
of this messaging point to problematic ideas of health:
first, that cravings are categorically labeled as ‘unhealthy
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urges’ because they fall outside the scope of human
control; second, that longstanding failure to control
one’s cravings is something to ‘regain,’ overcome, and
instantaneously fix; and, third, that supplementation is
believed to be universally beneficial when it can just
as easily upset homeostatic balance. By positioning
probiotics as an interventionone that can be
prescribed or purchased—health is framed in terms
of supplementation with particular microbial strains
or, in this case, commercial products carrying those
strains. Reducing probiotics to a function perpetuates
the formulaic ‘checklist approach’ to health and renders
fermentation a ‘food-based’ and ‘natural’ tool to be used
to attain health.
While the Bio-K+® narrative is problematic in its own
right, the greater hype surrounding fermentation and gut
health reinforce the twin myths of control and choice
as determinants of health. Sources of fermentation
knowledge range from medical professionals to media
influencers who use their expertise or ratings to validate
ferments as food that is ‘good’ and ‘healthy,’ echoing the
ideas of reductive nutritionism articulated by Gyorgy
Scrinis (2015). These voices highlight the need for the
‘right’ bacteria in one’s diet, which are the presumed
answer to the combined failure of poor control (over
one’s cravings, over one’s diet, over one’s microbiome)
and its concomitant negative health outcomes.
Especially in a neoliberal and capitalistic context, these
voices assume that all people have equal opportunity
and willpower to attain health as if executable, absolute,
or guaranteed. The presumption of choice and (self )
control even reaches the point where some gut
researchers insist on individual agency to change their
microbiomes because of, not in spite of, the biological
determinism of genomes: “Since there is much we can
do to shape the environment within our guts, we have
control over our microbiota and can compensate for
the lack of control we have over our human genome”
(Sonnenburg and Sonnenburg, 2015, p. 209). However,
by upholding the myths of choice and control, healthism
ignores the structural and interpersonal barriers of race,
class, gender, and other forms of embodied difference,
thereby exacerbating existing inequalities.
I follow the critique of Metzl and Kirkland (2010) in
that “‘health’ is a term replete with value judgments,
hierarchies, and blind assumptions that speak as much
about power and privilege as they do about well-
being” (p. 1-2). In particular, I challenge the notion that
fermentation is an unproblematic good, to shed light
on the “set of moral assumptions that are allowed to
fly stealthily under the radar” (p. 2) in the context of
fermentation practices. While my argument is situated in
the North American foodscape/mediascape1, it may not
necessarily be contained within the geographic confines
of North America proper. That said, what spills over
from different regional contexts may actually indicate the
spread and reach of ideological influence. Additionally,
I critique both commercially available ferments as well
as the individual practices of fermentation because
they operate from the same anthropocentric origin of
viewing the microbe as an entity to expend.
Using a combination of approaches from critical food
studies, feminist thought, and communication studies,
this paper will first explain fermentation as a food
intervention and a health intervention before critically
examining its consequences when practiced in pursuit of
healthism. Included in this discussion is a critical analysis
of the figure of a DIY Fermenter, or one who chooses
to make and do fermentation themselves instead of
relying on institutional, professional, or industrial bodies.
Rounding out the discussion is a proposal to move
away from healthist fermentation, namely through the
consideration of relationality and working with microbes
to co-construct health. Given the interdisciplinary
nature of food studies and critical dietetics, this paper
draws upon multiple sets of literatures, including the life
sciences, social sciences, humanities, and mass media.
Although this may seem jarring or disparate, they are
meant to be compounding because medical concerns
are intricately tied in with social struggles, ideological
issues, and current affairs.2 Intentionally weaving these
concerns stems from the inherent complexity of food
as well as our bodies, which, taken together, call for the
foregrounding of intersectionality, interdependency,
and multiplicity instead of universalism, autonomy, and
singularity. With this in mind, I take seriously Metzl and
Kirkland’s salient reminder that “our own health depends
in part on our value judgments about others” (p. 2),
and it is in this spirit that I hope the following analyses
will help counter the hegemony of an overinflated Self as
seen in anthropocentric thought. I aim to problematize
how fermentation is discussed and practiced, with the
1 Appadurai (1990) describes five -scapes (of which mediascape is
one) in order to chart the interrelated flow of materials/ideas on
a global scale. Freidberg (2010) defines foodscape as “the actual
sites where we find food.”
2 See Annemarie Mol’s work on the composite (2016), in
which disparate worlds (of agriculture, cuisine, nutrition, and
sensuousness) ‘hang together’ in a foodstuff (she takes up the
French dessert clafoutis).
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hopes that it might lead to a more nuanced rendering
of how people, foods, and microbes can together to
enact health.
Fermentation:
From a Necessity to a Choice Intervention
Fermentation is a process of transformation, both
materially and symbolically, due to the work of microbes
such as bacteria, molds, and yeasts. Throughout history
and across geographic regions, fermentation has been a
common method of food preservation when seasonal
harvests yielded abundant ingredients; in turn, the
resulting ferment would secure nutrients for times of
dear th (Steinkraus, 2002). For many societies, fermenting
food was coupled with composting so that soil biomes
could be propagated for future seed sowing. Some of
the earliest instances of fermented foods include Roman
garums, Egyptian beers, and rice wines, often thought
to confer spiritual and/or medicinal benefits (Mouritsen
et. al, 2017; Armelagos, 2000; Terada, 2007). Preparing
ferments built a sense of community and ritualized
prac tice (di Schino, 2011), while their consumption helped
inform in-group and out-group identities at national
scales (e.g., we/they are the people who eat these/
those foods). In this sense, fermentation simultaneously
supported multiple forms of health, not just biochemical
compounds that optimized one’s physiology.
Despite its history, fermentation is currently celebrated
as an intervention to subvert the industrial food system
and the industrial health complex. Eric Holt Giménez
and Annie Shattuck refer to the current food system
(since the 1980s) as the “corporate food regime,”
which operates in the neoliberal mindset of economic
liberalism, free-market forces, and monopoly-driven
enterprises (2011, p. 115). Whereas the corporate food
regime saturates the market with identical, refined, and
processed commodities, fermentation allows for diverse
flavors and preparations on the consumers’ terms. In
other words, fermentation allows the neoliberal subject
to reclaim what has been taken away from them
via industrialization, including nutrients, taste, or even
social status.
One might also see a similar reclamation in the way that
fermentation can combat the medical system. Where
conventional medicine falls short, ferments are praised
for their elixir-like qualities, dating as far back as the early
20th century with Russian scientist Élie Metchnikoff
who theorized that proactively consuming lactic acid
bacteria could neutralize toxins in the gut and delay
aging (Gilbert et al., 2012; see for instance Vandenbergh,
1993, p.232 and del Rio et al., 2014, on the use of lactic
acid bacteria as an oral tuberculosis vaccine). In more
recent examples, personal testimony evokes the idea
of holistic health, both in the sense of mind-and-body
and in an ecological sense. GT Kombucha, one of the
earlier kombucha enterprises that started in California,
infuses his beverage designs with the spiritualism of what
founder GT Dave calls “an Eastern spiritual perspective”
after having spent childhood visits at ashrams in India,
consulting the blessings of a holy man to cure family
ailments (Dave, n.d.). The founder’s mother, Laraine
Dave, believes that her cancer was cured because of
the beverage, citing its ability to “turbo-boost” the
immune system (Foster, 20 March 2015). Other brands
and blogs tout kombucha’s ability to improve inefficient
digestion, thereby mitigating the ecological footprint on
the planet’s edible resources because it curbs appetite
(Crum and Lagory, 22 April 2011).3
As both a food intervention and a health intervention,
fermentation sets up the causal relation that ‘eating
ferments’ leads to ‘better status’ physiologically, socially,
or economically, making it an uncontested good
to pursue. This relationship gains momentum with
each enunciation by medical professionals and food
influencers, who expound upon ferments’ benefits such
as bioavailable nutrients and improved digestibility. In
the case of sourdough bread, longer fermenting times
help Lactobacilli degrade wheat gluten, minimizing
discomfort in non-Celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). Both
kimchi and sauerkraut have considerable amounts of
bioavailable iron because the bacteria that help preserve
these ferments also produce ascorbic acid. Although
vegan sources of vitamin B12 are few, fermenting with
the bacterium Propionibacterium freudenreichii may
provide a new way to produce B12 on a non-animal
growth medium, such as fava beans or grains. Each
of these ferments serves a nutritional function to
the eater. What I am calling healthist fermentation
refers to this myopic view of ferments as a functional
food or tool, capable of delivering specific nutrients
or metabolites, including their preparation and
consumption, for the explicit purposes of supplementing
one’s physiological makeup.
3 Presumably, one might pursue fermentation only for the ludic
pleasure of taste. But, even then, the resources required to make
the ferment (e.g. time, ingredients, equipment) may indicate
affluence, privilege, and the freedom to choose to ferment.
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As an intervention, healthist fermentation is seen as
a site of personal activism for doing something about a
food/medical system that is perceived to be broken. It
places agency back on the individual subject, especially
those who can afford to participate in these seemingly
subversive behaviors. It is precisely this emphasis on
doing (or, the “do” in do-it-yourself directives) that
mobilize those who are most able.
A Closer Look at the Twin Myths
of Healthist Fermentation: Choice
and Control
In the context of healthism, fermentation is no exception
to the sticky reaches of prescriptive food claims: eat this,
not that because, as the logic goes, ‘it’s good for you[r
gut].’ Often, these claims have been decontextualized,
epitomizing what Alissa Overend (2018) calls “singular
food truths”, which deliberately promote “a misguided,
one-dimensional understanding” of foods’ complexity,
such that “there are no static or intrinsic truths to a food’s
healthfulness” but are rather dependent on circumstance
and context. Backed by the legitimacy of science and
testimony, current narratives oversimplify fermentation
into dualistic terms, mobilizing binaries such as good/bad
bacteria and objective/subjective (food) knowledge to
selectively promote a healthist agenda. These messages
reveal a metanarrative that casts microbes for their utility
in relation to the human eater—that is, the essentialized
microbe is either fed or eliminated for the purposes of
human health.4 For instance, as E. Melanie Dupuis notes,
the yogurt brand Dannon changed the scientific name
of probiotic species Bifidobacterium lactis DN-173- 010
to “Bifi dus Regularis” in or der to emphasi ze the purpor ted
health outcomes to be expected after intake (2015,
p. 142). This rebranding subtly advertises regular
bowel movements when the yogurt is consumed
4 In a Google N-gram of the terms ‘probiotics’ and ‘prebiotics’,
both terms have similar increases in usage in the late 20 th century,
but the latter term delayed by about twenty years. Perhaps this
lag can be explained by the initial fixation on the probiotics
as a model inter vention, only to recognize that probiotics’
effectiveness is dependent on its feed (i.e., prebiotics).
Figure 1: “Daughter Tells Mom To Try It” Television Commercial by The Dannon Company, Inc., aired on August 20,
2006, 8:41AM. Source: U.S. Federal Trade Commission, File number: 0823158.
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(see Figure 1). In 2009, Dannon Company was sued for
“deceptive claims” and “exaggerated health benefits”
because the efficacy of their Bifidus Regularis strains
could not be substantiated by human clinical trials (FTC,
4 February 2011). While the case of Dannon yogurt
might be an extreme case of a singular food truth,
similar messages permeate health communications and
cast microbes for their utility and function.
While it may be easy to think of ‘friendly bacteria’ as
being helpful and ‘bad bacteria’ as pathogenic, these
good/bad labels are not fixed. They depend on context5
These categorizations set up the mistaken notion that
we-humans can control microbes (we cannot) and
renders fermentative food practices as being formulaic:
“right” bacteria “right” food
“right” food “right” eating
eating “right” health
Following this syllogism, then, maximizing the intake of
the ‘right’ bacteria makes for optimal health. However,
a number of counter-examples come to mind. First, the
intake of probiotics does not guarantee that the bacteria
will reach the intestines. They may die along the way
due to the acidity of the stomach, unless covered in
a protective coating or in a fat-based micelle (Shori,
2017). Or, in the case of probiotic drinks in East Asia
(e.g. Yakult), which have recently gained popularity in
North American markets, cer tain ingredients that make
the beverage more marketable can actually threaten the
viability of the live, active cultures. Their use of sugar
alcohols (i.e., polyols) may make the product cheaper or
more palatable, but sugar alcohols can also compromise
the desired bacteria (Rapaille et al., 2003). Even when
ferments are not consumed for their live, active cultures,
they are sometimes consumed for their metabolites or
particular enzymes. Wine consumption, for instance, is
often p romoted for resver atrol, cited to b e ‘good’ for ant i-
aging. However, the yeasts that produce this compound
also produce sulfates as a secondary metabolite, which
is associated with headaches or other irritations. Each
of these examples contain contradictions of good/bad
outcomes from consuming a single ferment: drinking
the ‘right’ drink does not guarantee intestinal delivery,
drinking the ‘right’ drink may also contain ingredients
that kill the ‘right’ bacteria, or drinking the ‘right’ drink
contains the ‘wrong’ by-product. These contradictions
5 Consider the bacteria Lactobacillus delbrueckii. They are hailed as
‘friendly’ and ‘health-affirming’ when found in probiotic yogur ts;
however, they are considered ‘bad’ in beer production and
pathogenic in instances of urinar y tract infections (UTI)..
evince the reductionist thinking that health can be
attained in a piece-meal fashion, following what Jessica
and Allison Hayes-Conroy’s critique as “reductionist
understandings of nourishment,” privileging “universal
metrics — calories, nutrients, and so on — redefining
‘food’ (at least for health purposes) to be the sum of
these standard parts” (2013, p. 1, original emphasis).
Health is not—and cannot become—a checklist
of nutrients.
This framing of fermentation fails to account for the
multiplicity of health needs, ignoring the structural
barriers to food/health access, even exacerbating the
medicalizing and consumerist logic that fuels probiotic
or fermented food industries. Concurrently, the value
of incorporating fermented foods into one’s diet seem
tautological or self-evident, referring to the historical
legacy of fermentation practices as a façade for validity
(it works) and reliability (it’s been working). Although
many cookbooks, blogs, and periodicals are quick to
list various ferments, their recipes, their countries of
origin, and the curative compound it may contain, few
elaborate on the time, know-how, space, and materials
required to prepare these foods. Time considerations
are notewor thy because the justification to industrialize
many foodstuffs was in speeding up and making
consistent the fermentation process (e.g. bread, coffee,
cheese, miso).6
Thus, fermentation mobilizes the privileged subject
to take matters of food literally back into their hands
and reorient agency back into their body, but only those
who can afford to do so. This follows what Kate Cairns
and Josée Johnston (2015) have termed the “do-diet”
in its ability to rephrase restrictive dietary advice
into positive choices (e.g. “Do eat smart after dark).
Similarly, it seems that healthist fermentation focuses on
the positive benefits of choosing ferments, the extreme
case of which is do-it-yourself fermentation discussed in
the next section.
By framing health as a voluntary endeavor, ability elides
with morality where rule-abiding can quickly slip into
rule-enforcing. As Charlotte Biltekoff (2013) reminds us,
“nutrition is not only an empirical set of rules, but also a
system of moral measures” (p. 180). This moral system
tends to conflate individual health outcomes with public
health objectives, that to attain membership in healthy
6 Here, one might recall the concept of “gastro-anomie” put for th
by Claude Fischler (1979) in which a depar ture from ‘traditional
ferments to industrialized ones reflects an alienating shift from
fermenting-out-of-necessity to fermenting-as-choice.
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communities means that one must achieve moral and
physiological uprightness (see also LeBesco, 2010).
Deborah Lupton (1999) notes a historical shift at the
end of the 19th century, when the individualistic humoral
model of health (e.g. blood, yellow bile) was replaced by
dietary guidelines meant to surveille and regulate diet at
the population level, “as bodies became recognized as
productive machines, vital to the military and economic
interests of the state” (p.72). The language used in these
guidelines (and that of nutrition science, in general),
“draws upon moral sub-texts around bodily discipline
and the importance of self-control” (p.74). The
observations of Geneviève Rail and Natalie Beausoleil
(2003) echo that of Lupton and Biltekoff that “the desire
to achieve health has become a new form of corporeal
(self) control and guilt has become intimately tied to an
individual’s failure to achieve it.” Subsequently, the stance
of moral superiority perpetuates its corollary: that to not
have stellar health is to have somehow failed on the level
of personhood (versus acknowledging structural barriers
and actively dismantling them), without any regard to
the differences, both embodied and imposed. Indeed,
as Richard Wilk (2001) notes, “moral pronouncements
about consumption are inevitable, but not that they are
arbitrary; on the contrary, they are highly patterned,”
often deployed to justify or rationalize class differences
or social inequalities (p.250). Fermentation’s shift
from necessity towards choice reflects a certain social
mobility and class privilege, asymptotic to the power and
status conferred to “omnivorous” foodies (Johnston and
Bauman, 2010) or by gaining culinary capital (Naccarato
and LeBesco, 2012). Both concepts build on Bourdieu’s
notion of distinction (1979), such that taste (attitudes)
and food practices (behaviors) can both uphold and
disrupt class-based hierarchies. They can also conceal
the privilege and capital required to par take in such
culinary practices and keep them firmly rooted as
‘benign’ practices.
In the next section, I take up the character of the DIY
Fermenter as a heuristic to better unravel the power
relations and agency in which this archetype participates.
In so doing, I hope to show that even the seemingly
counter-hegemonic behaviors of DIY Fermenters
strengthen the very system it tries to disrupt.
A Closer Look at the DIY Fermenter
Unlike the commercialization and mass production of
food commodities, fermentation champions the do-it-
yourself (DIY) ethos, the populist spirit of sharing, and
the handmade care that goes into small-scale, or ‘craft
production.7 DIY Fermenters situate their practice
as a way to counter normative food practices (such
as buying) with making their own; in so doing, they
conflate the poor choices of purchasing with the poor
health outcomes of a food. Even foodwriters report
the commercially leavened breads at the market to
be fake and suggest DIY fermentation as its solution:
“How can you avoid this sourfaux? You can check the
ingredients, of course […]. Or, you could just make it
yourself” (Daoust, 2018). Here, personal action—and
the required to take it—epitomizes individual merit
and overcoming food, health, or taste barriers. Thus,
by privileging self-reliance (I don’t buy bread; I bake my
own), the DIY Fermenter can claim culinary and moral
superiority, which is based on the flawed assumption
of universal agency and meritocracy. This assumption
enables the privilege of choice “to stealthily fly under
the radar” while contradicting its façade of positive
action, reinforcing a healthist paradigm that it claims
to subvert. This seemingly contradictory outcome
can be seen in the argument of Hayes-Conroy and
Blankenship (2017) on capitalist coasting. The authors
use archetypes of the flâneur, hot-rodder, and slow
food activist to examine how each archetype carries
“privileged mobility,” or effortless social positioning
due to an unearned advantage (p. 191). How they cope
with capitalism produces both reinforcing and resistant
structures for/against capitalism. For instance, the slow
food activist, defined as “someone who recognizes the
transformative power of local culinary adventures,” who
“takes the time to eat ‘right,’” ensures that no harm is
done by their food choices but, in so doing, reinforces
the requirement of consumer citizenship (p. 188). The
DIY Fermenter could be considered a similar archetype
in that the fermenter resists commercially processed
or mass-produced foods; but, in so doing, they also
reinstate the neoliberal myth that one can make/do/eat
their way out of capitalistic confines.
In addition to reinforcing the system that it tries to
reject, two additional unintended consequences
emerge around the DIY Fermenter: one is engaging
with subjugated knowledges unreflexively, and the other
is perpetuating an explicitly anthropocentric approach
to health.
7 See the work of Wilkinson-Weber and DeNicola (2016) on the
problematic use of the term ‘craft’, particularly around who is
granted access to the world of craft production and who benefits
economically from participating.
18
Implied in the DIY Fermenters’ behaviors is the desire
for ‘returning to’ a kind of fermentation praxis from
a pre-commercial food era, which itself assumes that
there once was a time of ‘rightful’ eating from which
we have erroneously departed. This may appear in a
return to analog techniques (i.e., handmade), a return
to using old (i.e., pre-industrial) ingredients, or even
a return to original or ‘authentic’ contexts to prepare
and consume a ferment (i.e., ‘local’; see also Dupuis
and Goodman, 2005). Perhaps most dangerous in the
evocation of “returning to” is the nostalgia towards a
bucolic but imaginary past, one that overlooks legacies
of resource extraction. According to Julie Guthman
(2008), alternative food practices tend to romanticize
agrarianism, which erases the explicitly racist ways in
which land has been distributed historically. The resulting
color-blindness creates a double violence whereby the
history of racist oppression is erased and this erasure
reinforces white privilege.
Furthermore, the valorization of the (often colored,
gendered) labor dismisses the longstanding structural
barriers, exploitation, and histories of oppression of
those who prepare ferments out of obligation. Although
the DIY Fermenter positions their foodmaking as being
a gesture of health, of care, or even distinction, their
practices depart from the necessity or expectation of
having to prepare ferments, sometimes daily, for hungry
families. While I do not mean to imply that DIY practices
trivialize the lived experiences of these foodmakers, I
become weary when the recipes and know-how from
these foodmakers are decontextualized (often by the
privileged or, to borrow a phrase from Lisa Heldke, by
food adventurers) and subsequently used for commercial
gain, without acknowledgement or remuneration.
Heldke elaborates on the dangers associated with seeing
Others as a resource, like when their cuisines become
commodifiable for the food adventurer to consume:
“we objectify the Other, in order that we may use them
and their possessions (literal and figurative) to enhance
our own lives—economically, culturally, socially. For in
the end, it is about us. The Other is interesting and
important insofar as he or she serves to illuminate me,
to render my life in the world more authentic” (2003,
p.48, original emphasis).8 When the DIY Fermenter
8 Heldke’s argument is wor th quoting in full, for she makes clear
the blind assumptions we have about food, food’s availability, and
Other’s foods that are available for the colonizers’ taking: “ [W]
e tend to see food as the sor t of thing one would always have
access to, as a matter of course. Who would ever wonder if
they have the right to eat another culture’s cuisine, for heaven’s
sake? While we might think twice before tr ying on someone
attends (or worse, hosts) a fermentation workshop,
I am left to wonder whose knowledge is capitalized
upon, to what ends, and to whose benefit? When the
DIY Fermenter doles out knowledge with impunity (as
if it is theirs to authenticate), questions of ownership
and ethical transfers problematize the power relations
of who is speaking for whom (Alcoff, 1991). At the
same time, providing ‘traditional’ or historically rooted
fermenters with platforms to share their expertise can
risk tokenizing them because they embody both their
social differences and distinct knowledges.
Given the current revival of fermentation in popular
culture, the circulation of fermentation know-how
provides fruit ful ground for questioning whose knowledge
is being validated and whose is silenced. In an attempt
to show whose expertise is more valid, the cacophony
of expert voices ends up amplifying discourses around
authenticity, exoticism, and the politics of alterity. When
food adventurers extract and abstract subjugated
knowledges, the encounter is framed as ‘exchanges’ and
‘substitutions.’ These instances of decontextualization
permit those with the most social mobility the loudest
platform while also circumventing the social and ethical
accountability that ought to come when encountering
Others. Perhaps the DIY Fermenter’s attempts to
commodify Others’ fermentation cultures stems from
what bell hooks (1992) terms “eating the Other,” such
that the “over-riding fear is that cultural, ethnic, and racial
differences will be continually commodified and offered
up as new dishes to enhance the white palate—that the
Other will be eaten, consumed, and forgotten” (p. 39).
But it is precisely this kind of excitement and ‘spicing up’
that can be found in the current hype of fermentation.
Commodifying the fermentation cultures of Others
allows for difference and foreignness to be overlooked
because their health benefits are foregrounded, but
overlooked in a way that renders embodied difference
(and its attendant social relations) to remain hidden.9
else’s religious beliefs, or buying their archaeological treasures,
or perhaps even playing their instruments, we tend to see as
just food—not the sort of thing that needs protecting, or that
can be harmed in any way by someone else eating it or cooking
it. We don’t need to overcome any compunctions about eating
the food of the Other, because, where food is concerned, no
compunctions exist […]. Given these connections, it is possible
for the glib borrowing of foods engaged in by food colonizers
to constitute a form of injury to another culture” (2003, 45-46,
original emphasis).
9 Admittedly, not all cross-cultural fermentation ventures take
advantage of otherness. Consider Japanese koji production
in fine-dining restaurants of Copenhagen (Redzepi and Zilbur,
2018), kimchi introduced to Le Cordon Bleu schools in France as
19
I do not mean to suggest that all DIY Fermenters
participate in these problems out of malicious intent
or hidden agendas. (Just as well, I recognize my own
complicity in pursuing ferments for the sake of better
health.) However, what I aim to call attention to is a
more reflexive consideration of relationality with
other species or, to phrase differently, to attend to
collective consequences of individualist pursuits of
health. In the final section, I examine relationality with
microbial species in order to reimagine health as being
co-constructed with other scales of life.
Moving Away from Healthist Fermentation
As I have argued thus far, the prescription of ferments sets
up an impossible (and therefore insidious) conundrum:
achieve health through full control, when control can
never be absolute. Although healthist fermentation
ideologies may lead us to believe that we can control
microbes and commandeer them at will, microbial
resistance is a sobering reality that is already underway
(e.g. antibiotic resistance). Many of us may not readily
think of the human-microbe relationship, but healthist
fermentation frames this relationship on asymmetrical
terms by casting the microbe as a resource to accumulate,
consume, and dispose. These messages capitalize on
the invisibility of both the microbes themselves (e.g.
how do we know that microbes are in the ferment?)
as well as their effects inside the intestines (e.g. how
do we know that the microbes are active inside the
body?), often relying on the affective pull of testimony
(I feel better!) and/or the deductive reasoning of science
(This is “Truth”) as evidence for making fermentation
an imperative. In other words, the merit of ferments
relies on reductionism (this works because of X ) and
categorization (these work, not those) for their messaging
to catalyze the social politics of moral one-upmanship.
Healthist fermentation suggests that health is a fixed
destination at which one can arrive only if having eaten
‘right’. Much of that agency is oriented in the individual
human who can exercise power over food and microbe
to prepare ferments. Yet, ferments remain dynamic and
unpred ictable , largely beca use of the liveliness of mic robial
life and their susceptibility to ambient environments. As
E. Melanie Dupuis writes: “fermentation will always be
dangerous because it troubles, with its messy dynamism,
a form of gastrodiplomacy (Kim, 2012), or the Bulgarian yogurt
industry in Japan (Yotova, 2013). While these instances are not
completely non-innocent, some level of consent and institutional
agreements enabled them to happen as a star ting point for
considering what ethical exchange could look like.
the ingestive imaginary of freedom as choice and
control” (2015, p. 143). To put simply, ferments cannot
be made by will and ingredients alone; fermentation
requires working with—not on— microbial life.
Fermentation decenters the human from loci of power
of which healthism is centrally a part—because of a
necessary encounter with microbial life. Helpful here is
the work of evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis (1998),
who reorients human positionality neither as the top
nor center of a food web. She rejects the Darwinian
understanding that Man is the most evolved species and
argues that such reductionist thinking is “as dangerous
as it is prevalent” (p. 56). Building on Margulis’ work,
Myra Hird (2009) takes this notion further by outlining
a microontology for (microbial) life because they are
philosophically relegated to a lesser status when they
fail to be ‘big like us.’ We may not always think of
microbes, but microbes are omnipresent, as they are
inside, on, and around us at all times. Some are along
for the ride, some may even help us, but others can kill.
It matters how we describe these (often imperceptible)
relationships because the latest research indicates that
the body contains a ratio of human cells to microbial
cells on the order of 1:1, making us just as microbial as
we are human (Sender et.al, 2016). Fermentation can
show us the hidden relations that are invisible yet tie us
together: we are literally composed and decomposed
by microbial life who, in turn, transform our food, our
bodies, and our environments at scales that we cannot
easily see. Anthropocentrism can blind us to the other
relations that keep us tethered and accountable because
it places us in a presumed position of power.
Despite what western neoliberalism would have us
believe, we have never been individuals (Gilbert et al.,
2012; Heldke, 2018; Bates, 2005; Kelley, 2016; see also
Alexis Shotwell, 2016), and to continue believing in our
individualist, humanist purity and sanctity will only stick
our heads further into the proverbial sands. Karen Barad
(2007) proposes the idea of entanglements to capture
the deeply connected ways in which entities, like threads,
are tangled up with one another without one entity (like
language) over-determining all of the others in such an
entanglement.10 What does it mean to embody others?
What are the responsibilities that ought to come with
embodying others and their knowledges? Or, specific to
this discussion: How do we engage with these others
10 Perhaps the term “probiotic” is problematic in its own right
because it positions the mankind in vertical relation to the
microbes at His disposal
20
whom we cannot easily see or sense? Barad argues that
these relations do not encompass “a static relationality
but a doing—the enactment of boundaries—that always
entails constitutive exclusions and therefore requisite
questions of accountability” (Barad, 2003, p. 803). To
embody others means to consider their needs in addition
to our own. What kinds of health could be enacted if we
shifted the question from “What should I eat?” to “What
needs to be eaten?” Or, “What needs to be fed?” This
passivity in voice is not one of defeat or restraint. It is
expanding the boundaries of what constitutes our very
beings as always already entangled with others (Hey,
2019). Our collective well-being is at stake, including
(but certainly not limited to) the environments we share
in the face of climate change or the bodies we inhabit
when homeostasis run amok. Not only can we include
others’ concerns into our own ethical purview; we can
shift our relations with others so that our concerns are
shared, aligned, and connected.11
At a time when many of us are acutely attending to
questions of multispecies thriving and sustainable eating
practices, this notion of power and accountability is
particularly salient. Microbes are ubiquitous workers,
remediating our wastewaters, producing insulin, fixing
nitrogen in our soils, let alone regulating our moods,
immune systems, and vitamin K production. Consider
the latest in taste innovation where yeasts are deployed
as molecular factories to produce leghemoblogin, the
‘bloody’ tasting compound of the Impossible Burger, a
soy-based bean patty made to taste like animal without
the guilt that accompanies its flesh. And, as more of these
interventions point to the invisible labor of microbial life,
we must approach the human-microbe relationships
first with the question of agency: how can we perform
humanity in a way that holds us more accountable to
(microbial) others, so that we do not take our inflated
sense of self for granted? We ought to care because
microbes can live (and have lived) without us, when
the reverse is not true. Interspecies relationality is not
just a utopic ideal; concepts such as companion species
(Haraway, 2003) and collaborative contaminations
(Tsing, 2015) are dire calls to reconsider how we occupy
and resist the Anthropocene, which is a call that food
studies, perhaps especially, should heed (see also Kirksey,
2018). Thinking of health as an emergent practice or
performance (as opposed to a fixed state or being)
11 I am deeply influenced by the work of Lisa Heldke and Deane
Curtin (1992) who first mobilized the term ‘relational selves’ in
the context of food studies.
may help us revise how we live (and eat) with others.
Symbiosis is never a guarantee—but one that is actively
and reflexively examined by how we tread this planet
and treat all species (including our own) responsibly.12
Equally, and akin to the shifting ecologies around and
within us, health is not a fixed state; it is enacted
with more-than-human agencies and it is perpetually
(re)negotiated at every eating event. Microbial
bodies and microbial foods complicate dominant
ideologies of health because they shift attention
away from solutionist directives of eating fermented
products towards a process-oriented approach of
living with, working with, and eating with microbes. In
the end, fermentation is not immune to the reductive,
universalizing rhetoric of healthism, especially as it
positions ferments and probiotics as the ‘right’ kind
of eating. In the paradigm of healthist fermentation,
microbes, like nutrients, are reduced to the health
benefits they confer, and the presumed benefit is
subsequently universalized as yet another directive and
stepping stone for moral superiority. These assumptions
go on to inform ideas of the body (such as its purity or
boundedness) that deepen the problematic associations
of health with control. By framing control and choice
as determinants of (gut) health, healthist fermentation
presents secondary problematics that exacerbate the
weight of unreflexive privilege.
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Author bio
Maya Hey is a Vanier scholar (Social Sciences and
Humanities Research Council, Government of Canada)
and PhD candidate (Communication Studies, ABD) with
the Faculty of Arts & Science at Concordia University.
She is also the recipient of the Public Scholars Award
(2019) from the School of Graduate Studies. Her
doctoral research examines fermentation and feminist
theory, particularly attending to the questions of
embodied knowledge, collective ethics, and interspecies
thriving.
She completed her master’s degree in Food Culture
and Communication at the Università degli Studi di
Scienze Gastronomiche (Pollenzo, Italy) and holds a
Bachelor of Science in Nutrition, Dietetics, and Food
Administration. Her work experience spans chemistry
labs, culinary kitchens, organic farms, and food markets,
where she has cumulatively garnered over 15 years of
experience facilitating discussions around contemporary
food issues. She has developed an array of collaborative
projects with audiences ranging from pre-schoolers to
health professionals and aims to engage the everyday
eater with practical knowledge.
... Si bien la diversidad de estos alimentos era ya grande, con la globalización del mercado alimentario 15 , recientemente, se han incorporado productos de otros países como el kéfir, el tempeh (nombre en javanés asignado a las habas de soja fermentadas en forma de pastel), el chucrut, el miso (misoshiru en japonés, es la pasta fermentada de soja u otros cereales añadidos), el kimchi (nombre que recibe en hangullengua coreana-la elaboración fermentada, generalmente de col y con variedad de ingredientes y condimentos) o el té kombucha (nombre popularizado para denominar la bebida obtenida a base de té endulzado fermentado a partir de un hongo llamado scoby). Estos últimos parecen haber convertido los alimentos fermentados en tendencia, sobre todo por sus beneficios para la salud [16][17][18] , pero también como sustitutos en dietas vegetarianas. Por otro lado, se ve en ellos posibilidades de innovación que interesan a la tecnología y la industria. ...
... Se reclutaron personas jóvenes y jóvenes adultas, de 20 a 40 años, de zonas urbanas de Barcelona, considerando que las personas en esta franja etaria -también conocida como "millennial" 23 -pueden tener más acceso a entornos donde circulan determinadas tendencias que marcan la contemporaneidad y los espacios globalizados, entre las cuales aquellas relacionadas con los alimentos fermentados de culturas ajenas. Además, los/as "millennials" crecieron en un contexto de concienciación ambiental, social y ética relacionada con la alimentación y tienen los discursos nutricionales más interiorizados 17,24,25 . La búsqueda de los/ as participantes se efectuó a través del entorno social de las investigadoras, de anuncios en redes sociales virtuales y del método bola de nieve. ...
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