Claude Fischler, expert on food culture: "It is now the responsibility of the industry to restore the good name of food processing."

Food culture is a complex blend of traditional norms and modern trends. In an interview with the GDI and at the International Food Innovation Conference, Claude Fischler, the Research Director Emeritus at CNRS and a pioneer in nutrition science, emphasises the social nature of eating. At the same time, he also illustrates how individualisation and new challenges, like environmental awareness and technological developments, are changing our eating habits. He says that we must embrace the freedom and diversity of our diets without feeling overwhelmed by the multitude of choices, while at the same time promoting sustainable and communal approaches to eating.
28 May, 2024 by
Claude Fischler, expert on food culture: "It is now the responsibility of the industry to restore the good name of food processing."
GDI Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute

GDI: Mr Fischler, you’re one of the most renowned experts on food culture. What are the main elements of such a culture: its favourite dishes? Its Michelin stars? The time spent eating? Or something else?

Claude Fischler: I like to talk about cuisines. In common parlance, a cuisine is defined as a particular set of ingredients and processes (recipes) used in the preparation of food by a culture or a group. However, a cuisine is more than just the elements. It is also made up of the relationships among these elements, as well as the rules governing the choice, preparation and eating of food. In a way, a cuisine is very much like a language: a language consists of words, of course, but also of the syntax that rules the order of the words, sentences and meaning. All humans speak, but they speak different languages. All humans eat, but they eat (in accordance with) different cuisines.

The rules in such a syntax are mostly applied automatically; they “go without saying.” They are socially determined and taken for granted, like mealtimes, for example, or the order and distribution of courses, the beverages served and the timing of the meal.

Culture, also food culture, has roots: it is familiar and reliable. But it is also dynamic: it can embrace trends and innovations. What kind of dynamics do you see in our contemporary food culture in what we eat and how we eat it?

For most of humanity, eating was always a collective, social affair. The fundamental change we can identify is a dynamic of individualisation. In the human species, eating is a collective, social affair. We humans eat in groups, share food and have table manners that govern how we behave towards others at the table. Over time, we have increasingly freed ourselves from the rules and norms implicit in our food culture, the "cuisine" into which we were born. We are freer to adopt new, novel foods, and to a certain extent we do. We insist that we want to make our own individual choices, and we can choose the time, place and occasion for eating far more than we ever could before.

But … In the process, we have to make more and more decisions on an individual basis. We have to make choices that eaters in traditional cultures – or in ours not so long ago – did not have to make, because they used collective, implicit rules. By breaking away from these cultural rules and customs, we gain freedom, but in a sense, we make life more complicated for ourselves. A number of studies have shown that the multiplication of choices is tyrannical for some of us. Do we really need to make enlightened, informed and rational decisions about every single morsel of food that we consider putting into our bodies? Anxiety has been building up for decades, and is now accelerating its crescendo.

Some people say that our food culture has to change much faster, e.g. for ecological reasons. Do you agree? And if so, how can the speed of change be accelerated?​

Changing people's eating habits, or controlling them at all, has a long history. It started with religion. Following rules about how and what to eat is a way of showing obedience to God. Abstinence, namely fasting, is a way of elevating oneself spiritually. From the 18th century onwards, medicine gradually took over. Over the course of time, especially since the 19th century, there has been a proliferation of exhortations to change our eating habits, from health crusaders on the one hand and faddists and quacks of all kinds on the other. More recently, public health medicine has sought to base its policies on empirical data rather than moral judgement. But the proliferation of fad diets and healthy eating exhortations has not abated, resulting in a cacophony of voices that many contemporary eaters find difficult to make sense of.

What is happening now, however, is novel and different. As awareness of the environmental crisis is growing and individualisation is accelerating, everything that was once taken for granted is being called into question, including some of humanity's oldest practices and beliefs. Animal welfare and carbon footprints are challenging the consumption of meat and, by extension, animal agriculture; Homo sapiens' oldest mode of production after hunting. New technologies and major investment from outside the food sector envisage food production without agriculture. These are revolutionary times. How can we cope with these changes and reinvent our relationship with food and eating?

Sapiens is an omnivore, and thus subject to the "omnivore's dilemma." An omnivore is free to change its diet to adapt to a changing environment. In fact, not only is an omnivore free to change, it is forced to diversify its diet because, biologically speaking, it cannot survive on too narrow a diet. On the other hand, it must be wary of unknown, novel foods because they may be toxic. This double bind creates an essentially anxious relationship with food. Anxious though it may be, the omnivore in us is as adaptable as can be.

What we are seeing, however, is a rise in anxiety, suspicion, anger and even fear of food in most urban industrial or post-industrial societies, mostly directed at processed foods and the food industry.

It is hard to imagine a future in which we take matters into our own hands, pick our own food and cook it from scratch every day, as some would have us do. From food production to consumption, the entire human relationship with food has been one of transformation and processing, whether by mechanical techniques, cooking and fire, or fermentation. It is now the industry's responsibility and only hope to restore the good name of food processing in public perception. The industry’s power and know-how are needed, but can it redirect its technology, supply and recipes in environmentally sound directions?

On the other hand, should societies invent new forms of social eating? Are they doing so? Or will individual preferences and tastes continue to be preferred over the sharing of what is available? At this point, on the basis of observed trends, we can imagine the future of food as a new form of the traditional division between the ordinary and the extraordinary. This would include “ordinary” functional “food” meeting nutritional and energy needs whenever necessary in a purely convenient form. Extraordinary, on the other hand, would consist of forms of commensal, "recreational" eating, where people could gather around a table and enjoy the food and the occasion.

Looking at the ways we communicate, there have been some major disruptors – like phone, internet, smartphone, social media, ChatGPT. Are there also major disruptors for the ways we eat? If yes, which ones? If no, why not?

Probably individualisation and the reversal or questioning of traditional commensality. A number of jokes can illustrate this. This one, for example:

In a restaurant, a customer asks the head waiter, “What do you recommend for a vegetarian with an allergy to lactose, who is intolerant to gluten and doesn’t want to eat fish?” To which the waiter replies, “Sir, I would recommend a taxi.”
Like everyone else, you are also part of the food culture. What has been your latest change in what or how you eat? And what is a behavior or tradition that you will never change?

I think I have become more and more of a purist. I am increasingly demanding about the quality of products, and impatient with excessive culinary flourishes. Does that make me conservative or, as I like to think, a purist? I have come to the conclusion that many chefs, food critics and eaters place too exclusive emphasis on creativity in cooking. These days, sitting at a table in a top restaurant feels like asking the chef, "Kindly bowl me over!" On some occasions, you want to enjoy something that you have always liked very much and may even be nostalgic about.
In short, I've discovered that eating is not only about discovering, but also rediscovering..

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