Food, politics and the question of identity

Food, politics and the question of identity

The recent controversy surrounding Knorr’s polemic sauce is a stark example of the inextricable link between food and culture, even when it may be imagined – but the issue is not merely limited to debates on the national level. Indeed, it is playing out in large strokes across the EU in the form of a highly politicized debate about front-of-pack (FOP) labelling.

Knorr, one of the biggest food companies in Germany, made headlines this month after finally caving in to years of criticism by renaming its popular “Zigeunersauce” (“gypsy sauce”) due to the racial connotations that the branding carried with it. Not only is the name deemed an offensive ethnic slur, but the spicy condiment – soon to be remarketed as “paprika-style Hungarian sauce” – is not even a part of Roma or Sinti cuisine.

The long overdue name change and the controversy that has surrounded it is indicative of simmering racial tensions, but also of the inextricable link between food and culture, even when it may be imagined, as in this case. Indeed, what we eat can often be co-opted as a vehicle for identity politics. Knorr’s polemic sauce might be a particularly stark example of such ideas – but the issue is not merely limited to debates on the national level. Indeed, it is playing out in large strokes across the EU in the form of a highly politicized debate about front-of-pack (FOP) labelling.

Cuisine as cultural identifier

While the link between the Knorr condiment and the Roma and Sinti communities might be a spurious one, there are countless other examples of how subjectively food can be viewed and discussed among different countries and cultures. London is a paradigm of how a single city can serve as a melting pot not just of nationalities, but gastronomies, too, with its ethnic diversity accompanied by a similar variety in the palates and appetites of its inhabitants.

Elsewhere, the ways in which mealtimes are practiced can provide illuminating insight into a country’s customs and beliefs. Research has shown that Swedish families believe strongly in egalitarian mealtimes at which all members eat the same thing, thus promoting ideals of equality. Meanwhile, American parents are perhaps more likely to use sweets and desserts as bargaining chips with their children, arguably reinforcing the capitalistic nature of US society. In non-western cultures like Java in Indonesia, the dinner table can be a time to concentrate on sustenance rather conversation.

Individual foods can also represent bones of contention from country to country, especially when it comes to products of national providence. French schoolchildren are encouraged to critique their food from a very early age, while Danish kids are (sometimes explicitly) taught that a lunch which doesn’t contain rye bread – a homegrown staple – is an unhealthy one. More polemically, another Danish product—pork—has become something of a talisman for the far-right in their anti-immigration rhetoric, dragging a simple foodstuff into the heart of a complicated and contentious political issue.

FOP friction

Just how much food and cultural associations are linked to identity politics is epitomized by the food labelling debate that has come to divide the EU across Northern and Southern lines. Brussels has been pushing for a FOP labelling system to become commonplace across the bloc for many years, though policymakers have been as yet unable to agree upon which particular shape it should ultimately take.

One candidate is France’s Nutri-Score, backed by food industry giants Danone, Kellogg and Nestlé. Nutri-Score assigns products a colour-coded “grade” (from A to E) based upon their nutritional content. In this manner, argue its proponents, the system quickly and efficiently communicates information to consumers in a way they can readily understand.

For the longest time, Nutri-Score was the only serious horse in the race, until Italy – unconvinced by the French FOP system – launched its own system, Nutrinform. Italy has objected to the oversimplistic and arbitrary way in which products high in saturated fats or those composed of just one single ingredient – such as olive oil, Parma ham and Parmigiana cheese – are unfairly penalized by Nutri-Score. The Italians’ argument is bolstered by the fact that the Mediterranean diet is largely based upon such foodstuffs and is widely lauded as one of the healthiest lifestyles in the world.

As an alternative, Nutrinform dispenses with categorizing foods as “good” or “bad” in favour of simply communicating their nutritional content in the form of battery-shaped infographics. Its creators claim it allows people to make an informed dietary decision based upon food pyramid ideals. The system is enjoying a rising tide of support in other Southern European countries like Greece, which shares Italy’s suspicions that Nutri-Score is a thinly veiled imposition of French nutritional standards onto other countries. The fact that several Northern EU members like Belgium and Germany have endorsed the system only exacerbates the culinary-cultural divide between adherents of Nutri-Score and Nutrinform.

A nuanced nutritional debate

Whether the EU will ultimately opt for Nutri-Score or Nutrinform is not yet clear, but the decision to grant approval for the latter to be adopted in a commercial setting at least demonstrates that the race is not yet won for the former, despite its sizable head start. With a final decision not expected until the end of 2022,  Brussels has plenty of time to weigh up the various intricacies and sensitivities of the issue before delivering its verdict.

Epicurean ideas about taste and quality can vary enough from one culture to another, without the nutritional aspect even being considered. That the EU is attempting to standardize the idea of what constitutes a healthy diet is a worthy endeavour, given the potential that FOP labelling holds for addressing the continent’s escalating obesity crisis.

However, it’s one that must remain immune to bias and must remain acutely aware that other countries may not share the idea that Nutriscore is the best indicator for what is considered healthy food – especially if any FOP is to have any chance of achieving the tangible changes to the everyman’s diet to which it aspires.

Image credit: Alex Akopyan via Flickr

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