This month, I began writing a section of my dissertation that I’ve been excited about for months: the everyday techniques that people living with food allergies use to keep their food free from allergens and safe for them. This chapter is based on interviews I’ve conducted with people in the food allergy community as well as stories told by food allergy writers on blogs and in memoirs and advice books.
Writing this has overlapped with reading Robyn O’Brien’s book The Unhealthy Truth, which I’ve been trying to make time to read since I saw her speak in September at the Food Allergy Bloggers Conference. New semester, new books, and so now I’m finally reading it!
Reading this book while writing this chapter has gotten me thinking about three words people in the food allergy world use to describe their food: free-from, safe, and clean. They’re connected, but I think there are also important differences in how they’re used which reveals interesting things about the feelings that food inspires for people living with food allergies.
“Free-from,” as I’ve heard it used, is the lingo used by food manufacturers, distributors, shopping apps, and other food industry insiders to describe foods that do not have certain ingredients. Foods that are free from gluten or free from the top 8 allergens are two big categories that I often hear about. To me, this phrase conveys a simple, concrete fact: certain substances are not in this food. The manufacturer provides this factual information, and then it’s up to the consumer to determine what kinds of free-from foods fit their dietary needs.
“Safe food” seems to be used when people talk about food that doesn’t contain for themselves or their children. To me, this seems to go a bit further than free-from. First of all, it tends to be specific to individuals. A food is safe for me or for my children. This makes sense when you think about how many different foods trigger allergies – even when you think about all the different combinations of the top 8 foods that an individual could be allergic to! Second of all, I think there is an emotional component to it. “Safety,” after all, can be measured both as a fact in the world – a house may be safe because it is build with good materials on a strong foundation – and a subjective feeling – you may feel safest when surrounded by family in your home.
When it comes to food allergies, rituals like calling up a food manufacturing plant to learn about potential cross-contamination provides both a factual level of safety and, if you quickly get a straight answer from the company’s representative, a feeling of trust that the company is doing things that will keep you safe, and will probably continue to do so. When I encounter people talking or writing about “safe food” in my research, I often find that it refers to both the fact and the feeling of safety.
“Clean food” seems to be the most complicated of all. It’s the topic Robyn O’Brien’s book deals with. She (and many others) uses it to refer to foods that are organic (free from pesticides and artificial fertilizers), GMO-free, and hormone-free. Like “safe food,” I think there are both factual and emotional aspects to it. It refers to foods that are organic, GMO-free, and hormone-free. Calling such foods “clean,” in my view, adds an emotional spin to it: we are taught in America that things that are clean are also safe and healthy, so being in (visibly) clean spaces or using clean things make us feel protected, even if there are invisible germs or pollutants. Opposing “clean” food to “unclean” food gets us to think about the invisible things which may be making some foods less healthy for us. The feeling of danger or risk that goes along with knowing there are potentially invisible but harmful elements present in our diet is, for some, a significant emotional experience.
There is a third layer, too, a moral layer which implies a critique of the political and economic system, as O’Brien discusses at length. We use the world “clean” in politics, for example, to refer to deals that are conducted openly and without the exchange of bribes. Similarly, “clean food” is offered by countless activists as an alternative to mass-produced foods that are unhealthy but produced in large quantities as a result of food industry subsidies, which are typically assumed to exist in the first place as a sort of quid pro quo to deep-pocketed industry leaders. “Clean food” is therefore also food which is made with the health of the public in mind, instead of for growing the profits of industry giants.
What do you think? What word(s) do you use, and in what kinds of situations? As always, comments below or on Twitter (@allergyPhD) are welcome!