Nanofoods or Raw Vegetables? A Christian perspective on good food
About the question of good food
“As you stir, your coffee executes a little joyful dance in your cup”; at least, thus a plastic throw-away cup belonging to Douwe Egberts entices us on a Wednesday afternoon. A smart advertisement, it knows how to make the “coffee moment” a special happening. Drinking coffee appears to be even more than a means of greasing our economy; it is a joyful rest break in our lives.
From this ad we see that food is surrounded by a forest of emotions. We are also totally dependent on it. Meanwhile, we see that food is becoming less and less natural. More and more, food appears to come from laboratories and factories. This trend will continue, considering the advent of numerous new technologies, namely nanotechnologies which will also play a huge role in the realm of food. All this poses this question to us, “what is good food”?
In this article we want to do two things. In the first place, we want to describe what nanotechnologies are and which nanotechnologies we can expect to find on our plates in the not-too-distant future. In the second place, we want to, also as a reaction to these nanotechnologies — venture into a few thoughts about the ethics of food and food production. It does appear that Christian thoughts about food are for the most part, limited to agriculture. The route to food, however, does not end at the farmer’s field.
Nanotechnologies in the Realm of Food
A nanometer is a billionth of a meter. To give a comparison, a hair is about 80 000 nanometers thick, the period at the end of this sentence is about 500 000 nanometers. Nanotechnologies are all technologies that do something on nanoscale (roughly from 1 to 100 nanometers). Actually, they are ordinary biology, nature study and chemistry, but then operating on a very small scale. The new part about nanotechnologies is that structures and processes gain new characteristics on nanoscale. Thus the Romans already knew that a silver coin would keep drinking water fresh for a longer period of time. We now know that this is because of the anti-bacterial characteristics of micro bits of silver. Nanotechnology wants to incorporate these tiny particles of silver into the packaging material of foods, thus protecting the food more effectively against spoilage. Now, in this article, I do not primarily desire to discuss this type of application, but rather the nanotechnologies that directly affect the food itself and the production of it.
Foods with claims of “healthy foods” — the Netherlands expression for functional foods — exist much longer than today. Think about milk with extra calcium, “the best protection against osteoporosis as you become older”. The health promoting aspects of foods are constantly receiving more attention from the food industry. People in the Western world desire to stay healthy for a longer and longer time, but on the other side engage excessively in overeating and under exercising. The nanotechnologies can give a huge boost to the development of new functional foods (healthy foods), which can provide the necessary minerals and vitamins for people. For example, healthy additives can be protected from the rough gastro intestinal tract by encapsulating them in miniscule capsules. These nanocapsules can, moreover, be programmed in such a way that they deliver their contents at the spot in the body where it is needed. This last bit of information beautifully illustrates the power of nanotechnology: it enables man to regulate things himself in a fundamental way. This paradigm shift — for that is what it is — is also described in the food industry with the contraposition between “cook and look” and “look and cook”.
Previously, the preparation of food was first a matter of cook and then look. There was no real control over the final product. A focussed scientific analysis of the way in which food works, makes it steadily more possible to mold the final characteristics of the food, and thus influence them. Food is seen here as a sum of parts; milk is a solution of proteins, fats and minerals in water; bread is a matrix of proteins, gluten, sugars etc. Every ingredient can, afterwards, be isolated, changed, substituted, in short, be designed. The dairy business, Friesland Coberco Dairy Foods is busy, in this manner, to improve the texture (the feeling of the food in the mouth) of specific dairy products. Another example is the so-called light fats. These consist of micro drops of water surrounded with a layer of fats. The big benefit of these fats is that they have the same taste and texture as ordinary fats, but only a fraction of the calories.
Moving Toward a Food Ethic
These technological developments ask for serious thought on our part. They are very near to us, on our plate and in our stomachs. What do we think of this? To put it more broadly, what do we think of the manner in which the food industry produces our food? In order to be able to answer this question, we must first have a clear insight into what, precisely, food is, and which functions it fulfills. The food industry — and many alongside it — think of “food” as the whole of the proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals. Food is the fuel to keep “the machine” of the human body functioning. Bluntly, you have a complex dynamic network of chemical reactions (life) where on the one end molecules enter (food) and where on the other end molecules are discarded (bowel movement). In this model, good food delivers enough correct molecules and the energy to maintain life. Now, in principle this is not untrue, but it is a limited description of the truth. Food also has psychological, social and spiritual aspects. We will further clarify this in the next two paragraphs.
Food plays a huge role in our daily lives; it is more than only fuel and building materials. In this manner food connects people with each other; not only are we directly or indirectly dependent on others for our daily bread, but also the “cooking together” and “eating together” are typical human values. Many important and special moments in (business) life go paired with a shared meal. When we look at the broader social context of food, then we see that food — and all the usages and etiquette surrounding it — are subunits of the majority culture. Many edibles and culinary habits are determined by culture or geographical region. We find it revolting, but world-wide approximately 1400 different species of insect are eaten. In turn, we eat raw fish, herring, without any problem. These food traditions are very important; they lend identity to people. Moreover, tradition provides peace and trust; peace, for tradition can be a safe haven in a bewildering society, trust, for new products are potentially threatening and existing products have proven themselves. Food is of vital concern for life, but it can also be a possible source of sickness (think of food poisoning, dioxin chickens, BSE). Because of this possibility in the long and obscure route of food production, eating food has become more and more a case of trust; we trust the claim of the — often quite anonymous — products and authorities that the food is good for us. We would like to gather these “connecting functions” of food together with the term “embedding”; food embeds people in reality.
This embedding gains a yet deeper dimension when we look at the spiritual meaning of food. This meaning is very closely connected to the special position of man in creation. While all other living beings were created according to their kind, God created man after his image. Man is then also given a special responsibility: to work in and to keep the created world (Gen. 2:15). Thereby he is the only being who is a part of the spiritual as well as of the material reality. Through this unique position, man has been enabled to unite both worlds with each other. This is shown in a negative manner in Genesis 3; in his spiritual downfall, man dragged the total material creation down with him. In a totally positive manner this is expressed in the death on the cross of the man (!) Jesus, who restores the broken relationship between God and his creatures and at the same time marks the beginning of the new heaven and the new earth. In short summation: our relationship with material reality has spiritual implications.
When we look at the meaning of the special position of man in terms of his food, then we notice two things. In the first place we confess in Psalm 104 that reality is maintained by God as Creator and as the One who upholds all things. He carries all things; he gives life. The material world does not exist independently, but is connected with and receives its being out of the spiritual reality (John 1:3; Heb. 1:2). This is also valid for food which is almost totally derived from living nature. It still contains, as it were, the power of life which God as Creator has laid in all living entities. In the words of Calvin, “the nutritional value of our food lies, not in the food itself, but in the wonderful care with which God uses the food to nourish us”.
The Bible also shows us the stiff-necked, stubborn inclination of people to seek our salvation from everyone and everything except from the God of Israel. As soon as the vertical element disappears from the lives of people, people try, as much as possible, to derive everything from the here and now. An earthly hedonism where tasty meals and health become false gods (Phil. 3:19) replaces a “Christian hedonism” in which man finds his wellbeing in the service of God.
In the second place, “eating” in the Bible means “making a bond with, taking up into oneself”. In the Lord’s Supper, for example, the literal taking into oneself of the bread and wine is connected with the spiritual “eating and drinking” of the body and blood of the Lord Jesus (John 6:32-59). Vice versa, Paul shows in his first letter to the congregation in Corinth that the eating of meat dedicated as an offering to idols can mean that the person is associating with demons (1 Cor. 10:14-22). In this understanding of man and creation, food gives man connectedness with the spiritual side of creation. In short, eating is associating with the created — and fallen — reality, also in her spiritual side, in the way that God sustains it and carries it.
This probably exceeds what is necessary, but we do want to stress that we do not want to fall back into a magical interpretation of reality in which man tries to manipulate the spiritual world for his own benefit. We do try, also in our speaking about food, to do justice in a Biblical manner to the spiritual dimension of reality, with which man, although not conscious of it, is in contact.
In the light of this understanding of life and food, it will be clear that it is of consequence how we produce that food. The Bible shows us that going against God’s norms is not only sin before God, but will also always have detrimental results for human life and for society. We see that for example, with the norm of stewardship, further elaborated in the triad of sustainability — precautionary principle — respect. Bad stewardship leads to exploitation of the earth, environmental disasters and a shameful treatment of animals.
Now we insist that there are more norms than what we can directly derive from the Bible. The different laws that God brought into creation also bring norms with them. When these laws are trampled under our feet, there will be damage, even when the nature of such damage is more subtle. A somewhat more subtle form of damage that can arise with food is alienation or estrangement. Earlier, we used the term “embedding”. Man is ideally embedded in full reality: closely connected with nature, his social context, environment, culture, and all this in the light of his relationship with the God of the Bible. Food connects man with the different aspects of reality. However, a distance can develop between man and reality. Then man comes to stand opposite to or against that reality, with the result of estrangement between man and reality. Then man is not actually in his own place anymore, so that neither man nor reality comes to their rightful place. In the table (next page) we will mention a few food related fields in which man can become estranged.