What we eat


You are what you eat – this is a popular saying. Like hardly anything else, our food is part of our culture. In what way are food and eating changing in our society? Nutrition expert Professor Dr. Gunther Hirschfelder answers questions concerning the cultural importance of our nutrition.

Vegan restaurants, organic products, purchasing of seasonal and regional food – is a new food culture establishing itself in Germany?

Food cultures are dynamic, times of standstill hardly exist. But it is true: the change we are experiencing at the moment is exceptionally rapid. This is particularly evident if we look back on the last ten years. It is very well possible that trends we are experiencing today will no longer exist in ten years. For we have left the basic structures of the analogue, industrial and rather national society of the 20th century behind and are now on our way to the digital, global lifestyle society, which functions along fundamentally different lines. This is not only reflected by a new food culture but also by the different ways in which this topic is dealt with in politics and media. There is much more talk in public about food and drink, but not infrequently the people discussing these things are intent on defining their own position. People politicise about the “right” diet, which is expected to help minimise the consequences of climate change. This finds expression in statements such as: “To eat an avocado means to steal water from a human being in developing countries.” Part of this is also the discussion about vegan-ness or pleasure-oriented eating styles with exclusive, “high-value” meats or wines..

Does this discussion have anything to do with what people in this country are eating everyday?

No. It is necessary to make a distinction between the debate and people's everyday diet. Reality is rather marked by mobility and lack of time during meals. Nonetheless, the way people deal with nutrition has indeed undergone massive change: Many young people choose their diet based on body orientation, using food as a means for body styling and health promotion. Sustainable nutrition is also playing an increasingly important role. Most consumers steer a pragmatic middle course and can be classified as flexitarians.

What influence does globalisation have on nutrition in Europe and in the world?

Globalisation is giving us access to many things that are outside of our normal living environment. That's not new. Consider the old colonial goods coffee, tea or cocoa, the advertising for which uses exotic connotations even today. The same applies to fruit. Mangoes or pineapples can be found in every supermarket. Apples are available all year round. Globalisation is changing the general food culture in the Convenience and Out of Home sectors as well. Many restaurants have epithets such as ‘Asia’ or ‘Tex Mex’. But guests do no longer expect original Asian or Mexican food, but a certain style of interior decoration, a hot sauce and perhaps also enchiladas. In this respect, globalisation is dissolving traditional spatial contexts. But there is also a trend in the opposite direction. With respect to food, many consumers today think regional and with a focus on their home country again – in a modern way, of course.

How much importance do you attach to migration?

Nutrition can be an interesting yardstick for determining whether and to what degree migrants integrate successfully: In our projects we often see that migrants use their traditional food as an emotional anchor in an unfamiliar environment. The Central European cuisine will in any event become even more internationalised, for example by the Arabian cuisine. A trend which began when guest workers from Southern Europe started to come to Germany in the 1950s.

Let us dwell on history a little more: Which major food trends have occurred, and what can we learn from them?

The best long-term trend is that we in the industrialised nations have largely overcome hunger. During this process, nutrition underwent a steady change. In earlier times, certain foodstuffs were over long periods forced upon people by necessity. From the Neolithic Period, continuing in part well into the 19th century, grain meal with some animal fat component was the staple food of the poor population in Central and Northern Europe. They were not able to squeeze more nutrients out of the soils, some of which were very poor. On the other hand, crayfish, nearly extinct today and regarded as a delicacy, served as a cheap source of protein for people living away from the sea. Salmon was a similar case. Today, many more people can decide what sensible and tasty food is available in their environment. A luxury!

Acai, chia seeds or goji berries – What do you make of the superfood trend? Do these foodstuffs really carry health benefits?

Like all trends, superfoods are, in the first place, a passing fashion. There is a lot of half knowledge out there, but this subject will be part of the discourse about nutrition for a long time to come - perhaps even advancing it. The important thing is that there is a desire to quit negligent nutrition and to replace it with intelligent nutrition that is optimally geared towards the body's needs. This growing awareness is a positive trend. We should, and will, however, reconsider what we define as superfood. The true superfood has been around for a long time: sustainable and local products such as sauerkraut, beetroot or potatoes. To my mind, a good North Sea herring on organic wholemeal bread, for example, is true superfood. 
The following applies in principle: It is not the food that is per se wholesome or unwholesome. A sugar molecule is not a criminal! It is a question of the metabolism, that is to say of biochemistry and of lifestyle. It is true, there are sections of the population that ingest too many unhealthy, high-calorie foodstuffs and soft drinks and by doing so are harming society as well. Persons who do hard physical work will metabolise their food differently from persons who sit in an office for eight hours each day.

What influence do trends and food culture have on agriculture?

Agriculture is in a fix: Farmers must make long-term plans, whereas food trends usually develop at short notice. Despite this, parts of agriculture see themselves as scapegoats of a media discussion: Farmers are held responsible for many ills, because they are allegedly trying to make a quick profit at the expense of the environment. But they are working on the basis of laws that were passed democratically. This should be kept in mind – also in connection with widely discussed topics such as glyphosate or animal husbandry. These discussions should therefore not be conducted on the backs of the farmers, who have an important position in society and whose work is always a calling as well. They are making an essential contribution to the feeding of the population, and generally they attempt to act, to the best of their knowledge, in an ethically correct manner.

Many trends are short-lived. Or are there any signs of a sustainable development in nutrition?

In Germany, we already passed through the lowest point in the valley of bad eating habits in the 1980s and 1990s. The new awareness, which I mentioned earlier, is very positive. For it is slowly beginning to have positive effects on food quality. Making a point of buying high-value and high-quality organic products has caught on in society. It does not only improve health and the quality of life, but also creates added value. High-value food is slightly more expensive, but it is produced with high quality, and ever more fantastic meals are available, for example on farmers' markets or in food courts.

About the interviewee

Gunther Hirschfelder is Professor of Comparative Cultural Studies at the University of Regensburg (Bavaria). He has authored and edited numerous publications on the topic of food. Currently, he is particularly interested in structures of nutrition under the influence of the accelerated societal and technological change.


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