No such thing as a “free” lunch: Freedom and Restriction in the American Way of Eating

ALBERTA DEVOR

American food’s limitless options appear to epitomize American freedom. For Americans who do not struggle with food security, a seemingly endless array of easily consumable foods from different cultures can be purchased conveniently and readily. However, the potential for food to act as an identifier, in particular for gender and ethnic groups, results in many Americans feeling restricted to eating certain foods in certain contexts. This perceived restriction to eat a set group of foods in certain circumstances diminishes the ostensible “freedom” of food choice in America. Thus, although abundant food choice in America implies freedom, the way food interacts with identity makes certain food choices feel obligatory, which directly contradicts this freedom.

Freeing

The flexibility and variety of modern American foods are responsible for loosening restrictions on American eating patterns. Americans are no longer confined to eating with certain people or at certain times. Most of this increased flexibility can be attributed to the rise of “snacks” and other highly portable, easy to eat foods. Variety loosens restrictions in that it allows Americans to eat many different kinds of foods as opposed to just a certain few. This loosening of restrictions is why American food can be characterized as “freeing” in nature.

In Fat Politics, J. Eric Oliver explains how he believes snacking is an extension of the American value of freedom. Oliver claims snacking “allows the individual the fullest liberty in satisfying his or her own hunger, irrespective of the demands or constraints of society.” [1] Snacking gives Americans the power to eat food whenever they want (e.g. outside of mealtimes) with whoever they want (e.g. by themselves) and for whatever reason they want (e.g. out of boredom, not just out of hunger).

In addition to flexibility, increased variety contributes to the freedom provided by American foods. This increased variety can be seen the most clearly in American grocery stores. According to Consumer Reports, the number of products in the average supermarket in 2008 was on average almost 47,000. In 1975 that number was less than 9,000.[2] With shelves filled with products from a multitude of cultures, price points, and brands, the average American consumer has an abundance of choice and freedom in his or her food purchasing. The variety of products at grocery stores as well as the flexibility of snacking both clearly illustrate why American food can be thought of as freeing.

Identifying

For many Americans, “you are what you eat” is much more than an idiom – it is an earnest reflection of the fact that their identities are based upon, and reinforced by, their eating patterns. Regardless of whether they are cognizant of it or not, an individual’s way of eating is often used to assert different pieces of their identity, namely gender, race, ethnicity, and social class. In “We Are What We Eat”, Donna R. Gabaccia elegantly summarizes this link by explaining that food intertwines “intimately with much that makes a culture unique, binding taste and satiety to group loyalties. Eating habits both symbolize and mark the boundaries of cultures.” [3]

This food-based group identity that Gabaccia describes can be seen clearly in the case of Italians who immigrated to the U.S. at the end of the 19th century. These Italian immigrants, coming from many different parts of Italy, were able to unite under a shared cuisine. This cuisine was characterized by abundance mostly due to the sudden ability of most of these Italians to access a great amount of food compared to what they were used to before arriving in America. This shared cuisine played a large role in the shared communal identity of these Italians both in their own community and as perceived by outsiders.[4]

The shared identity that Italian immigrants found in cuisine can also be seen in the way that people of certain genders or socioeconomic classes consume food. The way in which food functions as the basis of culture and group identity can be applied to most groups and is the reason why food can be characterized in general as “identifying.”

Restricting

Despite how “freeing” American foods can seem, their role as an identifier can make them restrictive in that individuals can feel that they must eat certain foods to maintain an aspect of their identity. Thus, the perception that people of a specific identity or people in a specific context are expected to eat certain foods drive Americans to feel restricted to particular foods and eating patterns. This expectation is best seen in food advertising and media where food is often closely linked with identity and advertisers frequently depict the consumption of food as necessary for fitting into a specific social group.

One particular way in which this expectation can be seen is in a Samuel Adams beer advertisement. In the advertisement, a group of beers are dressed to look like a sports team. The main text of the advertisement proclaims “There’s No ‘I’ In Team.”[5] This advertisement is pushing the idea that drinking Samuel Adams together makes those drinking it more of a team. It is also advertising the necessity of drinking beer in the context of sports. Whether watching from home or in the stands, drinking beer and watching sports is already quite culturally linked in American culture, and this advertisement drives that point home further.

In another advertisement for low-calorie Chobani yogurt, eating expectations are set for women. The advertisement features men eating large sugary snacks like donuts and cookies, and women “having the power” to resist by eating their yogurt.[6] Having this clearly gendered dichotomy implies that within the context of the scenario, resisting sugary snacks defines what it means to be a woman, as much as not caring about calories or health defines what it means to be a man.

Advertisements like the Chobani video or the Samuel Adams image elevate the gendered, racialized, and contextualized implications for what a certain individual should eat from suggestion to restriction. The strong implications for what one should eat means that if individuals disregard this guidance, various aspects of their identity may very well be questioned.

Concluding Thoughts

The large amount of variety and flexibility in America’s food options frees Americans from having to eat only certain available foods. Yet this high degree of food choice does not mean American eaters are devoid of constraints. The ability of food to create the basis of certain identities has the ability to forge strong connections among groups of people. Italian-American food, for example, was pivotal in bringing together Italian immigrants to America at the end of the 19th century. But because food can be so integral in building certain identities, opting out of these foods can feel virtually impossible to certain individuals. For many, media that highlights specific food-identity relationships (like yogurt for women, and beer for men at sports games) can inextricably link particular foods and identities together. This link makes groups of Americans feel that they are restricted to eating specific foods. Ultimately, food’s role in identity building makes it so that the freedom of American eating is not so free after all.

Image Credit: Anonymous, “Men, tableau, fashion, drinking, beer, bower Fortepan,” http://www.fortepan.hu/_photo/download/fortepan_30687.jpg

[1] Oliver, J.Eric, Fat Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 139.

[2] “What to Do When There Are Too Many Product Choices on the Store Shelves?” Consumer Reports. http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/magazine/2014/03/too-many-product-choices-in-supermarkets/index.htm (accessed April 27, 2017)

[3] Gabaccia, Donna R., We Are What We Eat (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), 8.

[4]  Diner, Hasia R., Hungering for America: Italian, Irish, and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration Eat (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003).

[5] Samuel Adams, There’s No I in Beer. https://www.samueladams.com/no-i-in-beer (accessed April 27, 2017).

[6] OldCommercials. “TV Commercial – Dannon Light & Fit Strawberry Cheesecake Greek Yogurt – Taste The Power.” Youtube video, 00:29. Posted [Decemeber 2014] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SJt2SfHTmjo