I am thinking about how to refer to real food, as opposed to the “not-food” that is driving the epidemic of chronic disease that doctors see in our offices day after day. You can approach this problem from any number of angles.
One communication strategy I employ with patients is to encourage them to avoid eating “manufactured calories” and “inventions of the 20th century.” This includes partially hydrogenated vegetable oils and high-fructose corn syrup, not to mention breakfast cereals, breakfast bars, lunchables, lunch meats, coffee whiteners, TV dinners, and margarine. Another strategy, this one from Michael Pollan, is to call products that aren’t really food “processed, food-like items.” Pollan says that you can eat anything as long as you make it yourself, and to avoid anything your great-grandparents didn’t eat. He also suggests not buying items with nutritional advice on their package. These are all great strategies, but they require a lot of words.
Consider this: Food with a Capital F. What got me thinking about this? The Deaf community’s decision to define itself with a capital D. To be deaf means to have a significant amount of hearing loss. But “To be Deaf with a capital D,” according to Julie Eldredge, a Deaf teacher of Deaf culture at Brigham Young University, “is to believe first and foremost that deafness is not a disability….” She says “Sound and speech aren’t the goal; communication is.”
But just because you’re deaf doesn’t mean you’re Deaf. Most people who identify as Deaf are members of communities of people who communicate primarily via American Sign Language. You might also hear someone say Big D, referring to an individual who belongs to a Deaf Community that subscribes to and espouses Deaf values, or little d, referring to the physical aspect of deafness. If you capitalize on being deaf to define yourself within your community, you are Deaf.
How does this apply to eating then? Big F defines “Food” as a nutrient-rich item that is derived directly from the biomass of our planet and has a long history of providing nutrition to all its various beings, including humans. It doesn’t require a prefix like real, whole-grain, pastured, free-range, or grass-fed. It’s Food. The “food” with a small f, on the other hand, refers to manufactured items that did not exist prior to the past couple of centuries.
Grammatically speaking, flipping from “food” to “Food” turns the word from a common noun (food) to a proper noun (Food). What is that? Well, according to Mrs. Strzeszewski, my third-grade teacher, a common noun describes a person, place, or thing. A proper noun, however, refers to a unique entity. Food is that nutrient-dense group of biomass which we have eaten in some form or other for at least the past ten thousand years. Of course, some people might go right for the snake and cockroaches. But there are also adzuki beans, barley, salmon. These are Food. Maltodextrin, carrageenan, and xanthan gum, however, are not Food.
I’ve seen the following sign in a few places: “Eat organic food, or, as your grandparents called it, Food.” Touché. That’s what I mean.