Vol. 6, No. 1, December 2004

The New Age Consumer:
Eating healthy and safely in a fast food society

T.A. Ten Eyck, Michigan State University

Americans, and much of the rest of the developed and developing world, have a love-hate relationship with food. We love the way it tastes and the social settings in which we eat, but hate the way it makes us look, especially when we are taking in more than we are expending. For centuries, we have sought ways to have our cake and eat it too while maintaining an acceptable figure. In the last few years, we have seen the introduction of such diets as Atkins, the South Beach Diet, and the grapefruit diet. We are inundated with personalities such as Richard Simmons, Body By Jake, and Denise Austin--all looking fit, trim, and happy while advocating the idea that if you are trim you will feel better about yourself. If these approaches do not work, you can always try diet pills, group therapy, or liposuction.

In addition to food and fitness, you are expected to eat safely. Salmonella, e. coli, listeria, camplyobacter, vibrio vulnificus and many other potentially hazardous foodborne pathogens and toxins are lurking in and around our food supply, waiting for an opportunity to attack. For most, contact with such pathogens and toxins means extra time in the restroom and another bottle of Pepto Bismol. For others, however, these can be life-threatening, especially for the young, old, pregnant, and immune compromised.

So, what can be done at a time when fast food restaurants, ready-to-eat meals, and prepackaged goodness are part and parcel of our world? One strategy is to adopt the New Age lifestyle. There is a catch, however, in that New Age means many things to many people. This paper, and accompanying presentation, will focus on trying to define the New Age concept, and then discuss how this concept, or variety of concepts, affects the ways we perceive food, food safety, and our own bodies.

The New Age

First of all, the idea of a new age really is not very new. Many people throughout the ages have sought ways of improving or changing their lives. They looked to the stars, read tea leaves and the palms of kings, looked through sacred texts to find clues for changes which would bring about a new age. In modern times, New Age has come to define many things--a style of music, an art movement, a way to build a cityscape. According to Merriam-Webster, New Age can be defined in two ways:

1 : of, relating to, or being a late 20th century social movement drawing on ancient concepts especially from Eastern and American Indian traditions and incorporating such themes as holism, concern for nature, spirituality, and metaphysics
2 : of, relating to, or being a soft soothing form of instrumental music often used to promote relaxation (www.m-w.com)
New Age, therefore, is about holism and nature. It is about the environment and the self. It is about divinity and its relation to all things, including yourself. The idea, if you look over some of the New Age web sites, is that divinity and power can be found in all things, and that all things are linked, and a person should seek the things that make one feel spiritual and connected to his/her surroundings, for you are also divine and powerful. Food is obviously important in this kind of lifestyle, as food becomes part of us through its consumption. This, however, is not without problems in a society characterized by fast foods, food scares, and growing rates of obesity. Consumption is not simple, but a web of internal and external forces which are tied to notions of both vicarious and use values. The purchase of an item, if one is thinking holistically, has consequences for the commodity chain in both upstream and downstream positions. The buying of cheap imports means that pollution standards in those developing countries will continue to stay low or nonexistent, while buying expensive locally grown foods helps local farmers but means that the new pair of shoes for your children will have to be put on hold, or you will have to buy an off-brand and your kids will be labeled as poor or "not quite with it."

New Age and consumption practices are intricately tied to one another. You are what and where you eat, the clothes you wear and where you buy them, and the things you do in your spare time and who sees you doing them. You and others make judgments about yourself depending on your purchasing decisions. We often think that people notice what we are doing/wearing/eating (the spotlight effect [Forgas and Williams 2002]), so make decisions based on those perceived perceptions. This moves us into consumption in the New Age, and the difference between use and vicarious value.

Consuming in the New Age

When someone defines themselves as New Age or try to follow the dictates of the New Age movement, everything one does is expected to fit a certain perspective. Even if fellow New Agers are not watching your wanderings in the supermarket, your purchases do have meanings which you want to convey to yourself and others. Buying an urban hip hop CD with a parental advisory about explicit lyrics does not exude confidence in your standing as one who follows the New Age way. Instead, you are expected to buy mood music, and may even have "New Age" somewhere on the cover. The purchasing of food is also important. According to Belasco (1993), the counterculture movement of the 1960s, of which New Age was a part, food symbolized many of the ideals including the enrichment of the soul and support of small, alternative agriculture. Purchasing a box of Ding Dongs does not fit this mantra, though buying organics, soy products, and so forth cleanse the soul and digestive system.

But, what if you like Ding Dongs, are allergic to soy, think organics are too expensive, but still want to be part of the New Age movement? You make it look like you are a part. This is the flexibility and power of consumption in a modern world. Your purchasing is done for two reasons--for show and for use. This is not to say that all people are deceitful buyers. Only to say that people do shop for vicarious or presentation purposes. One can purchase soy flour and have it prominently displayed. Serving certified organic carrots to your boss's vegetarian husband makes more of an impression when he sees the packaging (or at least you think so). The nutritional value of a traditionally grown carrot is likely to be equivalent to the organic one, so the use value is equal. The presentation value, however is different. People use this to highlight their standing in the world.

There are, however a couple of catches. First, not everyone who thinks of themselves as New Age knows what to do. Giddens (1991), in fact, has argued that modernity is characterized by the need to seek counsel from experts. New Age is about becoming one with the universe, yet a person needs to know how to do that, and s/he will often seek expert advise on what to do (and not to do). So, for food, a person may purchase Janet Lasky's Higher Choices, which is promoted as an information guide and recipe book for people who choose to eat healthy food free of wheat, sugar, yeast, milk and fermented products, is now available. The author has created new recipes and recreated other recipes using healthy and readily available food substitutes. Organic foods or the highest quality foods available, which are free of chemicals and unhealthy food additives are used exclusively.

In addition to recipe books, a person should know about enzymes and the importance of eating raw foods (see this site). Foods, and other purchases should also be functional in the sense that nothing is wasted with regards to putting something into your body which is only going to produce fat or something that is not useful. Clothes, the car and house which are purchased should also be functional and minimalist in nature (though minimal requirements seem to differ depending on how New Age you are relative to your paycheck). Many of us would not know how to go about meeting all these requirements, so we turn to the experts.

Beyohd the role of expert opinions, consuming in the New Age is about thinking about the community. Purchasing and consumption are often individualistic behaviors or something done in a small group setting such as a family. While a New Age consumer does not necessarily share his/her whey and organic sprouts with everyone in the neighborhood, s/he should be thinking about the consequences of the purchase. Given the connectedness of everything under the New Age rubric, behaviors are thought to have consequences throughout the social and natural environments. Purchasing cheap imports means supporting inhumane labor practices and unequal trade policies. Given that these other people are part of the New Age universe, supporting their exploitation is supporting your own downfall.

Functionality has already been mentioned, though it cannot be overstated. The New Age perspective involves knowing how things work so that one can be in tune with one's surroundings--nothing is wasted. In addition, everything can and should have a function. Given the popularity of "functional" foods, one could assume that the New Age is truly here. The problem is that we know very little about advertised and perceived function and "true" functions of much of our food. However, if people perceive a food item as functional and are able and willing to purchase it, they very likely will. What people perceive as real is often real in its consequences.

The natural environment is also important in the New Age movement, which means purchasing decisions should be based on such things and the use of chemicals and whether or not the packaging is biodegradable or recyclable. Packaging for producers and retailers is very important, but if they hope to catch the New Age consumer, they must take into consideration the ideals these consumers carry.

A final component of this idea of consumption and its use and vicarious value is the notion of consuming the exotic other. According to Lalvani (1995), exoticness evokes both fear and curiousity which is often a recipe for purchasing. In Lalvani's study, the product was coffee in the 1800s, and the exotic was picturing Middle Eastern harem women on the coffee tins. The idea was that many coffee drinkers were middle class, white males who fantasized about these kinds of women while also publicly loathing their existence. Having the tin, which is only useful for holding coffee or other items once empty, was a sign of prosperity and worldliness. The New Age consumer could also be enticed by images of the exotic as they seek new experiences to bring them closer to a holistic existence.

Can Fast Food Be New Age? Neither Schlosser (2001) or Ritzer (1993) mention New Age when discussing fast food and McDonaldization. Does this mean that New Age and fast foods are opposites? Maybe, maybe not. Rizter (1993:121) argues that the rationalization behind McDonalds and its affect on society is actually irrational in the sense that "rational systems inevitably spawn a series of irrationalities that serve to limit, ultimately compromise, and perhaps even undermine, their rationality." McDonalds is the epitome of rationalization in the food world, which, according to Ritzer, will lead to its own downfall. Part of the New Age movement is the decoupling from rational institutions, so in that sense fast foods would be strictly avoided. At the same time, if frequenting fast food restaurants would quicken its demise, then it might be worth a few visits. Given the literature available on New Age and food, it is likely that most adamant followers would chose the former strategy.

There is, however, a different way of thinking about this conundrum. Most social movements try to recruit new members, and since fast food restaurants are extremely popular, why not try to get their attention with New Age fast food restaurants? The motif for such restaurants could be a holistic approach to postmodernity, inspired by an appreciation of the environment and sustainable food practices. Meals would be comprised mainly of raw, local foods, and patrons would be invited to contribute to the restaurants' ambiance through such activities as the reading of poetry, acoustic music, or art. The menu would change depending on the season and availability of food, and while such a chain might have a central bureaucracy, each restaurant would seek to involve both local and global culture into its atmosphere. In this way, a fast food chain could stave off the concern with the making and dissemination of nothing (Ritzer 2004).

Would the above scenario be considered selling out among New Age advocates? Possibly. If such a chain were successful and new members were enlisted through the restaurants, such sentiments may change. For those who are nonbelievers in such changes, one should think about the career trajectory of one of the most popular musicians in the 1960s. This person was considered a folk singer until he began experimenting on an electric guitar, and was told he was no longer welcome in the folk music circles. As his popularity--and pocketbook--swelled, musicians who had scorned him began incorporating his style into their own music. Soon, many folk singers were using electrical instruments. The musician was Bob Dylan (White 1992).

Thinking about the New Age Self--Staying Trim, Staying Safe, and Keeping it Spiritual The self, according to Mead (1934) is made up of two components--the me and the I. The me is a social animal, seeking to please others and follow social graces. The I, on the other hand, is spontaneous and edgy. The me seeks to find a clean salad plate on the second trip to the salad bar, while the I thinks the body should just stand at the salad bar and eat what is available--why waste time with a plate? This is a factitious and extremely poor example of Mead's work, though it does point to the fact that we do have to compromise in our own minds regarding behavior, and why when we are caught acting in a compromising way, we often say, "that's not me." The New Age consumer must also navigate an environment full of enticing symbols and delectable dishes, seeking experiences which are wholesome and self fulfilling. Golden arches and salads on the menu may seem inviting, but the McDonaldization of society (Ritzer 1993) -- the antithesis of New Age -- and the possibility that the lettuce in that salad was picked by exploited migrant workers without proper sanitary facilities means that lunch is again at the health food store.

Concerns about your ties to the universe are different than worrying about your figure. If the purpose of a diet is to become one with Mother Nature, that is one thing and could be considered New Age. A diet which is adopted for the purpose of catching the eyes of the new, attractive coworker, on the other hand, is not New Age -- it is about the self and not the community. Of the 50 million or so US citizens who will try a diet this year, many will do it for aesthetic reasons. And what are they hoping to accomplish? In a non-scientific poll of web surfers at www.fitnesswithin.com, 53% of 151 respondents said they would like to lose 50 or more pounds --a lofty goal, especially given some of the research. The University of California-Berkeley, for example, found that nearly 60% of women they studied who were considered clinically obese had begun dieting around the age of 14, though that dieting was not continuous. According to the US Center for Disease control, approximately one-in-five people in the US engage in regular rigorous exercise, while one-in-four do little or no exercise on a regular basis, and men are more likely than women to exercise (though remember that women typically do more housework and personal care). In addition, close to 93% of US citizens snack, half of these at least two or three times a day. For some, daily meals come at least four times a day (40%). We are also eating on the run. Nearly 84% of consumers buying food are getting it to go. This is often a stressful situation, as one tries to drive and eat or eat at work, and stress is thought to be bad for the digestive system and fat enhancing. Staying thin in a information economy is a complex issue for many people.

Body image is not the only concern with the consumption of food. There are carcinogenic agrochemicals in our fields (Kimbrell 2002), genetically engineered foods on our grocery shelves (Nottingham 1998), and e. coli in our hamburger and apple cider. The idea that organic foods are safer is an overstatement, as organically-grown sprouts have been contaminated with untreated fertilizer, and other organic foods can be contaminated anywhere between the farm and the fork. Proper handling of food is more important than its label.

The whole notion of food safety from a bench science point of view seems to have been lost on New Age members. Given the lack of concern with pathogens, one does get the sense that these people are led to believe that if they follow a New Age lifestyle, they will be protected from such problems. In Witt's (1999) discussion of Black foodways, some African-Americans are turning away from the soul food or traditional diet of that community and embracing a New Age diet consisting almost exclusively of raw foods. Whether or not they would refer to this as New Age, it is definitely something they are referring to as new. The idea is that these foods are healthier, safer, and better for the soul.

It is actually hard to get a sense of where pathogenic bacteria and viruses fit into the New Age scheme of things. These organisms are part of the natural environment, so could be considered part of the whole of life. On the other hand, they can cause sickness and death, which most New Age followers are hoping to avoid. One gets the sense, however, that this is not a major concern within the movement, as the right foods would never do you harm.

The New Age self, then, must think about the ways in which s/he purchases, prepares, and eats food. Body shape and size should not matter, as a proper New Age diet should keep one thin. If not, there's always South Beach and Atkins, as long as it fits with your holistic outlook on life.


Belasco, Warren J. 1993. Appetite for Change. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Forgas, Joseph P. and Kipling D. Williams (eds.). 2002. The Social Self. New York: Psychology Press.

Giddens, Anthony. 1991. Modernity and Self-Identity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Kimbrell, Andrew (ed.). 2002. Fatal Harvest. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Lalvani, Suren. 1995 . "Consuming the Exotic Other." Critical Studies in Mass Communication. 12:263-286.

Mead, George H. 1934. Mind, Self, and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Nottingham, Stephen. 1998. Eat Your Genes. London, UK: Zed Books.

Ritzer, George. 1993. The McDonaldization of Society. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.

-----. 2004. The Globalization of Nothing. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.

Schlosser, Eric. 2001. Fast Food Nation. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

White, Harrison, C. 1992. Identity and Control. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

For a brilliant parody of the fast food industry, see L'Aile ou la cuisse [The Wing or the Thigh?], produced in 1976 and starring Louis de Funes.