6, No. 1, December 2004
The New Age Consumer:
healthy and safely in a fast food society
Eyck, Michigan State University
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
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.
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.
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
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."
2 : of, relating to, or being a soft soothing form of instrumental
music often used to promote relaxation (www.m-w.com)
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.
in the New Age
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Warren J. 1993. Appetite for Change. Ithaca, NY: Cornell
Joseph P. and Kipling D. Williams (eds.). 2002. The Social
Self. New York: Psychology Press.
Anthony. 1991. Modernity and Self-Identity. Stanford,
CA: Stanford University Press.
Andrew (ed.). 2002. Fatal Harvest. Washington, DC: Island
Suren. 1995 . "Consuming the Exotic Other." Critical Studies
in Mass Communication. 12:263-286.
H. 1934. Mind, Self, and Society. Chicago: University
of Chicago Press.
Stephen. 1998. Eat Your Genes. London, UK: Zed Books.
George. 1993. The McDonaldization of Society. Thousand
Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.
The Globalization of Nothing. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.
Eric. 2001. Fast Food Nation. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
C. 1992. Identity and Control. Princeton, NJ: Princeton
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