4S Preview: Eating For Life: When Food Is the Best Medicine
17 August, 2016
We are publishing a series of posts highlighting some of the tracks on the program of the 2016 4S conference, which will convene jointly with the European Association for the Study of Science and Technology (EASST) in Barcelona, August 31-September 3. The theme of this year’s 4S/EASST conference is “science and technology by other means.” For more information on "Eating For Life: When Food Is the Best Medicine," and to view the accepted abstracts, please see the track page. - Ed.
Recent work in science studies has identified the use of “drugs for life” (Dumit 2012) – drugs which are necessary to sustain life and which also must be taken for the duration of life to have the desired effect – as a dominant trend in today’s biomedical toolkit. What has sometimes been overlooked are the everyday technologies of the self that coexist with these novel pharmaceutical regimens, like eating. Eating is a quotidian act which is both biologically necessary and socially significant. It is also an important target of rationalization and tool for risk management in biomedical societies. The 4S panel, “Eating For Life: When Food Is the Best Medicine,” seeks to explore the intentional and incidental ways that dietary management is used to augment or stand in for pharmaceutical approaches to the maintenance of the human body.
My own research on food allergies in the United States offers an entry point into this theme. Food allergy occurs when a person’s immune system, due a variety of interacting factors, misrecognizes ordinary foods like peanut, milk, and egg as dangerous pathogens. The body then mounts a systemic response when even trace amounts of these foods are ingested. In some cases, this misfire can lead to serious injury or death. Right now, there is no regulatory agency-approved treatment to cure food allergies anywhere in the world, even though around 8% of children in the U.S. are currently estimated to have at least one food allergy.
[A sampling of allergy-friendly foods]
Without a pharmaceutical solution, both physicians and patients must rely on careful, patient-enacted elimination diets to prevent ingestion of triggering foods. How one eats is how one controls the condition. Figuring out how to prepare meals without common, and commonly allergenic, foods like soy, wheat, milk, egg, and peanut has become a biosocial effort for many food allergy patients and caretakers of allergic children. Beginning in the 1990s, mothers of allergic children began to find each other in local and online support groups, building a network of email listservs and non-profits to exchange wisdom concerning how to live with an elimination regime. These resources remain important for caretakers as well as for adults and adolescents managing their own condition. More recently, specialty food companies have begun to incorporate aggregated knowledge about ingredient substitutions and the prevention of cross-contact of allergens with “safe” foods into business models, production line technologies, and prepared foods. This corner of the specialty foods industry – what could be called the elimination diet support industry – now thrives according to the benchmarks of sales, profits, and company acquisitions while offering many families hope while they wait for a long-term, disease modifying biomedical treatment.
Food allergy is not the only context in which eating is a key tool for treating a biomedical disease, as our panel will show. Specialty foods with disease-taming properties are now a prominent sector of both the medical and the food industries, turning biomedical fears and risk factors into profit-generating enterprises while providing patients with a way to have agency in the face of disease. In Eva Jansen’s work in Germany, for example, patients take the work of eating for cancer management into their own hands, bringing naturopathic expertise into that ultimate symbol of biomedical advancement over death, the modern cancer ward. As Thomas Cousins and Michelle Pentecost will discuss, the widening availability of nutritional therapy and nutriceuticals now play an important role in the biopolitics of South Africa. They are positioned as tools for making better futures via temporary humanitarian interventions. But nutritional claims are no longer the only ones that matter. As Isabel Fletcher will explain, new nutritional guidelines in several European countries link the nutrition an individual receives from their food with the healthfulness of that food’s production for the environment. Anthropocenic concerns linking individuals to production practices, non-human organisms, and environment seem poised to expand the heretofore human-centered definition of “healthy food”.
These science studies approaches to how food is used to promote health embody this year’s 4S theme of science and technology by other means. With biomedicine now firmly situated in a post-genomic moment in which disease etiology can no longer plausibly be linked to a single biological structure, the scope of what counts as a medical problem is changing. Dietary practices are thus taking on renewed importance for scientists and practitioners seeking to situate human health in broader social, epistemological, and environmental contexts. This panel offers interested observers and practitioners new insights on the stakes of incorporating food and eating into the biomedical toolkit.
Danya Glabau, PhD (@allergyPhD) is an Associate Faculty at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. She is based in Brooklyn, NY, where she teaches courses on STS, feminist science studies, and social theory that are open to public and academic audiences alike. She recently defended her dissertation, “Morality in Action: Risking Death and Caring for Life in American Food Allergy Worlds” in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University and is currently developing a book project based on ongoing research on food allergies and the pharmaceutical industry.