Back in the Nineties, reading food packets for junk ingredients was a typical Left-wing hobby. It was a fairly safe bet that if you had opinions on pesticides in farming, preferred “unrefined” or “unprocessed” foodstuffs, or questioned the benefits of pasteurisation or “conventional medicine”, you’d have broadly progressive views.
Now, though, many of the opinions that were held by the Left-leaning devotees of mung beans and carob in my youth have become the preserve of the Right — and especially of its weirder online subcultures. Here, enthusiasm for raw milk and animal protein (especially, for some reason, raw eggs) join an aversion to touching shop receipts and views such as “feminism has harmed men and is actively anti-civilisation” and “democracy is fake“, as well as a range of even more pungent anti-progressive talking-points.
Perhaps the two food chain talking-points that recur most frequently and vehemently, though, are hostility to soy (which has become a metonym for emasculation due to its rumoured feminising content) and to “seed oils” such as canola, palm and sunflower oils.
And when a new California startup announced this week that it’s taking aim at environmentally destructive vegetable oils, it received disgusted pushback from Right-wing health-freaks. Zero Acre Farms, with backers including the Branson family and Hollywood actor Robert Downey Jr, said yesterday that it’s raised $37m to launch a new, “healthier” substitute for vegetable oil, made “by fermentation”.
It was launched with a rallying call to the seed oil haters. It didn’t go down well: biotech industrial complex wants to destroy farming and sell you synthetic garbage! It’s a familiar refrain to me, having grown up around eaters of health food. But unlike in my childhood, today this line of argument no longer comes from the Left.
This reaction, and the broader political realignment on health food, both make more sense when you dig into the business of fat: who makes and sells it, who eats it — and who gains or loses.
Until the industrial era, human-edible fats were mostly obtained from dairy products or rendered meat. The dawn of science and large-scale manufacturing, though, inspired innovators to seek new sources of oil — and new ways to use industrial byproducts. In the process, mechanical methods were invented for extracting palatable vegetable oils, especially from seeds.
In turn, a new ecosystem of scientific research and marketing sprang up to promote the benefits of these new, industrially-produced ingredients. “Tonight’s the night Mrs Ed Flynn starts Polyunsaturating her husband”, declares a mid-Fifties advert for Mazola corn oil in National Geographic. According to this advert, “medical authorities” advise replacing “solid fats” — by which is meant lard and dripping — with “more highly polyunsaturated vegetable oils”, which scientific authorities now declared to be healthier and more beneficial.
I’ve seen the manufacturing of “medical authorities” from the inside. Of all the many jobs I’ve held, in the course of my extremely chequered employment history, hands down the most unpleasant was a brief stint as marketing executive at a small PR outfit that specialised in “nutraceuticals”. That is, chemically-derived additives for the junk-food industry.
The company’s work proceeded roughly as follows: on behalf of nutraceutical manufacturers, it would arrange for scientists to produce “studies” showing that the chemical in question had health benefits, or didn’t cause the harm it was being accused of. Then hapless 20-somethings (me in this case) would try and persuade journalists to write enthusiastic articles about this newly laundered “science”.
Such hapless 20-somethings would also be in charge of responding to angry letters, written in all caps, from consumers suspicious that they were being lied to. Which they weren’t. At least, not exactly. And yet what they were being fed had the same relationship to truth as aspartame does to sugar. The work felt profoundly cynical. I didn’t last long.
What I learned from that brief, inglorious experience was that the tinfoil hatters are, to an extent, right. Big Business really does use scientific discourse to launder the reputation of deeply questionable food additives, in the name of profit. And this was once a standard talking-point for Left-wing junk-food haters.
The rant would segue from grumbling about “processed food” being unhealthy, to a broader attack on the immense, well-funded commercial infrastructure dedicated to pushing high-fat, low-nutrition products into the nation’s shopping trolleys. In other words: the evils of junk food stand for the evils of Big Business, and a scientific establishment seemingly in hock to its commercial interests. In practice, the critique of processed foods is a profoundly anti-capitalist, anti-technology one. But now, the modern Left has expelled anti-capitalist, anti-technology voices entirely, instead embracing science, technology and Big Business as key delivery partners for its vision of utopia.
This has been a long time coming. Back in the mung bean days, the Anglophone Left was still the historic, improbable blend of well-meaning bourgeois idealists and the industrial working class. But as de-industrialisation shrunk and dispossessed that industrial base, the bourgeois half of the coalition grew dominant: a process commentators have for a decade now condemned as “the gentrification of the Left“.
People in glass houses are famously advised not to throw stones. And as the progressive worldview has become more monolithically elite in class terms, it’s also lost its antagonism to Big Business. Perhaps the hinge decade for this was the Blair era, when “social enterprise” emerged as a policy watchword and everyone sincerely believed that business could and should be a force for good. And in the grisly aftermath the 2008 Great Crash, the radical, anti-capitalist Left of yore both enjoyed its last hurrah and suffered utter defeat.
Far from helping to hold Big Finance to account, progressive ideology instead served to kill the anti-capitalist Left as a political force. The Occupy movement famously found itself paralysed by woke purity spirals: its participants spent so much time arguing about identity they never coordinated any kind of effective political action.
With anti-capitalism now effectively neutered, wokeness has been domesticated as the house ideology for a new, socially-conscious capitalism — the kind that today receives full-throated endorsement in the Financial Times. Unsurprising, then, that the food industry is falling enthusiastically on new ways to dress the marketing of ultra-processed foods in the garb of scientifically-endorsed health — which now gives it a progressive sheen. The populist twentieth-century junk-food marketing message of healthy, affordable abundance has given way to an anxious twenty-first-century one of health, environmentalism and moral purity.
Consider “Veganuary“: a kind of secular Lent founded in 2014, that encourages people to eschew animal-origin foodstuffs in favour of a “plant-based” diet, in the name of saving the planet. This festival is enthusiastically promoted by retailers of “plant-based” foodstuffs, a market predicted to see explosive growth by 2030. Whether “mycoprotein” (aka fungus grown in vats) or synthetic “meat” made from soya, such products frequently contain large volumes of just the industrially-produced oils once heavily criticised by Left-wing opponents of junk food. So “Veganuary” is, in truth, a month-long PR festival for the ultra-processed food industry, complete with articles citing scientific studies that underline the health benefits of this way of eating.
Who can tell how many such studies are “sold in” by hapless 20-somethings miserably employed in food PR firms? Certainly the progressive emphasis rarely seems to be on cooking from scratch. That’s the preserve of dissident mutterers, expelled from polite discourse to fulminate out in the badlands about Big Business, Big Pharma, fake science and the perils of junk food. As one response to Zero Acre put it: “you want us cooking our fake vat-grown “meat” in fake microbe-extruded oil product in a pod somewhere”.
“Health” subcultures are increasingly Right-inflected, because what’s left of the resistance to industrial capitalism is also Right-inflected. But will the new defenders of natural food against the ravages of technocapital give up to commerce, like their progressive predecessors? Perhaps in another decade, this backlash will have been assimilated and regurgitated as Based Gainz Ready Meals. Let’s hope the new anti-capitalists are nimbler in avoiding this fate than their mung bean-eating forebears.