Years ago, in an article written for Mesomorphosis, I reflected upon the interesting contradicton of ersatz food in “fitness culture”. I discussed “nonfood” which generally referred to artificially created and/or highly processed food substances such as protein powders, MRPs, amino acid pills, and anything else that can be purchased from a supplement company. Essentially, nonfood is any substance which has undergone a significant degree of human mediation, and which is consumed for fuel or specific physical goals (e.g. muscle mass gain) instead of gustatory pleasure.
Food is generally regarded by bodybuilders not as an experience of organic and sensual enjoyment, but as fuel or a substance which contributes to the achievement of a particular physical goal. Bodyfat, in “fitness culture”, is the physical manifestation of overindulgence. Eating, for many people in this culture, is something to be brought under control, and to be done within a clearly defined regimen of bodily discipline.
Enjoyment of food and control of the body are thought to be incompatible; after all, who gets brown rice and lentil cravings? Thus, if the pleasure of eating is antithetical to control of the body, it stands to reason that foods deemed appropriate for “health” goals must be-symbolically or actually-separate from those kinds of foods which are enjoyable. “For”, as Margaret Morse notes, “if food is the manna of fullness and pleasure, nonfood is bad-tasting medicine that-precisely because it is disgusting-can be eaten with pleasure…”(145)
While the latest nonfood supplements such as flavoured whey protein or protein bars taste better than their predecessors, the very fact that they are now supposed to be tasty (or at least palatable) only reinforces the notion that they are “healthy” substitutes for the “unhealthy” real thing. The flavour list of ProMax’s protein bars, for example, reads like a dessert menu: apple pie, raspberry truffle, chocolate fudge brownie. These bars are a morally superior stand-in for “forbidden” foods, and in fact become preferable to the real thing. One may indulge one’s sensual appetites through “virtual flavour” with no physical “harm” being done. Like Olestra, these nonfood products provide a simulacrum of food.
Ironically, it is the most processed foods that are most likely to trumpet their “improved” health value. Some years back, Maple Leaf Foods in Canada promoted a hot dog product by emphasizing its vitamin content. This state of affairs might stem from our cultural “loss of faith in our ability to survive a toxic natural and social world without medicinal help” (Morse 147), and the symbolic link between technology and the future of “progress”. Bodybuilders are always searching for the next big thing, the newest substance to give them an edge over their competitors. The democratic nature of access to “real” food allows nonfood to have a cachet of scientific sophistication. And, we think, the more engineered the food, the better it must be for us. We can bypass all that inconvenient nutrient conversion and jam those isolated aminos straight into our cells.
Personally I feel that we cannot improve on real food. One square of real dark chocolate beats the snot out of a whole fake flavoured “chocolate brownie” protein bar any day. Some of the “delicious” supplements taste downright awful. Real food has sustained us for thousands of years, we’ve gotten very inventive at preparing it in delicious and nourishing ways, and it contains everything we need to survive and thrive. Also, there is a near-complete lack of genuine nutrition in prefab crud. Although the manufacturer may have shoved a handful of vitamins in there like a cook shoves stuffing up a turkey’s butt, the chemical soup of fake food resembles a waste dump more than a meal.
However I do like the convenience of protein bars. So, I decided to use my simian brain and the Julia Child spirit and come up with one myself. And aside from the fact that it’s “real food”, it’s also a whole lot cheaper per bar.
Bordo, Susan. “Anorexia Nervosa: Psychopathology as Crystallization of Culture”, Food and Culture: A Reader ed. Carole Counihan and Penny van Esterik (New York: Routledge, 1997).
Morse, Margaret. “What Do Cyborgs Eat? Oral Logic in an Information Society”, Virtualities: Television, Media Art, and Cyberculture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.