Taking Food Off Moral Grounds

It’s as if we order morality off a menu: We choose between “good” and “bad” foods, “clean” and “indulgent” entrées, and “guilt-free” and “sinful” desserts. We attach moral value to eating so routinely that we even label ourselves “naughty” when we order burgers instead of salads and “treat” ourselves to French fries instead of fruit. Only when we excuse ourselves for “cheat days,” it seems, do we give our bodies what they truly crave.

A recent example of this moralized labeling of food appears in an advertisement for thinkThin High-Protein Bars, found in the May 2016 issue of SELF magazine. The ad pairs an image of the energy bar with a message that relieves consumers from food shame. “Guilt free. Unless you steal one,” it reads, implying, of course, that consumers may enjoy these sugar-free, high-protein bars without any guilt.

Despite what the advertisement suggests, thinkThin’s bars aren’t inherently “good” in ways that other foods are “bad.” You see, food is neither good nor bad. We feel bad eating certain foods only because our cultural mindset is bad—unhealthy, dangerous, and wrong.

Food with sugar is not bad. Ditto to food with fat and food with calories. Even if these foods were bad, they couldn’t make us—the living, breathing, surviving-on-food people we are—bad. Contrary to common lore, we are so much more than what we eat.

Food, on the other hand, is just food. From donuts to ice cream to apples to kale, food across the nutritional spectrum is fuel. It’s energy, as basic as the air we breathe and the water we drink. Let’s rid our language of labels that attach moral meaning to our plates. Let’s recognize that food has social, cultural, and emotional value, yes—but no moral value.

Food is food. Let’s not give it more power than it deserves.