Mehrafza Mirzazad

What is food?

Design research- Literature review 

January 2018


Design research

Literature review



Design Researcher

Social Scientist

Human Geographer



We begin by examining literature on key studies of food. “From the points of view of epistemology (Theories of knowledge and method)

and general zeitgeist (spirit of particular time), there have been many influences over the years on the study of food.”

These are some the key studies of food:

-“Food links all major issues of geography into a spatial network influenced by physical geography, culture, society, and economics. Food is intricate to our nutrition and health as well as our agricultural practices.”1

-Food links with culture, and social science.

- Food links with spaces of production, of preparation, and of consumption and also food generates new rules and forms boundaries within systems.

-Food links to agricultural practices and has relationships with globalization and industrialization.

- Food links with creativity, a new market, in media, and in education.

- Malnutrition and starvation in countries of the Global South have also been widely studied.

- Food links with agricultural economy, politics, regulations, the capitalist system, production, distribution and consumption

1 Robert, D. Lemon. “Food Is Spatial: The Cultural Geography of Food,”


Humans are omnivorous and can obtain food from a variety of living systems. Obtaining food was the major daily activity of early human beings. There were not enough tools and because of extreme climate conditions earlier societies used lots of energy to gather or hunt enough food for survival. They adapted themselves to the harmony of nature and they migrated in pursuit of food sources. According to French diet developer Michael Montignac, “From the beginning and up to the Neolithic Period, approximately 10,000 years ago, man [ sic] was a nomad who lived by hunting and picking wild fruit and vegetables and his diet was basically made up of game (protein and lipids) as well as wild berries and roots (carbohydrates with low Glycemic Indexes and high fiber content.)”2

In general, humans are omnivorous and nature provides a variety of living systems as food. Thus, humans have eaten what the nature has provided for them. They have a polycultural diet.

Beginning in the Neolithic era, humans began to create settlements and use simple tools. They imposed limitations on their lifestyles and brought new rules to the environment in which they lived. The Neolithic revolution brought farming, which allowed people to produce their own food for the very first time. The new tools created to support this farming and related methods of survival changed the nutrition of humans. “Compared to the hunter-food pickers of the Mesolithic Age, the farmer-cattleman had considerably reduced the variety of the food he ate.”3

2 by Micheal Montignac

3 by Micheal Montignac

Early Neolithic era farming created a limited diet including grains such as wheat and millet, and meat from goats and sheep. Species varieties for planting were limited by the climate and geographical realities of particular locations. This revolution in dietary lifestyles resulted in some deficiencies which affected health and life spans.

With the industrial revolution and emergence of cities and technology, the human diet become even more catastrophic. Human migration expanded, from villages to cities and from one country to another, as people pursued new occupational opportunities and better ways of life.

Migration brought the relocation of labour and skills, and other material and cultural elements.4

The Industrial Revolution expanded possibilities as “new farming systems created an agricultural revolution that produced larger quantities of crops to feed the increasing population.”5

In the early 19th century, the rise of agriculture and the ownership of land in the countryside created aristocracies which had great political and economical significance. “ New tools, fertilizers and harvesting techniques were introduced, resulting in increased productivity and agricultural prosperity. Indeed, despite the phenomenon of urbanization and industrialization, agriculture remained a principal provider of employment in the provinces, both supporting and being supported by industry.”6

4 I expand on the effects of migration on food culture in my sociological scale chapter.

5 “The Industrial Revolution and the Changing Face of Britain.” The†British†Museum

6 “The Industrial Revolution and the Changing Face of Britain.” The†British†Museum

“Enormous shifts in agricultural practices and in the manufacturing, marketing, and delivery of food occurred during the Industrial Revolution in the United States. Technological developments that made these changes possible included innovations in farming machinery, the building of railroads, improvements in refrigeration, the mechanization of food processing, and the invention of new packing materials and promotional techniques.”7

In this millennium, the economy is driven by consumption culture. As in other industries, the linear culture (take, make, consume, throwaway) of mass production, planned obsolescence , and fast consumption, has penetrated the food market. In the early 20th century, the food market changed parallel to changes in other commodities in the market. Processed food and fast food emerged and expanded to represent a

major share of the food market, accounting for a full 70% of American’s diets 8.

There are lots of reasons behind obesity, diabetes, and heart illness. Pollan writes that “We Humans are indeed omnivorous is deeply inscribed in our bodies, which natural selection has equipped to handle a remarkably wide-range diet”9. However, the biology of most of the food found in American supermarkets includes only a tiny range of species of plants, particularly corn and soybeans. This situation has been encouraged by the government. “For the past 50 years, U.S. farm policy has been increasingly directed toward driving down the price of farm commodities, including corn and soybeans.”10

Current farm policy concerning the low costs of corn and soybean production, make these plants two of the favorite food substances for companies and directs the food companies to explore different ways to use these additives.

7 “Big Business: Food Production, Processing & Distribution in the North 1850-1900,”

8 Kai, Ryssdal. “Processed Foods,” March 28, 2013.

9 Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan. M. p:289

10 Food Without thought, Schoonover H. and Muller M.

Corn and soybeans are two miracle substances in that they did not exist just a couple generation ago. Today, they dominate in the entire food system. “Corn feeds the chicken and pig, the turkey and the lamb, the catfish and the tilapia and, increasingly, even the salmon”11.

According to Todd Dawson, a plant biologist at the University of California-Berkeley, "We are what we eat with respect to carbon, for sure. So if we eat a particular kind of food, and it has a particular kind of carbon in it, that's recorded in us, in our tissues, in our hair, in our fingernails, in the muscles."12

Corn maintains its identity. If you take one of your cells and examine it in the lab, you can see what percentage of your cells are made of corn.

11 Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan. M. p:18

12 Sanjay, Gupta. “If We Are What We Eat, Americans Are Corn and Soy.” CNN

The wrong policies of farming, the high prices of quality soil and fertilizers, and the regulations in the international market, all contribute to limitations in human diets in this millennium. These factors have lead to our diets becoming monoculture.

Food, Food design, Food systems, Design research, Design, Circular economy
Food, Food design, Food systems, Design research, Design, Circular economy
Food, Food design, Food systems, Design research, Design, Circular economy
Food, Food design, Food systems, Design research, Design, Circular economy
Food, Food design, Food systems, Design research, Design, Circular economy
Food, Food design, Food systems, Design research, Design, Circular economy


‘Diverse policy instruments relate closely to “food policy” in the wider sense, affecting nutrition,  longevity, etc., going well beyond the production of food. The “food problem” should be seen in these wider terms, involving not only the production of food, but also the entitlements to food and to other nutrition-related variables such as health services.' 13 

                                               - Marnie J. McCuen

13 McCuen, Marnie J. Famine & Fat" P:8


Farm policy in the United States has changed over time to accommodate a growing population. Farming has transferred from a family-scale institution to an industrial-scale, which initially required a huge labor force. Changes in farming technology, the prices of crops, common farming methods, and increases in the speed of farming all affected the key ingredient in farming: soil.

“Soil is the skin of the earth. It’s the first point of contact between the planet and the atmosphere. The highly fertile top layer of soil - the uppermost twenty centimeters or so - is known as topsoil. Like the air we breathe, this layers of earth is so ordinary and ever-present that it is easy to take for granted. But it is absolutely essential to our lives, health, and prosperity.”14  Human beings extract advantages from nearly every layer of the earth. They use the outermost layer of soil not only for agriculture, but also as what McDonough and Braungart describe in Cradle to Cradle as “away,” meaning a place to hide their waste from industry, mass production, and consumption culture. When new industries and technologies emerged to address the growing population’s need for more food, new practices were introduced to the agricultural industries just as they were in other industries. All of these processes were linear and, until just a few short decades ago, human beings wrongly believed that the earth’ resources were limitless.

“By maintaining larger and larger farms, using giant machinery that tills the topsoil and kills all but planned-for crops, planting giant monocultures (identical crops), and soaking the land in pesticides, weed killers, and chemical fertilizer, industrial agriculture strip-mines the

soil. A cultivated topsoil is scoured away by rain, or blown away by wind, what remains is less fertile. What’s more, the steady chemical beating topsoil across the United State has taken over the last fifty years has killed off many of the microorganisms that keep soil alive. Dead soil no longer soil: it is just wet dust.”15

All of these chemical treatments have decimated our soil. Furthermore, these chemicals in the soil are washed out by rain, where they flow into rivers, lakes, and oceans, and pejoratively affect the safety of seafood as well.

14-15  Steffen, Alex. 2006. Worldchanging: A user's guide for the 21st century. New York: Abrams.


The relationship between the increasing rate of population growth and the ability to sustain this population with adequate food production is one of the most important and controversial global dilemmas. According to the United Nations Fund for Population Activity, it

was estimated that 1999 marked the world’s ‘Overpopulation’ year, when the total population of earth reached 6 billion people.

In the 1990s, with the population growing fast, the concept of “cheap food” ended.

Chemical fertilizers were replaced with organic ones and new farm policies were created. The earth’s resources had been used in unsustainable ways and, for the first time, the fragility of food systems and food security related to population growth emerged.

The lack of food and the alarming state of the earth’s natural resources pointed to the acceleration of global population growth. Moreover, the uneven geographical distribution of population growth often revealed that many places with high rates were also facing great economic disadvantages and were ill-equipped to deal with expanding hunger. ‘The developed countries have ageing populations and have reduced their fertility to replacement levels only, the poor nations have yet to complete this “demographic transition” and in consequence their growth potential over the next few decades remains high.’16

In conclusion, the rapid growth of the world’s population and the corresponding increasing demand for food began to reach a crisis state in the 1990s creates:

1. Intensive use of natural resources

2. Global warming, “shifting weather pattern and the flooding of fertile coastal land by

raising sea level.”17

3. “250 million people have died from hunger-related cause since 1970” 18

With the emergence of a rapidly growing population, "Food production has tripled since 1945 and average food availability per person has risen by 40 percent."19

This overproduction of cheap food resulted in a increased food waste in most countries of the Global North, including the USA. “In the USA, 30-40% of the food supply is wasted, equaling more than 20 pounds of food per person per month.”20 Such wasteful habits have devastating environmental effects.

According to Georgia Griffin, all of this food waste is sent to landfills, where it then annually generates greenhouse gases equal to that produced by two million cars.21

16 Peter, Atkins, and Bowler Ian. Food†in†Society, p:109.

17 Peter, Atkins, and Bowler Ian. Food†in†Society, p:109.

18 Peter, Atkins, and Bowler Ian. Food†in†Society, p:109.

19 Erwin, Northoff. “Healthy and Sustainable Food Systems Are Crucial to Fight Hunger and Malnutrition.” Food†and†Agriculture

Organization†of†United†Nation, January 17, 2014.

20 United Nations Environment Programme, Regional Office of North America

21 Georgia, Griffin. “Leftovers--Into the Trash or Kitchen Disposal? Essential Answer,”


‘“Undernutrition” is usually defined as an inadequate intake of calories and “malnutrition” as an imbalance of nutrient consumption, usually due to a shortage of a key vitamins and minerals. Occasionally problems may arise where the soil is deficient in certain elements due to geological factors. It is possible to be malnourished even in rich countries, for

instance on an unbalanced diet of junk food, or through over-eating, leading to obesity.’22

Along with changes in the speed of food production, agricultural practices also changed.

As stated earlier, many foods were replaced with cheaper and/or faster growing foods. The cattle industry developed to accelerate the growth of cows for both meat and dairy. Similar developments increased the rates at which plants were grown and harvested. This process involved the manipulation of food’s DNA, to maximize speed of growth. This created abnormalities in foods, with some processed foods in the market creating diseases.

It is estimated that the diets of 70% of American people are based on these processed foods, with a full 85% of Americans unable to afford fresh fruits and vegetables.23 This reality helps explain “where man [ sic] lost his way and ended up on a path to obesity, diabetes and heart illness.”24 This problem is not limited to those in the United States. As Erwin states, a full “1.5 billion people are overweight or obese, consuming more food than their bodies need and exposing them to greater risk of diabetes, heart problems and other diseases.”25

The problem is nevertheless acute in this country, as “Four of the top ten killers in America are chronic diseases linked to this diet.”26 Changing this situation is difficult considering that there is a massive economy based on this linear-produced dietary system.

Processed food (cheap and low quality ingredients) has a high profit yield and “the healthcare industry makes more money treating chronic diseases (which account for three quarters of $2 trillion plus we spend each year on healthcare in this country) than preventing them.”27

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, 840 million people suffer from hunger every day. This malnutrition and hunger affects their ability to work, to progress, to achieve adequate physical development, and it creates illnesses and sometimes leads to early

death. “Hunger is more than just a temporary physical discomfort, the most that is ever normally experienced in the nutritionally comfortable developed countries. It is often a chronic (recurring and long-term) and severe condition that may be a precursor to famine and starvation.”28 This state of affairs becomes even more frustrating when we consider that “The world produces enough food to feed every man, woman and child on earth. Hunger and malnutrition therefore are not due to lack of food alone, but are also the consequences of poverty, inequality and misplaced priorities.”29

22 Peter, Atkins, and Bowler Ian. Food in Society, p:125.

23 Latetia, V. Moore, and E. Thompson Frances. “Adults Meeting Fruit and Vegetable Intake Recommendations — United States,


24 by Micheal Montignac

25 Erwin, Northoff. “Healthy and Sustainable Food Systems Are Crucial to Fight Hunger and Malnutrition.” Food and Agriculture

Organization of United Nation, January 17, 2014.

26 Michael, Pollan. Food Rules an Eater’s Manual. P: xii

27 Michael, Pollan. Food Rules†an Eater’s Manual. P: xiv

28 Peter, Atkins, and Bowler Ian. Food†in†Society, p:130.

29 UNICEF Deputy Executive Director, Kul C. Gautam


Famine can be defined as an “extreme and general scarcity of food.”30 Famine is a

socio-economic phenomenon which affects people, or a subsection of people, on a widespread scale. Aykroyd writes that “The most important natural cause of famine has been drought due to insufficient rainfall, preventing crops from being sown and harvested, and killing off domestic animals.”31 Famine may also be caused by floods, which destroy crops, and war, which prevents farmers from being able to safely complete their work.

In short, every aspect of food is interconnected, from its production to its consumption,

and from natural disasters, to anthropogenic forces, including technological changes in the

agricultural industry. Global climate change, which has also been affected by human behavior, plays a role as well.

30 The Oxford English Dictionary.

31 Aykroyd, W. R. 1975. The conquest of famine. New York: Reader's Digest Press : distributed by E. P. Dutton.


Food is more than just what we eat every day. It is a complicated matter. Our biological

structure has nutritional needs. We have cultural practices and social meanings inscribed on our food. There are political issues based on food in all geographical settings. We have values about food based on our religions, histories, and personal backgrounds. We have a complicated relationship with food and all of these various elements “create desirable or undesirable food and drink”32 for us.

By the late 2000s, food, drink and cuisine studies had become scholarly pursuits, with

multidisciplinary research on these subjects ranging widely (in fields such as Anthropology,

History, Biology, Economics, and Political Science). Food as a tangible object has occupied a

space. It both exists and subsists, and is at the same time accessible to both our senses and our thinking processes. When we become hungry or thirsty we desire food based on our emotions and on our cognitive values.

Roland Barthes discusses the complexity of food as an object of inquiry in Contemporary

Food Consumption. He states that “It is not only a collection of products that can be used for statistical or nutritional studies. It is also, and at the same time, a system of communication, a body of images, a protocol of usages, situations, and behavior.”33

32 Carolyn, de la Pena, and Lawrance Benjamin. “Food Ways, Foodism or Food Scares? Navigating the Local/global

and Food/culture Divides,” n.d.,P:2

33 Roland, Barthes. Contemporary Food Consumption, p:29

Food is a tangible object. Food occupies a space in its living system during its

production, its harvest, its preparation, and its consumption. Food requires time for all of these processes. Different climates and geographies create different types of food. Different soils give food different chemical compositions. Food has vitamins, calories, proteins, and minerals. Food has colors, smells, and textures. Through human manipulation, food takes different forms. “A Food is something that can be eaten. It may be a basic food such as salt or it may be the more complex result of another recipe, for example chicken stock. A recipe uses foods as part of ingredients and also produces foods to be eaten.”34

All living systems must eat to survive. Capaldi writes that “Eating is both necessary for

life and a source of considerable pleasure.”35 Human eating behavior is shaped by both innate mechanisms, as well as by cultural, social, religious, and other experiences (learned behaviors). “Innate preferences may be expressed for simple taste at birth; however, in omnivores the process of developing food preferences occurs in stages over time, exploiting the ability to pair certain tastes, smells, flavors, and food with postingestive consequences. For example, newborn infants respond positively to the taste of sweet solutions and reject sour and bitter solutions” (Steiner, 1977).36 These innate preferences create emotional relationships with our food.

There “are real manifestations of the way that emotions control our muscle systems and

yes, even our digestive system. Thus, pleasant tastes and smells cause you to salivate, to inhale and ingest. Unpleasant things cause the muscles to tense as preparation for a response. A bad taste causes the mouth to pucker, food to be spit out, the stomach muscles to contract. All of these reactions are part of the experience of emotion.”37 Emotional relationships are not only innate, sometimes they are created by experiences and values during our lifetimes. The pleasure of food is learned and is deeply rooted in our experiences and backgrounds (historical, cultural, and social). These experiences have a tight relationship with the emotional systems of the human body, and they affect behavior and generate human responses.

According to food designer Marije Vogelzang, eating food “is social glue, a showcase of

our identity that can comfort us, reveal memories of forgotten times and hidden places. Food can bring joy, status, sadness, conviviality and connection.”38 Food is a major element of who we are as people.

34 “Food Ontology.” BBC Ontologies

35-36  Capaldi, Elizabeth. Why We Eat What We Eat The Psychology of Eating, p:267

37 Donald, Norman. Emotional Design, p:12

38 Food Player. Gingko Press, p:004



Living systems are self-organized elements that have worked and interacted together and

within their environments for more than a billion years. There is no waste in living systems. All

systems are connected with one another. In the illustration below, System A extracts energy from the sun and soil, and then provides food and energy for System B. System B is consumed by system C. When system C reaches the end of its life cycle, it is decomposed and returns to the soil to become nutrition which helps sustain System A. This schema shows a simplified version of how the living system works circularly:

Historically, the food of humans worked in a circular way as well, with all food produced

and consumed locally.

With the world’s growing population and advances in technology, the historical era of

(small scale) food production ended, and humans constructed new systems for food production and distribution. Globalization and economic forces on a worldwide scale have encouraged a throwaway culture as part of a capitalist model.

Throwaway culture penetrates the market, which “has characterised and underpinned

industrial economies for more than half of century.”39 Humans take, make, and dispose of

materials, which is a linear process. This system poisons the air, soil, and water; generates waste, including dangerous materials; and consumes natural resources at a faster rate than they can be renewed at. Researchers, governments, and societies must respond by creating alternatives to this linear system.

At the dawn of the industrial revolution, there was no anticipation of the eventual

consequences of rapid mass production. Nature was described as ‘"Mother earth" who,

perpetually regenerative, would absorb all things and continue to grow.’ 40 Fordism and the

acceleration mass production have exacerbated the pejorative environmental effects.

After observing the results of a long period of quick linear system, our understanding

about nature has changed. The air, the water, plants and soil are vulnerable and are not renewable and ‘"Away" has gone away’41

39 Bakker C,Hollander Marcel, Hinte E., Products that last, p: 5.

40-41 W. McDonough & M. Braungart, Cradle to Cradle, p: 25



Waste management

Different from living systems in nature, human-generated waste (Solid waste, sewage,

biodegradable waste) uses more natural resources and wastes them again. Significantly, since the dawn of our throwaway culture and exacerbated by the growth of populations in cities, the expanding generation of waste could no longer be ignored. The ever-increasing accumulation of waste necessitated its management and the emergence of landfills.

In an attempt to reduce the impact of landfills and to improve the waste industry and

protect human health, recycling has become a highly developed technology. Recycling is the

process which reduces the consumption of fresh materials and can be dichotomized between

downcycling and upcycling.


McDonough & M. Braungart state that “Most recycling is actually downcycling; it

reduces the quality of a material over time.”42 Most of the plastic and metals that are often

downcycled, for example parts of a steel car, are recycled along with other metals, paints, and other materials, which create a low-quality metal. “Lost value and lost material are not the only concerns. Downcycling can actually increase contamination of the biosphere. The paints and plastics that are melted into recycled steel, for example, contain harmful chemicals.”43

Furthermore, downcycling “can be more expensive for businesses, partly because it tries to force materials into more lifetimes than they were originally designed for, a complicated and messy conversation and one that itself expends energy and resources.”44

42-43 W. McDonough & M. Braungart, Cradle to Cradle, p: 56

44  W. McDonough & M. Braungart, Cradle to Cradle, p: 59