Several years back there was a huge amount of outrage over Subway using a chemical in their bread that is also found in yoga mats. The chemical created a structure that provided extra fluff to the bread, and did the same thing when combined with the various polymers of a yoga mat. People were shocked to learn that a yoga mat component was being used in their bread and feared that it could be causing cancer or leading to a whole host of bad health outcomes.
The yoga mat bread chemical is one example of our fear of chemicals and impurities in our food. The fear of impurities and synthetics is not isolated to food, and is a major component of postmodernism that we can see in different aspects of our culture. It is something I have been thinking about a lot today as we struggle to convince people across the globe to trust vaccines. We like things that are natural, see the diets of cavemen as superior and better for our bodies than modern processed diets, and want to avoid all consumer goods that have complex origins and require lots of chemicals to produce. Some of these desires are motivated by fears of climate change, some are motivated by a distrust of authority, and some come from a general uncertainty of things we cannot pronounce and don’t understand. But often, this postmodernism stance doesn’t make any sense at all.
In the book Gulp, Mary Roach writes the following about our postmodern chemical food fear, “A quick word about chemicals and flavors. All flavors in nature are chemicals. That’s what food is. Organic, vine-ripened, processed and unprocessed, vegetable and animal, all of it chemicals.” Roach explains that ideas of natural, organic, and chemical free don’t really make sense. Anything can sound bad and dangerous when written out and described in terms of its chemicals, but truly everything around us is made of different chemicals. When people isolate a single chemical in a food, soap, or clothing product, they are likely playing up our fear to drive some sort of action on our part. Postmodernism in this way is an abusive tactic often utilized to get us to buy something more expensive.
It is tempting to criticize people for being dumb and not knowing that water, pineapples, and cotton shirts are all made of chemicals. But the point is that across our culture many of us have the same postmodernist reaction. We might not be afraid of food chemicals, but for many of us, we probably prefer products that don’t appear to be as touched by science as those which appear to be artificial, unnatural, or man-made. We want to eat local, we want to understand how our things are made and produced, and we want to feel connected to the earth. Technology has given us things which are actually less harmful to ourselves and the planet than some of the products we buy to protect ourselves and the planet, but science is complex and hard to understand, and our culture is having a reaction against the science. All-natural foods, anti-vaccine sentiments, and reactions against technology all represent something similar – a fear of the unknown and man-made, even if that fear isn’t warranted. We are all susceptible and should be thinking about how we make science, technology, and progress less scary for the world.