Platter of cheese and crackers

For the August Food Values Research Group Seminar Series, we are pleased to present:Barbara Santich

An Avignon Table, 1772-73

Professor Emeritus Barbara Santich

The archives Galéan de Gadagne, held in the Vaucluse departmental archives, include a document of great interest to food historians: the accounts of the household of Gaspard II de Fortia de Montréal for the years 1772-1773. M. Pradel, the household steward, was meticulous in his record-keeping, noting precise quantities and prices for all food purchases, and often their end-use. In the absence of printed cookbooks for the period, these accounts open a window on to the domestic life of a noble family and provide valuable information on meals and eating habits in eighteenth-century Provence.

Barbara Santich designed and initiated the Graduate Program in Food Studies, planned the Graduate Program in Gastronomy and developed the core courses, and teaches in the Graduate Certificate in Food Writing. France and Australia remain at the centre of Barbara’s research interests. Her most recent book is Bold Palates: Australia’s Gastronomic Heritage (Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 2012). This book explores the stories behind the foods, dishes, ways of cooking and ways of eating that are considered distinctively and characteristically Australian, from indigenous ingredients such as kangaroo and native currants to the now-Australianised pumpkin and passionfruit and the very Australian inventions of puftaloons and mango & papaw chutney. As a food writer Barbara Santich has contributed to numerous Australian newspapers and magazines as well as overseas publications including The Journal of Gastronomy, Petits Propos Culinaires, the New York Times and Slow (quarterly magazine of the International Slow Food Movement). She contributed extensively to the Oxford Companion to Food, edited by Alan Davidson, has presented papers at many Australian and overseas conferences, and is a regular participant at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery. Barbara is a member of the Editorial Board of Petits Propos Culinaires and, until it ceased publication in 2007, was also on the Editorial Advisory Board of Slow. She was the founding chair of the Scientific Commission for the Australian Ark of Taste (2003-2007).

When: Friday, 12th of August, 1-2 PM

Where: Ira Raymond Room, Barr Smith Library, North Terrace Campus, University of Adelaide (click here for campus map)

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Superfoods are everywhere these days. Once found only in niche health food shops, displays of “exotic” superfoods like açai from the Brazilian Amazon and maca from the Peruvian Andes now appear in supermarket chains, chemists, and convenience stores.

One can hardly open a newspaper or magazine without coming across a list of the top superfoods you should be eating, or an article debunking the entire premise of them.

New superfoods keep coming, too. The latest product, Australian native “bio-food” Gurạdji (ger-ra-je), is promoted as “anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, and beneficial to gut health”, while simultaneously being an “undiscovered” superfood used for “thousands of years”.

But what are superfoods, and why do so many Australians find them to be both seductive and confusing? The word itself is the creation of marketing, but their history and popular appeal are more than superficial.

We can study superfoods in two ways: firstly, as a popular way of thinking and talking about food, health, and values; and secondly, as a particular group of food products produced by real people in a global food economy.

Seductive and medicinal

In Australia, consumers are drawn to superfoods because they are positioned between food and medicine. Through focus group interviews with superfoods consumers, I’ve found that this in-between quality is part of what makes superfoods so alluring – “a bit seductive” as one participant put it – and also so confusing, because how much or how often to consume them, and precisely what benefits they offer, are often unclear.

Participants in the study rarely spoke about the taste of superfoods – they focussed more on health benefits. So it’s not surprising that superfoods are most frequently consumed in smoothies, where they are blended together into a meal that’s also a multivitamin and preventative medicine. This smoothie becomes a talismanic object that’s seen as providing protection from many of the health threats of the modern world.

These findings underscore classic anthropological observations about the power of ambiguous objects. They help us to understand why certain foods carry more cultural appeal than others.


But superfood consumers are not as naïve as one might think. Most express scepticism towards superfood health claims and recognise that they are being sold a romantic image. However, they are happy to succumb to a bit of magical thinking and eat superfoods as a sort of extra insurance, because they believe that they might help and probably can’t hurt.

This attitude might not be a big concern for those who choose to buy superfoods. But the focus on individual foods and nutrients might distract from major public health messages of eating a balanced diet, and downplay the impact of increased demand for “exotic” superfoods on producers in the global south.

The lure of ‘all-natural’

Many of us are living, arguably, in an era of functional nutritionism. In wealthy countries like Australia, we’ve largely solved the public health problems of malnutrition. Most research and dietary advice focusses on eating the “right” nutrients and foods to maximise health and prevent chronic disease.

One outcome of this focus is the rise of “functional foods” designed to offer extra nutritional value: vitamin-D fortified orange juice, omega-3 enriched eggs, or cholesterol-lowering margarines, for example.

Many people accept the idea that if we consume large quantities of the right nutrients we can be extra healthy, but reject “functional foods”. They want all those nutrients, but they don’t want to eat highly formulated and often heavily processed foods.

This is where superfoods come into the picture. They embrace the premise of functional nutritionism, and flaunt their high levels of vitamins, antioxidants, and other nutrients. But they insist these nutrients are better when they come in a more natural form.


Nutritional primitivism

For many of the more exotic superfoods, like quinoa, chia seed, and açai, associations with “ancient” or “indigenous” traditions are another major selling point.

For example, chia, a seed native to Mesoamerica, is often called the “superfood of the Aztecs”, while the Peruvian root maca is frequently marketed as the “Inca superfood.”

The assumption that a food or diet is healthier because it is more natural, authentic, and ancient is widespread in contemporary food and nutrition culture: Paleolithic and low-carbohydrate diets are two popular examples.

Food culture researcher Dr Christine Knight has called this trend nutritional primitivism: the tendency to romanticise ancient or indigenous food practices as being inherently healthier because they are supposedly simpler and more in touch with nature.

Superfoods as global food products

Representing superfoods as “exotic” and “primitive” can have consequences for producers in the global south. By depicting superfood production in primitive utopias, the real lives – and real food security and food sovereignty struggles – of these populations are erased in favour of more romantic images.

For example, the packaging of popular Australian superfood brand Power Super Foods features illustrations of indigenous-looking women happily harvesting products by hand in pristine surroundings.

In reality, most superfoods are grown using modern agriculture, with machinery such as tractors and dehydrators. The people who produce superfoods face the same real problems as farmers anywhere, like climate variation and fluctuating prices. But often their struggles are even harder as they have less political and economic power.

All of this doesn’t mean that superfoods aren’t healthy or good for you. But we should be aware that superfoods are a symptom of nutritional confusion and an often-exploitative global food system, not a cure.


This is the fourth article in our ongoing series on food and culture Tastes of a Nation. You can read previous instalments here.

Jessica Loyer, PhD Candidate in Humanities, University of Adelaide

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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For the sixth seminar in the Food Values Research Group seminar series, we are pleased to present:

What Can Governments Do to Address Childhood Obesity?  A Community Perspective

Professor Annette Braunack-Mayer and Dr Jackie Street, University of Adelaide

Childhood obesity is a significant challenge for public health internationally. Regulatory measures used by governments offer a potentially effective response to this issue, but governments are often reluctant to use such measures as they fear public criticism. In the HealthyLaws study we undertook a comprehensive assessment of regulatory interventions to prevent childhood obesity which we presented to a descriptively representative and informed group of Australians.

Professsor Annette Braunack-Mayer, School of Public Health, University of AdelaideWe asked a citizens’ jury, held in South Australia in April 2015, to consider the question: What laws, if any, should we have in Australia to address childhood obesity? The jury were provided with system
atically collected evidence of effectiveness of potential interventions, ethical and legal issues and community views. This seminar will present the findings from the jury and explore their implications for public policy in Australia.

Annette Braunack-Mayer is Professor of Health Ethics in the School of Public Health at the University of Adelaide.  She originally trained in bioethics with an emphasis on ethics and policy in general practice.  In recent years she has extended this to research in public health ethics and policy.  Her current research focuses on ethics and community engagement in chronic disease prevention, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and vaccination programs and policy.

Dr Jackie Street, School of Public Health, University of AdelaideJackie Street is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Public Health at the University of Adelaide. Jackie’s research focus is community participation in decision-making to support improved policy and practice with the ultimate aim of improving the health and happiness of individuals and communities. Jackie is currently undertaking research into community perspectives (including Aboriginal communities) on the use of regulation and law in obesity prevention and developing new methods for engagement of patients and citizens in complex contentious areas of policy and health services. She recently completed an Australian National Preventive Health Agency Fellowship  and is a founding member of CIPHER, a University of Adelaide research group devoted to community engagement.

When: Wednesday, 13th of July, 1-2 PM

Where: Ira Raymond Room, Barr Smith Library, North Terrace Campus, University of Adelaide (click here for campus map)

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Prof Rachel Ankeny from the Food Values Research Group and Department of History at the University of Adelaide recently appeared on Radio National’s “The Philosopher’s Zone” discussing food ethics. The program begins with an interview with philospher Susan Wolf and her defence of ‘foodies’. She argues that an interest in food, and an enjoyment of food […]

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For the fifth seminar in the Food Values Research Group seminar series, we are pleased to present: Phylloxera in the South Australian viticultural imagination Dr William Skinner, The University of Adelaide The spread of the phylloxera vineyard root louse from the second half of the nineteenth century onwards represents a fundamental rupture in the world of wine. […]

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Rachel Ankeny discusses findings about food ethics from the ARC project What Shall We Have for Tea? Toward a New Discourse of Food Ethics in Contemporary Australia, in a piece for The Conversation, which is reproduced here: Tastes like moral superiority: what makes food ‘good’? Rachel A. Ankeny Food choice has become a moral morass. Discussions […]

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Our recent paper on how Australian families talk about meat production gained a lot of interest in the media. In addition to several radio interviews following the University announcement, we were invited to write a piece for The Conversation, which is reproduced here:

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Food is of central importance in human lives, and has meanings beyond basic nutrition such as pleasure and community identity. Given the universality of the human connection to food, it is troubling that the general public is often excluded from the creation of food policy, which is generally the domain of elite expert participants. As […]

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Professor Rachel Ankeny, convener of the Food Values Research Group, will be a keynote speaker at the 2016 University of Vermont Food Systems Summit, June 14-15. The summit will explore the central question “What makes food good?” In advance of her keynote, Rachel spoke with the UVM Food Systems Initiative about multidisciplinary food studies, GMOs, food ethics, and […]

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For the fouth seminar in the Food Values Research Group seminar series, we are pleased to present: Sustainability for Seals or Fishers?: Presenting an assessment of the socio-economic impact of seal populations, South Australia Assoc Professor Melissa Nursey-Bray, The University of Adelaide Seals are a charismatic species often featuring as the poster child for marine environmental protection […]

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