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Eat, Taste, Know — Reflections on Sarah Worth’s Taste: A Philosophy of Food
Sarah Worth argues that philosophy should take gustatory taste seriously. While taste has played a central role in philosophical aesthetics, “aesthetic taste” is a trope referring to our judgments about the value or merit of an object, typically a work of art. What, then, about the literal sense of taste — the perception of flavor when we have something like food or drink in our mouths? Because our wide range of gustatory experiences and the kinds of judgments we make about them are so intimately connected to the kinds of things we eat, I look at fast food versus slow food and the kinds of tastes associated with these two ways of making and serving food. I consider the manufacturing techniques involved in ultra-processing in order to ask exactly what it means to report that we “like” the taste of foods that are designed to be hyper-palatable. I conclude by questioning whether knowledge about how our foods are produced can affect our judgments about whether or not a food “tastes good.”
aesthetics; disgust; fast food; food; Hume; Kant; self-deception; slow food; taste; ultra-processed food
1. Aesthetic taste
Sarah Worth’s Taste: A Philosophy of Food has caused me to rethink how I understand the aesthetic concept of taste and to change some important aspects of my teaching. Because I approach the philosophy of art in the context of philosophical aesthetics, taste has always been one of my first topics, allowing me to introduce students to a defining debate from the eighteenth century and to set the stage for the theories, definitions, and test cases to follow. Thus, on the day of my lecture on Hume and Kant and the question of taste, I would typically pass a couple of large bowls filled with one-bite brownies and clementine oranges around the classroom. I’d ask the class to choose what they’d like, but to hang on until we got to the right part of the lecture. I would introduce our topic — taste, or more specifically aesthetic taste — and then pause and ask everyone to bite into the food they’d chosen. “What you’re experiencing right now,” I would explain as they ate, “is not the sense of taste we’re talking about. What you’re experiencing is gustatory taste. Mouth taste. Very different from aesthetic taste.” Then I would say more about taste and judgments and standards and all the rest.
Worth has shown me the error of my ways. True enough, the main arc of thinking in philosophical aesthetics has been to privilege aesthetic taste at the expense of gustatory taste and to leave pretty much to the side the kinds of experience, knowledge, and appreciation that properly belong to eating and savoring. Worth refocuses our approach to taste by asking us to start not with works of art but with food. The book poses three main questions: How should we think philosophically about food? In particular, how should we think philosophically about gustatory taste? And how might we rethink our understanding of aesthetic taste in light of a better understanding of gustatory taste?
Gustatory taste, something so very familiar to us all, so central to our daily experience, is a fascinating subject, but one I dismissed as just a matter of personal preference before reading Worth’s book. In the classroom, I would use examples — for instance, that I like the taste of anchovies, but others do not, or that some like cookie dough ice cream, while I prefer vanilla — to illustrate what I took to be the banality of the differences of opinion concerning gustatory taste. Indeed, before reading Worth’s book, I would use these sorts of examples to dismiss further inquiry into gustatory taste. Dismissing the epistemic and aesthetic significance of a proper inquiry into gustatory taste, I would turn to the discussion of aesthetic taste and argue that our appreciation for and judgments about objects of aesthetic attention are not mere personal preferences, but merit proper philosophical consideration.
Grasping the curious relationship between gustatory taste and aesthetic taste raises many important questions, as Worth demonstrates. Not least of which is the question why, through the modern history of aesthetic thought, taste has been abstracted away from the body and elevated to the realm of the mental. Why has taste, in the sense favored in philosophical aesthetics, been removed from the immediacy of our experiences, not only the basic tastes (sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami/savory) but the rich, complex tastes we perceive when ingestion and olfaction allow us to distinguish specific textures and flavors as we chew and swallow our food? Worth proposes a number of reasons, starting with philosophy’s historical preference for the mind and aversion to the body, which is just one example of a number of mutually reinforcing binary stereotypes that privilege male to female, universal to individual, the “higher” senses to the “lower” senses, and judgment to feeling. Given that historically the preparation and serving of food has primarily been the work of women, it is unfortunate but unsurprising to find that theories of aesthetic taste have been focused on the higher senses (sight, hearing) and thus have had little to say about gustatory taste.
2. Taste: literal and metaphorical meanings
Worth unpacks the various strands of meaning that make up the concept of taste, noting that we have both a literal sense (gustatory taste) and a metaphorical sense (aesthetic taste). What we experience when we ingest food involves the literal sense of taste. But when we judge something to be beautiful or graceful or balanced, we are employing taste in a metaphorical sense. The two senses can also combine, for instance, when we say of someone with a refined palate that they have good taste, bringing together the appreciation of the flavors of food with the ability to pronounce judgments on the excellence of the food in question. But the metaphorical sense of taste, as we learn from Hume, Burke, Kant, Sibley and others, typically involves the appreciation of or an overall judgment about works of art or aspects of the natural environment. We can and often do behold a painting or a natural vista, or listen to a concerto or to birdsong, as proper objects of aesthetic attention. There is always, as Hume anticipated, the question of what qualifies any of us to make aesthetic judgments. Hume and Kant agree that aesthetic judgments are not merely expressions of personal opinion. Rather, while they depend upon the individual’s perceptivity and knowledge, they also make a claim to universality. If one judges that a work of art or a natural landscape is beautiful, one is not reporting a merely subjective preference. We are not simply talking about something that an individual happens to find agreeable, to borrow Kant’s term. Aesthetic judgments, and specifically judgments of taste, are the sorts of things intended to compel assent from others. They are, in the paradoxical Kantian formulation, subjective universals: subjective because “person-relative,” and universal because the person making the judgment does so disinterestedly, without self-directed interest. As a result, others who are suitably situated can themselves assess the artwork or landscape and see for themselves that it is beautiful.
Gustatory taste certainly seems to function differently from its metaphorical cousin. Ingestion and the taste experiences involved in eating food seem to involve a difference in kind from what we experience when appreciating nature or art. That I am the one consuming this food involves me — my agency, my subjectivity, my body — in a much more central way than when I perceive works of art or aspects of the natural landscape. But the immediate involvement of the body complicates our aesthetic assessment of the food and drink we consume. How can we aesthetically assess the nature of gustatory taste when the very process of eating and drinking consumes the object of our aesthetic attention? Unlike vision and hearing, and also unlike touch and smell, ingesting food literally involves the destruction — or at least the absolute transformation — of the object in question. Food, which begins outside our bodies, becomes part of us in a way that no experience of art or nature can. Moreover, when disagreements arise about mouthfeel and flavor — for instance, when I say I love the savory, salty, slightly bony taste of anchovies, and you say, based on these same properties, that anchovies are disgusting — there doesn’t seem to be a way of adjudicating our different views. In the case of disagreements about a work of art, it seems more likely that we could discuss the reasons for our respective judgments and perhaps arrive at a consensus.
The reason why we might be persuaded that our aesthetic assessment of what we eat and drink is merely a report of personal preference has to do with the fact that ingesting involves the conjunction of radically subjective experience and the ephemerality of the event itself. I alone eat and therefore taste the food in my mouth. The process of ingestion is radically temporalized. It takes place in the ongoing present, after which the food I have consumed no longer exists. The experience of ingesting food and drink is fundamentally different from the experience of viewing a painting or reading a novel. If we are looking for an analogy with any of the arts, perhaps we should look to the performing arts, such as drama, music, or dance. As Marcia Siegel remarks in the context of dance performance, the dance “is an event that disappears in the very act of materializing.” As with works of the performing arts, which typically refer back to a text or score or in the case of dance, a notated score, many of the foods we prepare and consume refer back to a recipe. Notwithstanding the existence of such a source, works of the performing arts, like the foods we prepare and consume, are inherently ephemeral. Yet, with the exception of unique improvisations, they are also repeatable. Can we find a way of incorporating these two features of our experience into a more general account of the aesthetics of gustatory taste? Worth argues that knowledge, in particular knowledge about the ingredients in our foods and the processes by which these foods are produced, has a significant role to play.
3. Fast food versus slow food
Let us stipulate that our experience of ingesting food and drink involves both ephemerality and repetition. Just how we navigate the conjunction of ephemerality and repetition is addressed by Worth in various ways, for example, in her chapter on recipe-following and her discussion of industrially produced foods. Central to Worth’s investigation of the aesthetics of gustatory taste is her endorsement of the Slow Food movement. Originating in Italy in the late 1980s, the Slow Food movement champions locally produced food and local food cultures. As its name signals, it stands firmly opposed to the fast food movement, one manifestation of the industrial food system. What we buy from the drive-through window of our local fast food chain is the end product of a vast industrial network of integrated agribusinesses whose objective is the large-scale production of foods (both crops and animals) and whose impacts range from large-scale factory farming to the destruction of diverse environments, such as the Amazon rainforest, in order to transform complex ecosystems into land for monocrop farming.
The Slow Food movement opposes the huge scale of production that is required to support the fast food industry. The philosophy of the Slow Food movement involves focusing on food that is good, clean, and fair. ‘Clean’ describes food whose production does not harm the environment. ‘Fair’ means both accessible prices for consumers and fair working conditions for producers. ‘Good’ simply means food that is of good quality, flavorsome, and healthy. These values are not typically found anywhere in the industrial food system. The Slow Food movement also is opposed to the uniformity of the products of fast food. Yet, this is one of the main selling points of fast food and of industrially produced foods more generally. In the fast food model, things should look and taste the same every time we consume them. This holds for everything from the boxed cereal we eat for breakfast to the hamburger we get at the take-out window to the frozen pizza we reheat in the oven for dinner. Worth advocates for the key principles of the Slow Food movement: buying locally produced food products where possible, which in turn means buying foods that are in season locally where possible, reducing our reliance on ultra-processed foods in favor of unprocessed or more simply processed foods — think frozen vegetables, tinned beans, and so forth — and preparing food from basic ingredients rather than relying on prepared and prepackaged foods that only need to be put in an oven or microwave before serving. Worth discusses the pleasures of home cooking and the skills involved. She reminds us that the Slow Food movement also endorses meals that are reasonably simple to produce and don’t require a huge number of specialized or expensive ingredients. Simple, nutritious foods, such as soups, stews, pastas, and stir-fries, can provide us with a rewarding range of flavors and textures.
Like Worth, Rick Steves, whose popular travel advice has guided a generation of North Americans, has a particular fondness for Italy and for the Slow Food movement, which he has promoted in his books and tours for many years. Steves specializes in recommendations about how to move away from tourist-trap, main street restaurants to smaller, side street restaurants that feature fresh, high-quality local foods and traditional recipes. His recently published Italy for Food Lovers, co-authored with Fred Plotkin, is a practical guide to the kinds of food recommended by the Slow Food movement. As Steves and Worth both remind us, Italy not only has thriving local and regional food cultures, it also has a sophisticated agritourism sector. Tourists are invited to visit rural areas to enjoy a combination of accommodation and home-cooked meals made from locally produced foods, thus vividly illustrating the farm-to-table model at the heart of the Slow Food movement. I mention Rick Steves to underscore the fact that Slow Food has been incorporated into a broader movement within the tourism sector that recommends “less-touristy,” and “more authentic” ways of visiting foreign countries, and where the pleasures of the table are considered central to that experience.
Yet, when we return home, the risk is that we will revert to our old habits of buying and eating industrially produced foods. We live surrounded by the industrial food systems’ many products. Most of us are brought up eating them. Consequently, many of us have our food preferences shaped by the flavors and textures of ultra-processed foods. Worth recognizes this paradox. Indeed, she confesses to a fondness for Oreo cookies, fully recognizing that part of the guilty pleasure she experiences is tied to the fact that these cookies taste exactly alike, bag after bag, year after year. But why, she asks, should we as a general rule aim for foods that always look and taste the same? And, in particular, why do we allow ourselves to consume food created through processes that dramatically increase the quantity of sugars, emulsifiers, starches, and hydrogenated fats in our diets? Minimally processed foods such as flash-frozen vegetables or tinned beans do not appear to pose health concerns. The health implications of a diet that is largely reliant on ultra-processed foods are not as positive. Hence, there is good reason to distinguish between lightly processed and ultra-processed foods, and to learn just what is involved in ultra-processing, since this is at the core of both fast food and the industrial food complex more generally.
4. Ultra-processed foods
Even though we are surrounded by ultra-processed foods, many of us who eat these products know little about how they are made or exactly what the nutrition information on food labels means. We might understand that there is a relationship between the repeated consumption of foods with high levels of sugar and increasing levels of obesity, but that knowledge in itself might not cause us to dramatically change our eating habits, especially if we believe marketing strategies, such as labels declaring certain products to be low in sugar. As a shopping glossary published in the Philadelphia Magazine in 2014 reminds us, the label “sugar-free” may signal very little sugar per serving, but it fails to point out “the catch,” namely, that a food product advertised as being very low in sugar often “makes up for it, taste-wise, by being high in fat.” As an article in the New York Times reminds us, even when we find “natural flavors” listed among the ingredients of a food or drink product, what that means is that, although the added flavoring has been derived from a plant or animal source, it has been “distilled, fermented, or otherwise manipulated in a lab.” Put another way, “there does not seem to be much of a difference between natural and artificial flavors,” at least as these are defined for the purposes of food labeling. Rather than being a sign that the food is healthier for us, a label that lists “natural flavors” in fact signals that the food likely has been ultra-processed.
Information about ultra-processing and its health risks turns out to be readily available. An internet search for “ultra-processed foods” brings up, among other items, an article on the BBC’s Goodfood blog explaining what is involved in the production of ultra-processed foods; the Washington Post’s recent illustrated article, “Melted, pounded, extruded: Why ultra-processed foods are unhealthy,” explaining how the process of extrusion alters the structure of our foods and “breaks the link” between basic food ingredients and the nutrients they originally provided; and NPR’s “What we know about the health risks of ultra-processed foods,” which focuses on risks including obesity, hypertension, and various cancers, and points out that these risks are not tied only to features such as increased sugars and fats but more fundamentally to “the extent of the processing that these foods undergo.”
I suspect that most of us who consume ultra-processed foods do not have a clear understanding about just what ultra-processing entails. I submit that understanding what happens during ultra-processing might radically change our attitudes toward these products. When we bite into a slice of reheated frozen pizza or a mouthful of boxed cereal, will it taste the same after we learn about the manufacturing process? For example, ultra-processing entails the use of industrial techniques, including not only extrusion, but also “hydrogenation, hydrolysis and sensory-enhancing processing such as bulking, aerating, and foaming.” Ultra-processing transforms basic food ingredients into “industrial formulations” of substances “extracted” from the original foods or even “synthesized in laboratories.” That rationale behind ultra-processing is to produce “durable, accessible, convenient, palatable, attractive, ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat products.” ‘Durable’ refers to a number of features, including having a long shelf-life so as to allow for the time involved in shipping long distances, distribution from central warehouses to stores, and also the time spent on our shelves at home. ‘Durable’ also means food that retains its manufactured shape from the initial production and packaging stages through transportation and in-store display stages until the product is ready to be eaten. Stand in the cereal aisle of your local grocery store and think about the sheer number of boxes of various brands and varieties that are on display at any one time. Ask yourself how much time has passed and how many processing steps have been involved, from the harvesting of the original grains to the time the final food product arrives in your breakfast bowl. Then think about the fact that the ingredients panel might list what appear to be healthy foods, such as grains, or that the packaging might claim the food has positive health features, such as no sugar added, without indicating that the nutritional value of the original ingredients has been radically depleted through the industrial processes of production.
5. “Taste Bombs”
Ultra-processed foods need to be durable, but they also need to be palatable. This points to a further feature of ultra-processing already highlighted by Worth’s confession about Oreo cookies, namely the presence in these foods of non-natural or highly modified ingredients designed to produce pleasurable gustatory experiences. Even better if these foods create a taste sensation that we come to crave. Dr. Norah Campbell et al. remark that “you know if you are eating an ultra-processed food if it delivers a taste bomb in your mouth at the same time your hand is reaching for the next one.” This is a deliberate strategy of food corporations to cause us to want to repeat particular taste experiences over and over, “hooking” us on a taste and thus on a product or brand. The industry’s term for this is “hyper-palatability.” As Campbell et al. observe, ultra-processed food “tastes too good.” Yet these ultra-processed foods that we think taste so good are full of unhealthy ingredients, such as sugars and other sweeteners, salts, emulsifiers, and starches. Combine hyper-palatability with aggressive marketing strategies and the result is the overconsumption of foods whose basic nutrients are depleted as part of the processing. The challenge inevitably involves retraining our taste preferences, and for many of us who rely on ultra-processed foods, changing some of our most inculcated habits, from what we shop for to what we cook.
In her discussion of home cooking and recipe following, Worth notes how changes in the food industry — in particular, the way that the food industry has exponentially multiplied the available range of ultra-processed foods — have led to a loss of food preparation skills and a much greater reliance on prepackaged or largely pre-made foods in our daily diets. These changes date back to the middle of the twentieth century and are by now the normalized backdrop of our lives. Who has time to prepare a meal from scratch these days? Much easier to pop something in the microwave. The consequence, of course, is that we take as both normal and desirable the textures and flavors of foods that have been designed to be hyper-palatable. We expect the “taste bomb.” Would we still want the taste bomb if we understood that these hyper-palatable flavors are “cosmetic additives,” such as added sugars, modified oils, and other flavor enhancers that have little nutritional value? Understanding the way our foods have been produced might confront us with a paradox: While we love the flavor of our store-bought frozen pizza or our take-out hamburger, we are disgusted to know that we are eating emulsifiers, thickeners, anti-foaming, bulking, and gelling agents. And this paradox might cause us to change our eating habits.
6. Gustatory taste and knowledge
This brings me back to Worth’s main topic, namely, the aesthetics of gustatory taste. Worth argues that a proper understanding of what we are experiencing when we ingest food needs to include knowledge about the food we are consuming. Or, as I might put it, just saying you like how something tastes is insufficient as a judgment if you do not know how what you are eating is made. Kant’s category of “the agreeable” is helpful here. According to Kant, the agreeable is what our senses find pleasing. If you like the taste of a drive-through hamburger or if I like the taste of store-bought ice cream, then all we are really reporting is that we find these sensations, these flavors, pleasing as sensations. A more adequate first-person report of one’s own taste experience would entail that we know more than just our mouth’s response to the food we are ingesting. It would require that we take into account, for example, the ultra-processing that has created the “flavor bomb” to which we are now responding. This is contextual knowledge, not knowledge given in the immediate sensation. It is knowledge that is available to us, although we would need to be aware of it, either through our education or by seeking it out. To not know how our food is manufactured is a kind of self-deception. Annette Baier describes this sort of self-deception as “the art of ignoring” and argues that selective attention often allows us to ignore facts that ought to matter to our judgments. To say that the fast food hamburger tastes good is an example of selective attention, focusing only on what is happening in our mouths and ignoring the conditions that have produced our taste experience. A judgment about our experience of ultra-processed food needs to attend not only to what is in the immediate foreground of our experience — the experience of the food in our mouths — but also to the conditions of that food’s production. We need to bring the background conditions of production to the foreground of our attention as we experience the taste of the food we eat. Doing so may well change our minds about what our senses find pleasing.
Could our subjective taste experience change with new knowledge, for instance, with knowledge about such processes as emulsification or the addition of high levels of sugars or unhealthy hydrogenated oils? I believe the answer is yes. Consider a parallel case from environmental aesthetics. A lake that is brilliantly blue could easily lead us to judge the lake to be beautiful. After all, water often appears blue, and blue has many beautiful shades. But to learn that the color is caused by the release of toxic chemicals that have polluted the lake and killed many of its plants and living organisms should cause us to change our minds about our aesthetic assessment of the lake’s beauty. To correctly include this new knowledge, we could say that while the color of the lake remains beautiful, the lake itself is not beautiful. But perhaps we should say instead that this color in this body of water cannot be beautiful because it signals conditions that are antithetical to natural beauty. Similar arguments can be worked in relation to judgments about the beauty of an immaculate green lawn, once we take into consideration factors such as the damage to native plant species, the huge waste of water resources, the pollution from gas lawn mowers, the negative impact on pollinators, and so forth.
It is possible to change one’s mind about what is and is not beautiful. It is also possible to change one’s mind about what tastes good. New knowledge, or even refocused attention on knowledge we already possess but weren’t attending to, can achieve such changes. Moreover, the change in our aesthetic judgment can be explained in terms of reasons. For example, I used to think that green lawns were beautiful and tried to make my lawn look like a golf course fairway. Learning about the waste of water, the pollution, and the other negative environmental impacts changed my mind. My “lawn” is now more like a meadow of mixed species that requires less watering and attracts more pollinators. I no longer find immaculate green lawns beautiful. Similarly, I used to believe that some ultra-processed foods, including store-bought frozen ice cream, tasted good. Understanding more about the industrial manufacturing of this food product has caused me to experience the “taste bomb” of store-bought frozen ice cream as disgusting. Carolyn Korsmeyer observes that disgust is “among the strongest of aversions, characterized by involuntary physical recoil and even nausea.” While disgust often begins as a physical recoil and is only later processed cognitively, I think the case can be made that knowledge of what is involved in the manufacturing of ultra-processed foods can operate in the other direction. Knowledge of the process is what elicits the response of disgust. Just as I decided two decades ago to stop eating meat because I was ethically repulsed by the meat industry’s treatment of animals, thanks to Worth’s book and the issues it has raised, I am now, at long last, eliminating ultra-processed foods from my diet wherever I can. In short, I have been persuaded by Worth’s argument: knowledge not only should but actually does impact our judgments about gustatory taste.
I no longer pass around bite-sized foods to my class during an early lecture as a way to dismiss gustatory taste. Instead, food is now the final topic of the course. While we still start with a wide-ranging discussion of art, including Hume and Kant on aesthetic taste and aesthetic judgments, the course moves beyond art to discuss issues in environmental aesthetics and the aesthetics of the everyday. These topics range from the impact of deforestation caused by agribusiness to the appreciation and habits involved in domestic activities, such as cooking and cleaning. The course now concludes with Worth’s book and with food that we eat together. This allows us to give renewed consideration to just what ‘taste’ means, reflect on why gustatory taste has been neglected as a legitimate topic of philosophical inquiry, and consider how the pleasures afforded by food are also at the heart of broader questions about our everyday lives and the environments that our lives impact. As Worth has demonstrated, it is time for philosophy to take gustatory taste seriously.
Deborah Knight is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Queen’s National Scholar at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada. She writes primarily about the narrative arts, including literature and film. Her chapter on Noël Carroll appears in Aesthetics: The Key Thinkers, 2nd edition, ed. Alessandro Giovannelli, 2021. Her essay discussing Godard’s Le Mépris for the symposium on John Carvalho’s Thinking with Film appears in Contemporary Aesthetics, 2022.
Published October 4, 2023.
Cite this article: Deborah Knight, “Eat, Taste, Know – Reflections on Sarah Worth’s Taste: A Philosophy of Food,” Contemporary Aesthetics, Volume 21 (2023), accessed date.
 Dennis Potter, “The Subjective Universality of Aesthetic Judgment,” Aporia, no. 1 (1992), 47.
 Marcia Siegel, At the Vanishing Point: A Critic Looks at Dance (New York: Saturday Review Press, 1972), 1.
 Rick Steves and Fred Plotkin, Italy for Food Lovers, January 2023.
 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. Werner Pluhar (Indianapolis: Hacket, 1987).
 Annette Baier, “The Vital but Dangerous Art of Ignoring: Selective Attention and Self-Deception,” Self-Deception: A Cross-Cultural Philosophical Enquiry, ed. Roger Ames and Wimal Dissanayake (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996), 53-72.
 Carolyn Korsmeyer, Savoring Disgust: The Foul and the Fair in Aesthetics (Oxford University Press, 2011).