Taste: A Philosophy of Food

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Taste: A Philosophy of Food

Sarah Worth


This book has been such a labor of love for me; I cannot thank my commentators enough for taking this work seriously and giving such thoughtful feedback.  Carolyn Korsmeyer, Deborah Knight, and Alexandra Plakias were willing not only to do an author-meets-critic session but to develop their thoughts further into these papers.  I could not receive higher praise as a philosopher than serious consideration. The primary claim of my book is about the ways in which gustatory taste should be taken more seriously, especially as a form of knowledge. I approach this suggestion not from the historical sense of taste Hume and Kant gave us, but rather from eating itself, and the pleasure and cultivation of taste that happens when we pay close attention to what and how we eat. I take much of my own knowledge about this from spending time in Italy studying and teaching about the Slow Food movement. In her remarks, Korsmeyer suggests that I address the possibility of aesthetic obligations that might result from the ways that standardized or industrialized food is replacing heirloom varieties and tastes. Knight focuses on “taste bombs” and synthetic tastes that have infected our food supply, which make us overeat. Plakias shows how gastronomy-as-epistemology might go wrong, and how it might lead us to some “aesthetic injustices.” I try to address these questions in turn, but thankfully there are lots of overlaps in the topics. I appreciate the opportunity here to further my own thinking about eating and epistemology.

Key Words
aesthetics; Ark of Taste; eating with pleasure; epistemology; gastronomy; gustatory taste; Carlo Petrini; philosophy of food; Slow Food Movement; taste     


Part One: Preliminaries and Comments

The goal of my book, Taste: A Philosophy of Food, is to provide a deep, philosophical examination of the possibility of knowledge that comes from understanding the gustatory sense of taste. I start my investigation with eating and enjoying food, not just by contemplating its aesthetic significance or beginning with its cognitive components. In itself, eating is philosophically interesting to me because it is one of the primary ways in which we interact with the physical world around us. I might go so far as to call it one of our primary interfaces with the physical world. Eating is one of the very few things that is truly universal about humans. Even though we all do it differently, using different ingredients, cooking methods, and dining traditions, everyone eats. Although sometimes eating is just “feeding the machine,” it also holds the possibility to provide pleasure: Sometimes the pleasure found just in the alleviation of hunger or thirst, and sometimes the immense pleasure that comes with tasting a favorite food, a sentimental dish, or something that is made with such expertise that its quality cannot go unnoticed or unappreciated. It is this pleasure that I focus on that can make something so appreciable—an object of contemplation some might say. Although pleasure is not something that can be measured (of course we have tried, and there are some scales), I really think this subjective experience of taste should be taken seriously and is something of deep philosophical importance. So, I begin with eating, tasting, and savoring, and only then move on to contemplating, discerning, and appreciating. Chapters in the book deal with what it means to have so-called “good taste”; how philosophers have dealt with pleasure and how it related to eating; what the Slow Food International organization has done to help elevate authentic, local, and indigenous foods and recipes; why understanding food fraud and authenticity are so important to taste; what the role of images (or food porn) is within food culture; and the history of recipes, instructions, and rules within cooking.

Part of the reason it seems so hard for philosophers to take gustatory taste seriously is because of the tight historic relationship between vision and epistemology. It seems to me that in the entirety of philosophy (if not to be too hyperbolic), the close association of knowledge with vision is so tightly bound that it is hard to even back away from the metaphorical connotations of seeing when talking about knowledge. Going all the way back to Ancient Greek, the past tense of the verb to see is to know. With this tie between knowing and seeing literally built into the language, it is a difficult task to make sense of the language of gustatory taste and build a case for gustatory taste as a form of knowledge. Although I argue that gustatory taste can produce knowledge, I also admit that it is not the same kind of knowledge that vision produces: that is, it is not necessarily propositional, it is not cognitive or distal, or objective in the way that other kinds of knowledge said to be acquired from vision and hearing are said to be.  At the same time, it is not merely subjective but it is grounded in both educated perception and experience. In aesthetics, so much of the critical analysis around taste (as in good taste) is about the visual arts that refocusing the debate about the internal sense of taste almost necessarily has to be understood in terms of the visual examples and metaphors. But I resist this in my book by starting with the examples of eating and provide extended examples of some very particular foods like olive oil and cheese. The goal of the book is to argue that gustatory taste can and should be taken seriously by philosophers and aestheticians. I defend this despite the fact that the history of gustatory taste in philosophy is so thin, and is understood primarily in terms of its comparison to vision and what it means to have “good taste” in other cultural domains. I defend a notion of gustatory taste that is educable.

Although the title of my book is Taste: A Philosophy of Food, my working title throughout my writing was The Pleasures of Eating: A Philosophy of Taste. I lost the argument with my editor, who thought The Pleasures of Eating sounded too much like a self-help book about eating disorders. She wanted to call it Food Likes, with a thumbs up emoji, which I vetoed completely. But The Pleasures of Eating gets to the essence of what I really wanted to write about. Talking about gustatory taste cannot be completely divorced from the pleasures of eating; I think that this is an important difference from seeing. When we see, for the most part, we can focus exclusively on understanding, but with taste, we are also necessarily ingesting and experiencing in a very visceral way—literally it becomes part of our bodies. The “Consumption Exclusion Thesis” stems from Hegel’s argument against taste being a sense that can properly be one of aesthetic contemplation, because once we eat the “object of contemplation” it is gone and no one else can ever contemplate it again.  I can’t even contemplate it once I swallow it. But it is the ingesting part of contemplating taste that seems to me to be the important part of this. When we eat, and when we taste, we take something from the external world and make it a literal part of ourselves—our bodies.  But this ingestion is not just intake of information. Eating, and tasting, stops in the mouth for chewing, tasting, sensing, swallowing, and contemplating. At its best, it comes with some savoring, pleasure, and delight. The work that goes on in the mouth cannot be overlooked when talking about how we taste. It is not like vision in that we can take in a great deal of information all at once. Tasting involves a physical process that is temporally ordered, just like listening to music. We can’t hear the symphony all at once any more than we can “taste” in a single moment. Thus working within the traditional subject-object dichotomy makes less sense in the case of taste than it does with the case of vision. So, when we eat, which we do for a multitude of reasons, not only having to do with tasting, we take in the object of contemplation in a completely different way than we do when we look at something and contemplate its properties. When we eat, we (typically) see, then smell, then taste, masticate, and swallow. We experience pleasure from the tasting, the textures, the flavors, the combinations, and the alleviation of hunger or thirst.

Further, I want to reject the idea that we have five distinct senses. Taste and smell are so closely intertwined that it is almost foolish to talk about them separately. Making hard and fast distinctions between senses or sense organs seems to me to circumvent the issue of where and how we can gain knowledge, because we are interpreting sense data all the way through that process. I do not believe that our senses can truly be distinguished except in very abstract theory, and this seems most clear in the case of eating. Of course, sensory integration and perception involves a can of worms I am not prepared to deal with here, but a multisensory, integrated account of taste seems evident to me as something that would be necessary in order to really unpack gustatory taste.

I believe that philosophers have neglected serious contemplation of food for so long for a few reasons. First, because of its close association with the body, proven to be untrustworthy because of its subjective nature. We have different preferences, cultural backgrounds, tolerances for spice, and even textures. Tastes change as we age.  How could we have a consistent philosophy of food if some people love cilantro and some think it tastes like soap (a smell receptor variation accounts for this difference)? The sense of taste cannot give us consistent data about the foods we contemplate in the outside world. The second reason philosophers have neglected discussions of eating is that eating is associated with pleasure, and pleasure (especially of the body) can become unregulated and unchecked very quickly (some might say). Sexual indulgence and gluttony are bodily desires that seem hard to control, historically. So, how could we address a philosophy of eating that takes into consideration the potential lack of control the body has? The third reason I believe that philosophers have neglected food and eating and cooking, in particular, is because of its association with women. Women have historically been more closely associated with the body because they menstruate, they gestate, they give live birth, they feed babies with their own breasts, and, traditionally, they have done the bulk of the cooking. Experiences so closely associated with women have not been trusted by philosophers because they are subjective and embodied and they just vary too much.  Perhaps it is because women are not doing the writing either.

I take food to be such a central part of human experience that I really am surprised that philosophers have not spent more time investigating its role, despite all the worries outlined above. As with many topics in aesthetics, eating and food reaches out naturally to other disciplines in philosophy; ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology, just to begin with. Taste has been an essential part of aesthetics since the eighteenth century, but the shift from gustatory taste to taste in art and culture is so seamless that many of us do not even know how that happened. Hume’s famous example of Cervantes’ Don Quixote story about Sancho Panza’s kinsmen, neither of whom could taste both the iron and the leather from the key at the bottom of a hogshead (barrel) of wine, has become our one and only reference point for gustatory taste in all of the cannon of philosophical aesthetics about taste. The moral of that story is that tastes differ, that it is almost impossible to discern a standard of taste, and that the delicacy of imagination is so subtle that it can even fool a so-called expert. But this example is the only one in Of The Standard of Taste that is about drinking, and most of the other examples that he provides are about literature and literary quality.

But the wine example from Hume is important in the history of a philosophy of gustatory taste, mostly because it introduces the possibility that the kind of discriminations we make about wine (or other things we drink) can be objective or at least they can aspire to be—they are not mere sentiments (Hume’s term) or preferences, but they are judgments, in Hume-speak. The kinsmen did taste a hint of iron, and the other did taste a hint of leather. This is exactly the kind of small discrimination of taste that is required for a wine sommelier (or cheese or olive oil or water sommelier). Even more is required for the Master Level Sommelier Diploma. The expertise required in tasting for this degree would shock many people. These candidates are expected to taste a wine and be able to identify not only the kind of wine it is but which region of which country it is from and the year it was bottled. The top goal is to be able to identify the specific vineyard of each wine. And there are people who can do this with the proper education—tasting constantly, understating the terroir of thousands of regions, and learning about the grape varietals and storing techniques. The stringent tests that are required for a sommelier exam would put Sancho’s kinsmen to shame for not being able to taste both the iron and the leather. So, part of what I argue is that incredibly fine distinctions can be made about food and drink (not just wine!) and this is the part of taste that is educable.

The other part of what I argue Is that Hume’s sentiments, or opinions, or, in this case, preferences, are also important as a part of self-knowledge. Part of what it means to be aesthetically healthy is to understand your own preferences. Hume starts Of the Standard of Taste with the suggestion that it is obvious that sentiments or preferences differ, even among those brought up by the same government and taught the same prejudices. He says that all sentiments are right, because sentiment refers to nothing beyond itself. Sentiments are all right because they are just appearances or feelings or preferences. But judgments are statements of fact that must be agreed upon by those who know. This distinction allows us to see the difference between a claim that I like a thing and claiming that this thing is a good example of its kind. Examples of why something is a good example of its kind can come with reasons given that might convince another perceiver. But, I will never be able to convince anyone with reasons that vanilla ice cream is preferable or superior to chocolate. For self-knowledge, however, it is important to know which one I tend to like more. My personal self-knowledge tells me that the texture and flavor of beets ruin any foods they come in contact with; I do not need to eat any more beets to understand that about myself. If I am an expert taster, I should still be able to identify dishes that are executed well, even if I do not prefer some of the ingredients.

Part Two: Commentaries

My three commentators have touched on some very different aspects of my book.  Carolyn Korsmeyer suggests that I address the possibility of aesthetic obligations as being something different from moral obligations. Although I deny that aesthetic obligations exist in the book, she says that in places I indicate that I might think that there is an argument to be made for an obligation that involves eating real food, because taste is something we are obligated to care for. Alexandra Plakias suggests that I look at the way in which my account of taste leads to an epistemological argument related to Gettier’s fake barn country (and we end up in the fake tomato country in the grocery store). She also notes that my account might lead to a form of epistemic injustice, which in turn might lead us to aesthetic injustice. Deborah Knight suggests that I investigate the ways in which the Slow Food movement counteracts the hyper-processed food movement that provides us with “taste bombs” that ruin our ability to taste well. I will address each of these in turn, but there is also a lot of overlap between these questions, so I hope to give some comprehensive answers as well.

1. Still no aesthetic obligations

Korsmeyer challenges my rejection of aesthetic obligations. She rightly notes that I flat out deny that there might be such a kind of obligation, because taste is an aesthetic property and not a moral one (Worth, 98). She suggests that taste might be an avenue where aesthetic obligation might come in to play has to do with the moral obligations we have to maintain a diversified food supply and, hence, a diversified flavor palate. It is probably worth adding that the food that might be the source of this kind of obligation comes from natural sources and not chemically enhanced ones. She notes that although I deny that there are such things as purely aesthetic obligations, my account having to do with taste in fact leads “to an obligation to sustain the sources of those pleasures.” In writing this book, when I reached this claim, I really needed to stop and reflect and, of course, do some research. Can there be aesthetic obligations? My first instinct is to say no, because obligations are moral in nature, and gustatory taste and the pleasure that ensues from that is aesthetic in nature. Only a handful of people have written about whether or not there can be (purely) aesthetic obligations,[1] but there is no clear consensus about it, and personally I find it a problematic argument to make. Aesthetics (most generally) has to do with producing a particular kind of aesthetic pleasure or appreciation. Some argue that it has to do with finding pleasure in beauty. But, if we consider taste squarely in the realm of aesthetics because it has to do with sensory pleasure, then beauty is not the object of pleasure—taste (or flavor) is. It is the appreciation of taste that that makes it worthy of aesthetic consideration.

Obligations come from moral oughts or should that come in the form of reasons that would apply widely. John Dyck notes in his fittingly titled article, “There Are no Purely Aesthetic Obligations,” that “aesthetic reasons centrally involve certain mental attitudes such as attention and/or appreciation: aesthetic obligations are cases where aesthetic reasons provide a binding reason to appreciate and attend to something.”[2] But, he goes on to argue that we really do not have binding reasons to appreciate in any particular way. While I might feel compelled to choose honeycrisp apples for my tart, I am in no way obliged to choose them just because I think that tarts made with Honeycrisp apples are the most delicious. That is a mere preference. As Dyck says, that is a “merely evaluative” choice, not a deontic one.[3] He says that in the realm of aesthetics, we are presented with “goods without shoulds.[4] We can recognize that the Honeycrisp tart is one I appreciate as an aesthetic good without admitting that anyone should choose that particular apple for their baking.

But, let us go back to a more familiar example for aestheticians: painting. If I am a moderately educated appreciator of painting, I should be able to say that one painting is better than another and still perhaps say that I like the inferior one. This might be because I tend to like a particular color that dominates or some subject matter or the artist generally or whatever. But, I should still be able to evaluate that the other is still aesthetically superior for reasons I should be able to articulate. This is Hume’s point when he talks about the difference between sentiments and judgments. A True Judge should be able to identify the flavor of iron and leather in the wine, or a real Rembrandt from a fake. But I do not think that appreciating any particular food can come with an aesthetic obligation to preserve its source, be it heirloom, or local, or made in the Slow Food tradition. These are goods, but certainly not shoulds nor musts.

Perhaps, however, I might concede to a very thin “should,” but I think that is tied to the way in which ethics and aesthetics merge and not to aesthetics alone. I have mentioned the Slow Food movement above, but I have not expanded upon it. Slow Food is a driving force for me in my book, and it shaped many of the examples I gave and values I have around food. The origin of the Slow Food movement was in Italy, in the summer of 1986, when McDonald’s opened its first restaurant in Rome, adjacent to the Spanish Steps. Italians were outraged at the audacity of this American company serving their low quality, low nutrition, and standardized flavors of “fast food.” Protesters gathered and set up long tables and shared a pasta dinner outside the McDonald’s. Carlo Petrini, one of the organizers of the protest, has written volumes about this in the last forty years and worked endlessly with the ensuing conferences, markets, celebrations, tastings, and ideals that the Slow Food foundation (which he heads) has developed. He is a household name in Italy. Slow Food is ideologically the opposite of fast food. It explicitly rejects the values that come with fast life; absolute efficiency, mass animal production, the devaluation of cooking knowledge and skill, and standardized flavors manufactured in a factory just off the New Jersey Turnpike.[5] One of the things that Slow Food International has done, relevant to my argument here, is develop what they call an Ark of Taste. Just like Noah was said to collect every animal species on his boat to survive the flood, the Ark of Taste “travels the world collecting small-scale quality productions that belong to the cultures, history, and traditions of the entire planet: an extraordinary heritage of fruits, vegetables, animal breeds, cheeses, breads, sweets and cured meats.”[6] Petrini developed the idea of the Ark with the realization that with the steep decline of biodiversity and the high rise of monocropping, there are foods and food products that are at risk of extinction within a few generations. The Ark is a living catalogue of different varieties of fruits and vegetables (with a seed bank), a website with recipes, educational tools about biodiversity loss, links to seed vendors, farms, and breeders that can be supported with donations, and an online form where anyone, from anywhere in the world, can nominate a product to be a part of the important historical collection that this Ark has become.

How is this related to the question of whether or not we have aesthetic obligations? Well, it seems to me that the Ark of Taste is an explicit example of a rejection of a standardized food system that values efficiency, convenience, meat, and quantity (which I take to be the most prevalent food values for Americans). The Slow Food mantra is that food should be good, clean, and fair. They value food products that are good (good to eat with depth of flavor), clean (for the environment and the farmers), and fair (to both the producer and the consumer). Food that is good, clean, and fair should taste good, and will hopefully be appreciated by its eater, but the eater does not have an obligation to choose Slow Food over fast food. Certainly McDonald’s would not be doing as well as it is worldwide if this obligation existed. An eater also does not have an obligation to appreciate Slow Food over fast food any more than they might have an obligation to appreciate a Rembrandt over a Kinkade. We might think that a well-educated eater will value the Slow Food over the fast, just as an educated art appreciator will value the Rembrandt over the Kinkade, but this seems to be because the appreciation comes with some level of understanding about why one is superior to the other. Our appreciators should be able to articulate reasons and describe attending pleasures that accompany each.

But Korsmeyer claims that what we care about (the pleasures of gastronomic good taste), we should (or perhaps must) then care for. This is the jump that I am just not willing to make. With moral accounts that demand changes in behavior or action, one is required to be able to articulate reasons that we are obliged to do some moral thing. Otherwise, one arbitrarily changes behavior. Further, those reasons should hold for other people too, perhaps even universally. But if we looked to an Aristotelian framework of ethics, we could see that appreciating food that is good, clean, and fair is something that is praiseworthy and comes with an understanding of its origin, its flavors, and the skill required to make it. This is something that comes with knowledge, and the effort required to seek out those foods. But people who do not seek out those foods are not morally blameworthy, especially if they do not have the attendant knowledge that would make them want to seek them out, by going out of their way to get them or pay more for them than they would otherwise be able to pay. The same is true for people who do not seek out fine art or support artists or encourage their kids to play the violin. They are not morally blameworthy, and those who do those things and actively seek the knowledge that goes with understanding why any of those activities are good are not morally praiseworthy for those reasons alone.

Carlo Petrini gives an example in his book, Slow Food Nation, of the Laguiole (a cheese, the name of the village where it is made, and the name of a well-known, traditional knife developed there) cheese from France. This is a cheese that for hundreds of years was made from the milk of a local breed of cattle, the Fleur d’Aubrac. The milk was rich in flavor, high in protein, and high in fat. But through the 1960s, because of social upheaval all over Europe, the youth emigrated away from the countryside and from the harsh lives farmers lived. The farmers who stayed were “persuaded by zoological experts” to change breeds from the indigenous Fleur d’Aubrac to Holsteins, who make twice the amount of milk that the Fleur d’Aubrac did. But the milk was thin, low in flavor, and low in fat. In fact, it is a terrible milk to make cheese with. In the space of just twenty years, the Laguiole cheese, along with the cows, became all but extinct (as well as the traditional Laguiole cheese knife production, which moved to the cities). This is how traditional foods are becoming extinct. And, this is how traditional flavors are evaporating.  Breeds of animals change, food safety standards are imposed on traditional kitchens, sheep herders no longer want to spend entire winters isolated from civilization, and, all of a sudden, a food that once was, a flavor that might only live in memory, is gone. Globalization, mono-cropping, chemical fertilizers, GMOs, and straight up efficiency and yield production all play a role in the changing nature of the way food is grown, distributed, and cooked. While we can lament the good old days when food was the way we remember it, along with the changes in global food production, we lose flavor and we lose the skill required to make those flavors.

So, are we either blameworthy or praiseworthy because flavors have changed? Honestly, because this is such a big, worldwide shift in the kind of food production we are moving to, I do not think that we can be individually praised or blamed. For those who know enough to want to seek out Laguiole cheese, real olive oil, or truly free-range chicken eggs, then that is a worthwhile aesthetic activity, but not a morally praiseworthy one. For those who do not know better, often because they have not had the opportunity to learn the differences or cannot afford to either buy the artisan food product or do not have the time it takes to seek it out, they cannot and should not be blamed.

2. Knowing your food

This leads me to address one of the concerns that Plakias had about my argument. She points out rightly that I outline two brands of epistemology: one that depends on vision and includes a clear subject-object distinction, and a second (which is the primary argument in the book) that is an epistemology of gustatory knowledge rooted in the senses and sense experience, specifically, taste. In my own work as an aesthetician, I am much more experienced at thinking about aesthetic experiences as they encompass forms of knowledge than that they might include moral obligation. Plakias suggests that because I deny the possibility of aesthetic obligations, I then also “can’t characterize our reasons to eat local [or eat Slow] as obligations.” She suggests that I might think of them as epistemic obligations instead. That is, obligations that might arise from the fact that we know something about a food item or a taste. But, I cannot know the difference between grocery store tomatoes and real ones if I have not tasted both.

In the book, I deride the grocery store tomato for being tasteless and suggest that those who know that there is something considerably more delicious that is an actual tomato would not likely really want to buy the grocery store version. Personally, I believe that grocery store tomatoes are completely inedible. I also know that tomatoes have a particular political history and involve ugly, ongoing labor disputes.[7] Knowing what I do about how these tomatoes are genetically manipulated to be uniform in size and color (but not for flavor or texture), bred not to bruise during travel, and picked well before their ripening, I just cannot buy them. I would rather go without. I wait until summer, and I grow my own, or I buy them at the farmers’ market. This is just my personal preference, because I can taste the difference between heirloom tomatoes and the genetically manipulated ones at the store. I know the difference because I can taste the difference. This is an epistemological preference. If I had never had heirloom tomatoes that come in a variety of sizes and colors and are juicy and flavorful, I might not mind the difference. So, my argument is that that gustatory knowledge is something that propositional knowledge will not give me. The look of a grocery store tomato or even the labeling (the visual-propositional knowledge) will not give me access to the knowledge of the taste difference, only the gustatory-experiential-knowledge will. This is my argument. Plakias suggests, however, that the gustatory-experiential-knowledge ends up being relativistic (I do not disagree but also do not have a problem with that) and, worse, it might lead us straight into “fake tomato country.” That is, our true, justified beliefs about tomatoes are unfounded because of the grocery store tomatoes and their consistency in our experiential taste experience. I suppose that while this might be a strictly epistemological problem for gustatory knowledge, I do not think it is a problem for aesthetic experience or aesthetic appreciation. Those who have tasted both kinds of tomatoes, I believe, can taste-experience and appreciate the difference. I believe the real ones can provide a different kind of pleasure and a different kind of appreciation.

My favorite day in the summer is the third Saturday in July, because that is when my local farmers’ market hosts the Tomato Sandwich Taste Off. This has been going on for the last ten years or so. As a foreigner (a Yankee as they call me) to the South, I had never had a tomato sandwich when I arrived here. A proper tomato sandwich is just bread, mayonnaise, and a single, thick slice of an excellent (preferably beefsteak) tomato. Typically, it also has salt and pepper.  This did not sound like much of a sandwich to me, but to my surprise, it is absolutely delicious.  At the Taste Off, ten local bakeries and restaurants compete with their spin on an upscale tomato sandwich. The bread differs, the mayonnaise turns into fabulous aioli, and we all know who went to what lengths to get the best tomatoes. They add basil, dill, arugula, or balsamic to fancy it up.  The best sandwiches drip down your chin like the best summer food should. Patrons vote, and the winner goes home with what looks like a championship wrestling belt, adorned with paintings of tomatoes, that they proudly display in their restaurant. The same bakery has won for the last nine  years until this year, when I believe they were asked not to compete to give others a chance at the prestigious title. This is the kind of appreciation that I think is important about tomatoes. Certainly this is the kind of appreciation small towns everywhere have when they plan apple festivals, strawberry festivals, peach festivals, cherry festivals, butter festivals, and the like. But still, we have no obligations to go to these festivals, buy fresh produce at farmers’ markets, or eat only strawberries that are local and in season. We do these things because we appreciate these tastes enough to bother. Certainly, lots of people do not bother or do not have the resources to experience farmers’ market tomatoes, but I do not think that this is any more of an epistemic injustice than thinking that it is worthwhile to go to museums even though not everyone can or does. My argument is just that when one makes the effort to appreciate some really good real food, the pleasure and the appreciation are worth it.

3. Bombing and destroying taste

Deborah Knight talks in her commentary about fast food, ultra-processed food, and taste bombs. All of these are part of the industrial food that many of us eat every day. Processed food generally goes through several chemical (bleaching) and reductive (shucking) processes to become more transportable, shelf stable, and more tasty (especially when more emulsifiers, conditioners, and sweeteners are added). When foods are broken down into fragments of their whole parts, they are more easily manipulated and become more malleable to make into really anything. Food writer Michael Pollan claims that as a general rule, “food” is that which has five ingredients or less, all of which you can pronounce. Or “food” is something that your grandmother or great grandmother would recognize as food. He takes particular issue with Gogurt (colorful yogurt in a plastic tube), which he refers to as merely an “edible food-like substance.”[8] Processed and ultra-processed foods do not derive their flavors from raw or natural ingredients, but rather from the broken-down processed sugars, high fructose corn syrup (which also acts as a preservative), and artificial food colors and flavors. Taste bombs add secret chemical additives that make us want to eat more and more and more without even realizing that we are eating. The delight happens from continuing to eat rather than from savoring a delicious bite.

Chip companies have capitalized on these addictive flavor combinations for decades.  Lay’s potato chips claimed in advertisements, “Betcha’ can’t eat just one,” and Doritos most successful commercials starring Jay Leno say, “Crunch all you want, we’ll make more.”  Scientists have studied what they have named “hedonic hunger” or “hedonic hyperphagia,” which is the human propensity to eat “to excess for pleasure rather than hunger.”[9] The Power of Food Scale (PFS) was developed to measure, scientifically, our desire to eat continuously when we are not really hungry, but just eating “for pleasure.”[10] Of course, these scientists study rats eating potato chips and not the chips. And it seems like we might look to our own population and experiences about overeating to discover what we know about overeating foods that are specifically designed to make us eat purely for pleasure and not for nutritional content or just hunger alleviation.

Knight points out in her comments that knowing that what makes something so delicious is chemically enhanced to be so addicting should influence our attitude toward such foods. She says that for her it does “impact our judgments about gustatory taste.” She compares this to the way in which we see destructive plant species differently when we know they are damaging to the areas they grow in. In theory, this makes sense, and in some sort of ideal world, people would change their attitudes—if they saw something destructive they would avoid it or work to change it.  But we are far from rational in these ways, especially when it comes to food that has been designed by experts to make us want it, beyond our hunger, or for hedonic hunger. Knowing that there is a giant industry built to sell chips (or sweets or whatever), and not to produce exceptional food, we face not just a new belief system that shows how counterproductive these foods are to our tastes and our health, but it is one that is so prevalent and so influential that it is almost impossible to avoid. The lure of packaged snacks, convenience foods, and take-out dinners are part of the dominant culture, at least in the US, if not many other places too. It isn’t just about knowing the difference.


Sarah Worth

Sarah Worth is a Professor of Philosophy at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina.  She writes at the intersection of aesthetics and epistemology.  She has written on topics ranging from the paradox of fiction to music as a form of language to the authenticity of olive oil to a recent article on book banning.  She has published in journals across aesthetics, including the British Journal of AestheticsThe Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, the Journal of Aesthetic Education.  She has published two books, Taste: A Philosophy of Food (2021), with Reaktion Press, London, and In Defense of Reading (2017) ,with Rowman and Littlefield International of London.  She has another one coming out, called Drinking and Thinking: How drinking changes the mind (Reaktion).

Published October 4, 2023.

Cite this article: Sarah Worth, “Taste: a Philosophy of Food,” Contemporary Aesthetics, Volume 21 (2023), accessed date.



[1] See John Dyck, “There are no Purely Aesthetic Obligations,” Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 2021, 1-21.  Marcia Muelder Eaton., “Aesthetic Obligations,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 66, 1-9.  Robbie Kubula,  “Grounding Aesthetic Obligations,”  British Journal of Aesthetics 58, 271-285.

[2] John Dyck,  “There are no Purely Aesthetic Obligations,” Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 2021, 3.

[3] Ibid, 1.

[4] Ibid,1.

[5] See, Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation for a full description of the chemical additive industry.


[7] See, The Coalition of Immokalee Workers for an overview of this problem.  https://ciw-online.org/publix/

[8] Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food, Penguin Books Ltd., New York, New York, 2008.

[9] Angus Howarth, “‘Hedonic Hyperphagia’ behind our love of snacks,”  The Scotsman,  April 12, 2013.  https://www.scotsman.com/news/uk-news/hedonic-hyperphagia-behind-our-love-of-snacks-1580109

[10] H. M. Espel‐Huynh, A. F. Muratore,  M. R. Lowe, “A narrative review of the construct of hedonic hunger and its measurement by the Power of Food Scale,”  Obesity Science and Practice,  February 2018.   DOI: 10.1002/osp4.161