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The Power of Language in Shaping Food Paradigms: My Journey with Language, Food and Plant-Based Diet

For the second installment of our Food for Thought series, we are delighted to have Aniket Aich, a UC Berkeley master's student, economist, and sustainable food advocate writing about his traditional foodways, the movement towards more plant-centric food systems, and the need for a complimentary movement in the development of new language to shift away from mindsets, eating habits, and diets imposed for decades by Big Food companies.

Language plays an under-discussed yet crucial role in shaping our beliefs and attitudes toward food and diet. How we talk about food can influence how we perceive its taste, health benefits, ethical implications, and much more. I've personally witnessed the power of language to influence food decisions in various contexts throughout my life, which has led me to question the use of language in the plant-based movement today.

My understanding of the way language can change one's foodways began when I was growing up as a South Asian in New Delhi in the early 90s and 2000s. Time spent with my grandparents in Kolkata was always an overwhelming culinary experience. To this day, they have maintained traditional dietary and eating practices, which involve at least seven different vegetable and meat dishes in every meal. The meal begins with a plate of rice, and different dishes are gradually offered as the meal progresses. It always starts with a ‘saag,’ a green leafy vegetable dish that can be made with spinach leaves, pumpkin leaves, mustard leaves, chickpea leaves, radish leaves, cauliflower leaves, and much more. The next dish would typically be a vegetable curry with lentils, complimented by a few pieces of fried pumpkin, fried pointed gourd, fish eggs, or fried eggplant. Next, a fish or meat curry would be served with rice and then finally, to conclude the meal, we would eat some hot and sweet chutney (made from pickled mango, tamarind, or tomatoes) with rice. This pattern of eating is common in traditional households all over Bengal, and similar traditions with variations occur all over the country.

It was when my parents moved out of Kolkata to the more ‘globalized and cosmopolitan’ city of New Delhi that I first experienced the ways different food paradigms are based on the languages in which they were developed. I found my native language of Bengali was often overshadowed by English due to the proliferation of globalization and the demand to cater to Western markets. At home, conversations about food and diets were typically in Bengali, but outside our house, English dominated such discussions. The food in my house started including some Delhi staples like Aloo ka Parantha (potato stuffed flatbread), Makki ki roti (corn flatbread) and sarso ka saag (mustard greens).

A larger shift in my family's and New Delhi’s foodways occurred during the 2000s, when I witnessed the proliferation of fast food. I remember when KFC and Mcdonald's became common stops for an easy meal. With this surge of new options came different vocabularies that were being developed and marketed to new populations. Foods such as sandwiches, burgers, milk, and cereal had entered the conversation. Even the three-meal-a-day system was new and adopted, bringing with it its own language. From foods to dining times, once foreign concepts were adopted by many, subverting traditional vocabularies and diets. This imposition of Western thought and ‘solutions’ in the Global South came to pose an (un)intended threat to traditional diets, and introduced foreign vocabulary to talk about all things food-related. This theme of introducing modified language is one that I have seen recurring in the plant-based space today.

I witnessed this first-hand when I moved to California for school years later. Yet another new food paradigm dictated by a different language and vocabulary was at play. The terminologies "plant-based diets" and "veganism" fascinated me, as they were born out of a Western language model that assumes meat-driven plates as the default norm. In an attempt to legitimize and naturalize the transition to more plant-based foods, an arguably unnecessary vocabulary was adopted that at once obfuscated traditional foodways with plants traditionally at their core and scared away many who might have otherwise taken a bite. Traditional cuisines are often given little credit for having had or been composed of what we now call “plant-based” foods for centuries prior to the movement's growth. For instance, I found that veg-forward food offerings in the Bay Area tended to revolve around plant-based Indian, Mexican, Japanese, etc. cuisines, no doubt due to the relative ease of adopting portions of these menus to be plant-eater friendly. However, despite the buy-in from many cultures toward plant-based diets in the ‘California context’ there still seems to be a gap in language and vocabulary limiting this adoption to more general populations. Despite the prevalence of plant-based diets in many traditional cultures and societies, the current plant-based movement is still dominated and undermined by language and vocabulary developed by Big Food companies for globalized markets.

As the popularity of plant-based diets continues to grow, the role of language in shifting consumer mindsets from meat-centric to plant-centric diets is becoming increasingly significant. The language we use to describe food can have a powerful impact on how people perceive and choose what they eat. Therefore, there is a need for a complementary movement to modify or develop new language to support the transition towards more plant-centric diets. This movement will help food companies and marketers emphasize the health and environmental benefits of plant-based diets using language that resonates with consumers. Research shows that the language used to market plant-based food products influences consumer behavior. Recently, some of the students I worked with for the Plant Futures Challenge Lab collaborated with a local plant-based restaurant and discovered that changing the name of a "plant-based sandwich" to "avocado eggplant bonanza" increased its sales. Their research emphasized using terminology highlighting the health, environmental, and nutritional benefits, which led to better reception. Similarly, instead of marketing restaurants or menu items as "Vegan Indian Food," it might be more effective to simply label it as "Indian Food," and rely on traditional and beloved "plant-based" recipes to walk the walk as opposed to talk the talk. Another example brought to my attention by one of Plant Futures Earth Week speakers was the framing of “alternative proteins”. Why “alternative”? Why not “successor,” as the speaker suggested, or something else altogether?

The language we use has a significant influence on our food choices, both immediately and over time. It is important to pay attention to this influence. The movement toward adopting more plant-centric diets requires a parallel effort to modify or develop new vocabulary or different ways of using existing language. To encourage a diverse range of people to embrace a humane, environmentally friendly, and healthy diet, we may need to let go of strict categorizations enforced by our use of language in the ‘nascent’ space and let the ingredients, flavor profiles, and cultures speak for themselves.

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