Paper presented at University of Saskatchewan, Department of English Honours Colloquium (February, 2014)

The proverb, “you are what you eat” associates the identity of the consumer with the food that one eats.  Unless you are like Guttoram from The Saga of the Volsungs, consuming the flesh of a wolf to literally become more wolfish, the connection between “you” and “what you eat” is usually metaphorical.  Some paroemial markers of the proverb, such as the repetition of the pronoun “you” and parallelism between “you are” and “you eat” makes it easier to remember while separating it from other memorable, concise statements of apparent truth and wisdom, such as aphorisms.

The widespread use of the proverb both presently and in the past by various language groups attests to its proverbial currency.  The author of the phrase is generally unknown, but scholars debate over the origin.  Martin Manser in The Facts on File Dictionary of Proverbs argues that the proverb is of German origin despite the fact that it was first recorded in 1826 by French gastronome Anthelme Brillat -Savarin  who wrote in Physiology of Taste, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.”  Later, in 1850, German philosopher Ludwig  Andreas Feuerbach, records within his  Theory of Nutrition that “man is what he eats”.  Although these phrases have some variation in wording, the “kernel” or general truth of the proverb remains consistent.  More recently, in Cheese, Pears and History in a Proverb, food history and culture expert Massimo Montanari defends the connection between food and identity asserting that “food should sustain and nourish…the identity of the one who eats it, for it not only expresses that identity but also creates it.”


The application of the proverb “You are what you eat” in a contemporary context reveals a dichotomous relationship: on the one hand for some consumers food plays a minimal role in the individuals self image, because they are in a state of “gastro-anomie” and unable to identify with foods while on the other hand, in the case of the modern “foodie” trend, food is an identity.

Acknowledging that a person’s concept of self is complex and dynamic, in certain contexts the consumption of food can reveal various aspects of an individual’s identity.  The relationship between food and identity is multidimensional: the consumption of, or refusal to consume certain foods simultaneously reveals both oneness, connecting the consumer to a number of collective identities, including religious, economic and cultural while differentiating said individual from others who consume dissimilar foods.

In a modern context, while food as associated with both religious and economic identity remain present to varying degrees; the globalization of the food supply system and mass media are not only altering the cultural and geographic boundaries of food but they also contributing to blurring the interplay between food and identity that was more historically prominent.


Throughout history, food taboos, feasts, and fasting, have been closely associated with various religions, contributing to an individual’s group identity.  For example, Islamic and Jewish dietary laws consider pork taboo.  In addition to religious identity, the consumption of certain foods also can represent an individual’s economic identity.  As some consumers have always had more access to food than others for various reasons, food can denote an individual’s social class.  For instance, upper class consumers who have more capital are able to enjoy luxury foods such as caviar, truffles and foie gras.  While the association between food and both religious and economic identity persists in a modern context, the relationship between food and cultural identity is blurred, reflecting larger changes in society.  Until recently, cultural distinctions established through food were more prominent because certain individuals in certain locations consumed certain foods.  However, globalization, aided by advancements in technology and decreasing transportation costs, erases the traditional geographic limits on the food supply and allows various foods to be transported worldwide and consumed by different people.

In addition to globalization, the increasing popularity of culinary mass media also plays a role in modifying the modern relationship between food and identity.  As an agent of socialization, culinary media not only communicates recipes but it also passes on implicit and explicit messages to consumers about identity in relation to foods.  Since many consumers are removed from the processes involved with food production, their only experience of food, other than eating it, is through various forms of media, whether it be magazines, television programs and advertisements, books, etc.  Some culinary media can be seen as promoting diversity by opening up people’s minds to other cultures through food, while other media, like the documentary “Food Inc” attempt to raise consumer awareness about how we eat and how our food is produced.  The majority of mass media presents food as a commodity, that is labelled and boxed to be purchased.  In addition, some advertisements, such as the delivery service “just eat” further alienate consumers from their food.  These commercials advertise “Anti-cooking boot camps” that contribute to severing the link between food and identity because the consumer is uninvolved in the origins and production of their food.


In the modern context, globalization and mass media contribute to removing the link between food and identity.  Presently, because food is just a commodity in a long supply chain, where individuals are isolated as consumers, removed from the harvesting and production of food, individuals are neither able to identify their food, nor identify with their food.  Sidney Mintz in Sweetness and Power argues that modern food habits appear symptomatic of alienation.  If you are what you eat and you are unable to identify that which you eat, it is no wonder that some food scholars discuss the notion of “gastro-anomie”.  Claude Fishler in Food, Self and Identity, argues that “if one does not know what one is eating, one is liable to lose the awareness of certainty of what one is oneself.”

If one does not know what one is eating, one is liable to lose the awareness of certainty of what one is oneself. - Claude Fishler

For most consumers, food is a necessity and a minimal communicator of identity.  For an increasing number of other consumers, however, food is an identity, as in the “foodie” trends like organivore, vegan, locavore, gluten-free, etc. For foodies, food is imbued with meaning because they are more aware than the average consumer of food as a communicator and creator of identity, whether it be cultural, economic, or religious, among others.   Foodies are able to identify with the food they eat because they are concerned and care about the identity of the food that they consume.  They are interested in regaining control of the food they eat, and by extension, control of themselves and their place in the world.  Most significant, perhaps, is the appreciation that develops for the environment through the foodie identity.  Foodies are mindful, not only of the unequal global distribution of food, but also that the earth is finite with ecological limits, and that modern consumption habits of the developed world are unsustainable.  For the most part, and where money allows, foodies use food responsibly through buying less and producing less waste, and by purchasing foods that are grown closer to home, which are better for both the individual and the environment.


The “foodie” attempt at restoration of the association between food and identity brings us full circle.  Although globalization and mass media have lessened the connection between food and identity, foodies are rekindling the traditional connection between the food one eats and oneself.  By conscious involvement in food attainment, preparation, consumption and disposal, foodies are reconstructing the interplay between food and identity. By being informed about what you eat you are able to identify your food, that is, to understand the place of food in the world, and by extension it is easier to imagine one’s own identity in terms of food.


Special thanks and photo credit to University of Saskatchewan.

Are you what you eat?