Taste and Opinion

RIMG0097What is “good” and what is “bad” when it comes to food? That a meal at a restaurant fails to match the enthusiasm of the blogger that recommended it? That the dish that we order fails to meet our expectations as a result of insufficient skill, care or perhaps even intelligence? Or that we chose – unwisely – to grill a Grade 12 Wagyu Striploin which results in a less than satisfying meal?

These “bad” experiences translates as not meeting certain standards which we ourselves have set and internalized. These standards, developed over a long period in our lives, are our gold standard for “good”. To eat badly, simply means not to eat well.

Whenever we talk about food and eating, whatever we represent as “good” food or “good” eating is always at the opposite pole to “bad” food and “bad” eating. Our concepts of “good” vary in accordance with values we hold and likewise, our concepts of “bad”. Funnily enough, the values of “good” change and evolve as we experience life. As do our ideas of what is “bad”. Except from those toxic or harmful to humans, no food is inherently bad; it all depends on how we apply our set of values.


Those values are inscribed within particular perspectives. Many years ago, our immigrant grandparents who worked as coolies probably thought they ate badly relative to the rich businessmen. The poor had little choice or variety and most likely less in quantity that the rich. They were constrainted to eating unpolished brown rice (if they can get it) while the wealthy enjoyed fluffy white rice and roasted meats and fish. This, for them, represented “eating well”, the opposite of the actuality of their daily life.

Phyllo pastryFast-forwarding to our times, many of us now have a choice, we select what we eat according to our individualized sets of values, influenced by values and beliefs in the world around us. We manage and control this abundance and diversity of our food supply by subconciously dividing the “good” from the “bad” therefore simplifying our process of choice. Those who equate “eating badly” with chemicals and artificial preservatives will probably choose unprocessed, organic products. For those who interpret “good” food as fresh, natural, home-made or artisanal will probably define “bad” foods as industrial – canned, dehydrated, frozen or otherwise “preserved” for longer storage. With this worldview, home-made jams and hamburgers prepared by hand from fresh ingredients are “good” but industrial jams and fast-food hamburgers are bad.

There are some who consider a diet based on animals is ethically “bad” and therefore non-animal foods are considered “good”. Historically, there have been groups of people who labelled all stimulants such as tea, coffee, spices and alcohol as “bad” and have condemned those who consume them as “bad”. Yet other zealots have decreed that only “live” food – fresh fruits, nuts, vegetables – are “good”; everything else is regarded as “dead” food and hence “bad”. Clearly, there are many widely differing interpretations of “good” and “bad” foods.

Beef Short RibsThe arbitrariness of these interpretations and of the standards by which “good” or “bad” are judged, contrasts starkly with the certainty with which they are applied. More than differentiating “good” from “bad”, they also segregate food (edible) from non-food (inedible), e.g. Vegans can’t eat milk chocolate and vegetarians would reject what passes for food at the table of a steakhouse.

More important, however, is the extent which opinions are influenced by, and sensory judgements are subjugated to, ideology. None of the good/bad notions discussed above take any account of aroma, flavour and texture.

Recognizing this, perhaps we should treat all such ideas of “good” and “bad” foods with a healthy dash of scepticism.

But if “good” and “bad” are always relative and always contingent, does this mean that there can be no accepted and reliable standards by which to evaluate? Certainly not, if we can argue by analogy. Ideas of beauty and of body shape are similarly changeable, similarly dependent on contemporary values, and yet at any time, there is a consensus on what is considered beautiful and what is pleasing to the eye.


By the same token, it should be no more difficult to reach a consensus on what is “good” food and also what is “bad” food. And these assessments should be informed equally by knowledge and our senses. We should beware of judgements such as, “This olive oil is good because it is extra virgin”. Rather we should taste and reflect before concluding: This oil is fruity, aromatic, neither bitter nor harsh; its qualities reflect its extra virgin classification. We should remember that being able to taste and to differentiate tastes is important, but so too is knowing how our foods are produced, how this relates to flavour, texture and aroma and how best to prepare and eat them so that these properties are best appreciated. Within the wider consensus, there should be recognition of individuality, and the consensus should never become dogma.

Dost thou think that because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?
– William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, Act ii, Scene 3.

Group Hug

Posted on 5th Dec 2006 in Food and Drink, Musings


There Are 2 Comments


imp commented on December 6, 2006 at 10:18 am

true true. and also subjected to the individual’s preferences.


ivn commented on December 6, 2006 at 6:35 pm

Let’s see how many got the joke in there… 😉

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