According to the United Nations, the world’s population is projected to grow from 7.7 billion to 9.7 billion by 2050. This population growth calls for the need to innovate sustainably while addressing local and regional food demands. In November 2021, a Food Technology article titled “Feeding the World Better” highlighted how “CPG companies are tackling food insecurity around the globe, tailoring product development initiatives to local market nutrition needs.”
Often innovation stems from the use of “novel” ingredients, processes, technologies, products, or packaging to introduce something new or modified to a targeted consumer. In recent years, there has been increased concern of cultural appropriation in innovation across all industries. Therefore, how can the food industry innovate and feed the world better without cultural appropriation?
In simple terms, cultural appropriation is taking from or adapting elements of a culture without paying proper homage to—or recognizing the influence of—that culture on those elements. This results in the lack of proper credit being given to that culture or an under-representation of it. Juxtapose this with cultural appreciation, where there is recognition of the role that culture plays on elements taken or adapted, resulting in an elevation of that culture. In innovation, cultural appropriation can play out as Western superiority, negative stereotypical focus, or cultural misrepresentation.
Western superiority happens when non-Western elements are seen as inferior, and in need of “saving,” often with a Western alternative. For instance, prior to the introduction of bouillon cubes to the West African region, fermented locust beans were the main way of introducing umami flavors to dishes. The fermentation process results in a pungency which contributes to the flavor development of foods cooked with it. In its quest to feed the world better, Ajinomoto’s solution to the labor-intensive production and resultant pungency of fermented locust bean was to give it a commercial makeover. This makeover involved replacing it with fermented soybean (natto) in a powdery format while branding it as “fermented locust beans powdery seasoning.” Cultural appreciation, on the other hand, looks like the approach spice company Burlap and Barrel took by partnering with Nigerian chef Tunde Wey to introduce fermented locust beans to the American market while keeping its authentic organoleptic properties, understanding the role it plays in the flavor development of dishes.
Nigerian writer and best-selling author Chimamanda Adichie warned of the dangers of the single-story narrative, particularly when it comes to the Sub-Saharan African region. Despite encompassing 45 countries with 1.1 billion people, the story of this region has often been told through the negative stereotypical focus of famine, poverty, and death. This results in a one-size-fits-all approach even in the food industry. This is seen in Nestlé’s approach of introducing fortified bouillon cubes as one of the solutions to nutritional deficiencies in this region (described in the aforementioned Food Technology article) at the same time that the World Health Organization and other health agencies are calling for reducing sodium consumption across the globe.
Finally, cultural misrepresentation occurs when trying to replicate elements seen in other cultures, without proper due diligence, resulting in misrepresentation of that element. In seeking to introduce the American consumer to the iconic West African jollof rice (pictured above), Trader Joe’s missed out on understanding what makes a dish jollof rice, and the culinary nuances across different countries, leading to a major backlash.
The food industry has more to do, not only in playing our part to feed the world better, but ensuring that as we do, we pay proper homage and give the necessary recognition to the cultures and voices that are the source of inspiration and technologies.
Are there ways the food industry can help when it comes to cultural appropriation in the food space? Lend your voice to this conversation and topic in the IFT Connect group.
The opinions expressed in Dialogue are those of the author.
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