Academia has gone from establishing scientific facts to refuting them since the 1970s. Post-modernism was actually quite necessary for questioning conservative, sexist, racist, and most importantly, contingent assumptions of science. It allowed the acceptance of herbal remedies, from the medical practices of traditional non-Western cultures, into mainstream therapeutic practices. There are plants, however, that kill people, even if they are used in traditional settings. Qat is extremely popular in Somalia, taking up much precious agricultural land and water for a nutritionless addictive, and the betel nut is chewed on in Nepal, causing teeth loss, gum disease, and oral cancer. I don’t think western scientists should start taking away these stimulants from non-western peoples by force. But I also don’t think that they should actively question the fact these are carcinogenic. Or say: oh it’s fine, they just have different tastes from us. Actually, such a statement ignores the fact inhabitants of the western countries in which these scientists live consume harmful products. The best solution is just being frank about what’s healthy, and what’s not.
Yet it seems that in the world of post-truth we have moved on from calling things healthy and unhealthy to all just being a matter of tastes. A recent article in Geoforum (“The Aesthetic Politics of Taste: Producing Extra-Virgin Olive Oil in Jordan” by B. Cook) is one of the many post-science studies of mainstream social sciences (which have really now become part of humanities). While I in no way intend to lampoon Ms. Cook, who has indeed conducted fine field research, the conclusions she reaches are of dangerous nature to the general public. The paper does away with the positivist assumption that science is fact, just to take the opposite assumption that the standards of olive oil (extra virgin – virgin – refined virgin – olive oil – refined olive-pomace) are “are not only a form of governance but also a form of aesthetic politics” and that “extra virginity, with its focus on regulating taste, is unique from other standards that focus on safety.” In orther words: the “extra virgin” standard is an arbitrary western marker of taste, and it is being used to regulate taste in other non-western countries. However, the standards set for olive oil are in fact about safety. Taste is just used as marker to assess whether the olive oil is truly olive oil, and not adulterated with rapeseed, sunflower, castor or other oils that are detrimental to human health, the worst being pomace oil, which has been linked to cancer. In this sense, in no way can extra-virginity be a mere aesthetic (culturally-specific) choice. Whether or not an olive oil contains pomace oil, which is not even processed at factories that are regulated as food facilities, since it is not considered fit for human consumption, is a discretely measurable fact. The standards for olive oil are health standards that happen to be measurable by taste. If an oil lacks bitterness, which comes from the olive’s antioxidant polyphenols, it’s probably been adulterated with other vegetable oils that lack these. If it tastes bland, it’s because it’s been deodorized to hide the rancid taste of genetically modified soy oil.
The paper has divided the battle for taste and the battle for unadulterated olive oil as two different battles (“much of the current battle for quality and authenticity in Jordanian olive oil is not over extra virginity but over whether or not an oil is 100% olive oil”), but, in Jordan just as in Europe, these are actually one and the same battle. The majority of olive oil in Italian, Spanish, and American supermarkets are neither 100% olive oil nor (for that precise reason) tasty: they are labelled extra-virgin, even though they do not fit the neither taste nor health standard. The challenge Jordan faces, the fight against adulteration, is the same faced by olive oil regulators worldwide. It’s not an aesthetic dilemma; it’s a health one. Inferior oils undergo a chemical deodorization in order to remove unpleasant tastes: the result is an bland and unhealthy oil. Extra virgin olive oil is like butter; others are margarine masquerading as butter. Extra virgin olive oil, with its antioxidant polyphenols, is good for you, others, with their free fatty acids, peroxides, and toxins, are bad for you. Taste may be subjective, but health is not. In the case of olive oil, taste equals health. The fundamental error of the paper is setting this aside, and judging taste as an arbitrary characteristic of the oil, which is taught to be appreciated despite having no intrinsic value.
Furthermore, the paper projects a future of “larger farmers being able to overcome the challenges of extra virgin production and a continuation of small-scale farmers stereotyped as producers of low-quality oil.” Yet it is precisely the opposite case in southern Europe and northern Africa, where large companies, that sell their oil to the conglomerate Unilever, are the most responsible for adulteration, whereas small producers struggle to compete with their unadulterated, higher-quality, and thus more expensive product. In a world where only 2% of extra virgin oils on the supermarket are actually extra virgin, it can hardly be said that larger farmers produce more extra virgin oils. If anything, with better education of the realities of unhealthy adulterated oil, Jordanians will choose to buy from their local farmer rather than from the supermarket.
This is not a “new aesthetic regime” that is taken for scientific fact, it’s the actual scientific facts. That consuming oils that are good for us is better than consuming oils that cause hypertension and cancer should not be up for debate. Also, how “new” is the “aesthetic regime”? The ancient Romans distinguished between oleum cibarium, fodder oil not suitable for consumption, and oleum ex albis ulivis, the best.
It should not be considered a “gourmet” choice to eat healthily. It is actually less costly in the long-run, with less hospital bills for hypertension, diabetes, and cancer. With so-called social “scientists” engaging in myths of relativism in health, public health faces more crises. Readers of the papers such as these will likely scoff at their friends who buy organic local 100% virgin olive oil and say their aesthetic choices have been governed by arbitrary standards of taste. Of course choosing virgin oil isn’t a health concern: they just like the social status (cite Bourdieu)! Who cares that what you’re actually pouring on your hummus every day is actually chemically refined half-castor-oil deodorized fodder gunk full of free fatty acids and peroxides that will cause you cancer down the line –it’s all culturally relative!