Brain Foods: Reframing Care with Medicinal Foodways
The realms of industrial food science and nutrition are rapidly transforming with neuroscience research findings focused on brain development and gut interaction. The prominence of the brain in the early 21st century science and medicine have influenced consumers to reconfigure diets to focus on brain health as compared to cardiovascular health in earlier decades. The global supplement industry in recent years have quickly brought to market new products that are tailored to enhance brain functioning, cognitive thinking, and memory as well as protect the brain from aging among other claims. How is this global turn to brain health articulated beyond biomedicine especially in Asian social contexts and markets?
Foodways across Asia have transformed with increased consumption of processed and fast foods such that obesity is on the rise among young children across Asia, especially in the rapidly growing middle classes, as well as chronic diseases becoming leading causes of morbidity and mortality. I examine emergent categories of brain health across several contexts of knowledge formation and cultural practices. Notions of brain food have previously circulated as part of Chinese medicine and shiliao (dietary therapies). What does it mean to focus on the brain and cognitive health as keys to wellbeing and healthy eating compared to the heart and cardiovascular fitness several decades ago? In this paper, I address the recent growth of brain foods, foods that are considered to enhance brain function, and query their rise and promotion for health markets especially across Asia. I examine the centrality of this organ which shapes daily life and cultural practices of eating and nurturing beyond biomedical institutions.
Nancy N. Chen is Professor of Anthropology at UC Santa Cruz. She is the author of Breathing Spaces: Qigong, Psychiatry, and Healing in China and of Food, Medicine, and the Quest for Good Health. She is co-editor of four book volumes on bioinsecurity, Asian biotechnology, bodies, and urban China. Her Ted Salon talk on “The inaccurate link between body ideals and health” has reached over 2.1 million views.
Check out her Ted Talk “The inaccurate link between body ideals and health” here!