Kristen Rasmussen is an adjunct faculty member at UC Berkeley, past adjunct faculty at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, and owner of Rooted Food, Inc., a culinary nutrition and food sustainability consulting company.
What first drew you to the subject of food?
I've always been interested in cooking, and I really love that food is such a connector. 95% of the people you talk to get excited about some food or another, and it's all so different. It’s one of the reasons why I love teaching at UC Berkeley in the Nutrition Department. There's such a diverse array of students, and it’s really fun to see what gets people going culinarily and the different cultural aspects of what they eat and why. When this class came up as a possibility to teach, I was really drawn to it. I also travel quite a lot. You can learn a lot about a people and a culture through what they eat, and how they eat it. I find it fascinating.
How big a role does culture play in the appeal of certain foods?
We're all human so we all have a similar taste bud makeup. We all tend to like things that are inherently sweet and salty, but whatever you grow up around is what you’re going to be comfortable with and what you’re going to like.
Sort of like Marmite versus peanut butter?
Exactly. Toddlers across the world will gravitate toward certain kinds of foods based on their own experience and exposure to them, even at that young age. If you think about it from an evolutionary survival standpoint, we had to have had a certain element of distrust of a foreign food or we wouldn’t have survived.
What about the other end of the age spectrum? Does our taste change as we get older?
The biggest thing with age is that your smell diminishes and smell is 70% of taste. So that's what really starts to happen. Flavor gets kind of muted, unfortunately.
Could you talk a bit about the framework of the class?
We’re going to look at the different aspects that impact why we eat what we eat, such as our physical environment, climate, socioeconomics, and politics. For example, when it comes to politics here in the United States, we have agricultural subsidies, soda taxes (which may affect some more than others), nutritional recommendations that sway what people eat, and ongoing issues with what constitutes healthy school lunches. There are just so many examples of where politics affect what we eat.
How does food play a role in climate change?
This question is the key topic in one of my favorite modules. I started teaching this class to Berkeley students eight years ago, and it’s been fascinating to see the change in student awareness of the environment and its connection to food over time. Basically, our agriculture makes up a huge portion of greenhouse gases and uses a ton of water, a ton of land, etc. So, what we choose to eat plays a big role in how the environment is treated. You’ve probably heard this before, but the number one way to have a more sustainable diet is to reduce your meat intake. So, we’ll talk about all the different factors of why that is — that meat takes so much water, produces greenhouse gases, and all of these factors that go into why a plant-based diet is so much better for the environment.
Will you discuss organic versus conventional?
We’ll discuss it a bit. There is generally consistent agreement that organic agriculture is better on the environment. It definitely uses fewer pesticides and, if you're considering it holistically in terms of what's better for everyone including farm workers, organic agriculture is much less degradative. Whether or not organic is better for you from a nutrition standpoint is more contested. There are some factors such as certain organic produce being higher in polyphenols antioxidants but it’s not likely that every single organic produce will be more nutritious in every single category than conventional.
What would you like members to take away from this class?
You should leave this course being able to really break apart what you're eating and why. It's a fun and enlightening framework to look at the world.