Thursday, 4 February 2010

The infinite flavours of yoghurt: on this occasion, six

Standing once again before the countless yoghurts I genuflected briefly to the retail miracle delivering such abundance. For a moment I stood as the perfect consumer, free to choose and ready to buy, means and intention aligned, my latent demand a mere muscle movement from expression.

Instead, the instructional salvos in my skull exploded down an avenue of memory not motion and I was plunged into a Gestalt of which Sebald himself would have been proud. Would that I could use some total technology to convey its completeness in a similar instant of experience! Or that I could capture on a single canvas the full texture and complexity of my vision; or create an unfathomable chord summoning every element.

The words will do: linear, perhaps, but, as Wittgenstein explained, they play the game as well as any and are as suited as any to estimating the cocktail of what transpired.

#1 – Loganberry. quince and elderflower

It is possible, I’ll concede, that half way through the act of eating a yoghurt you might discover that you are full, in which case the remaining yoghurt may well find its way into the bin; but I’ll wager that among the majority non-bulimic population a yoghurt is rarely an especially filling item. Barring the tediously inaccessible residue that seems inevitably to cling to the sides of the mainstream plastic yoghurt pot, there is little yoghurt in what the technicians delightfully refer to as the ‘waste stream’ that is there because consumers said “Hmm, I think I’m full now, that single teaspoon of virtually weightless material will just have to be thrown away.”

In practice, all the yoghurts you might find in the waste stream are there either because someone decided they didn’t like the taste, or because they decided, on the verge of eating it, that to do so would be dangerous.

Remarkably, this previously hidden area of human behaviour has been revealed to us through the good ministries of Wrap. We now know – that is to say, detailed survey work has revealed – that we in Britain throw away approximately 67,000 tonnes of yoghurt per year. This equates to a little over one million individual yoghurts every day.

Mull it over for a minute.

Something profoundly peculiar is happening here. In order to throw away a million yoghurts every day, quite a few of us must routinely be buying yoghurts that we, or those for whom we buy the yoghurts, don’t actually like. What kind of behaviour is that? Occasionally, yes: buy a new kind of yoghurt in a frisson of experimentalism, discover you don’t like the taste, throw the thing away. But a million yoghurts a day is way beyond experimentalism: something pathological is going on.

Alongside this, it seems that millions of us are so befuddled when we look at the little date on the top or the side of the yoghurt pot that we conclude it means that the product inside is no longer safe to eat, that it is going mouldy or something. Yoghurt is a product that is, essentially, mouldy milk. Hmm. Yesterday, acceptably mouldy; today, suddenly, lethally mouldy. Better chuck it in the bin.

Or perhaps food has become so cheap, or the price of individual items so indistinguishable, that it is essentially part of the challenge of affluence to be able to throw away a yoghurt as and when you want to, just because you can. You return from the supermarket and you need some more room in the fridge: throw away some yoghurts.

#2 – Vanilla

In 1983 – he told me – a high ranking Soviet official had visited the UK in order to promote an urban transport technology of which his Ministry was very proud. Never before having visited the west, Vladimir – his surname must remain anonymous for reasons I am sure the reader will appreciate – was keen to experience a selection of cultural highlights in the few moments he had between his various promotional engagements.

As if channelling Kurt Vonnegut through Jarvis Cocker’s confessions in ‘Common People’, the young official assigned to Vladimir decided that the most appropriate first cultural port of call would be a supermarket. (“I don’t know why, but I had to start somewhere, so I started… there.”) (Actually, it is a perfectly understandable decision: the supermarket is a clear emblem of the western canon and readily accessible to boot.)

In a few hours’ time Vladimir’s ambitions for his urban transport technology would be given brutally polite and short shift by a gathering of technicians and advisors, with the exception of a lunatic who had somehow risen to a position of some influence within the various circles convened for this particular delegation and whose profoundly mistaken belief that Vladimir’s technology represented a significant breakthrough in mass rapid transit systems was a source of stifled disbelief on the part of his fellow delegates (who, it must be said, were only in the foothills of discovering the full measure of their colleague’s madness). The full ramifications of this reception would become clear to Vladimir only years later and were certainly utterly inaccessible to him as he stood – he later explained – astonished before the dazzling array of dairy produce to which his young charge had steered him.

“In Russia”, he told me he had explained to his young guide, “we have only two types of yoghurt.”

Gazing across the innumerable forms and flavours that even in 1983 characterised the world of retail yoghurt, the young official – we surmise – pondered the meaning of a world in which there were only two choices. (Had he read Beckett, of course, he would have known that there were, in fact, four choices: one, the other, neither or both.)

“Yes,” Vladimir continued, “two types: yesterdays, and the day before yesterdays.”

And that’s why communism failed, we agreed: poor supply chain management.

#3 – Peach

Among the many dimensions along which it is possible to vary a yoghurt, one of the most intriguing concerns the claimed number and vitality of micro-organisms present in the pot. There are very few products that actively draw the attention of prospective purchasers to the presence of bugs, indeed most manufacturers and retailers seem keen to persuade us that the food they are selling has been isolated from the biological realm entirely. In the case of yoghurt, by contrast, producers are falling over themselves to demonstrate the power and exuberance of the ‘good’ bugs that we can ingest through the medium of fruit-flavoured mouldy milk.

The marketing folk would appear to have capitalised very effectively on two characteristics of the yoghurt-buying public: it has little interest in or understanding of the origins of its food, and little or no understanding of science. The same public has nevertheless been persuaded that it should try to eat healthily and that ‘pro-biotic’ yoghurt is a means of achieving this. The European Food Standards Authority recently pronounced that there is no evidence that ‘pro-biotic’ has any net benefit on health (news coverage of which extended even to the Daily Mail, who were kind enough to point out to their readers that “The UK's best-selling probiotics, Actimel and Yakult, were not included in the study because the two firms withdrew their claims before they could be assessed”) but this has had no discernible effect. Pro-biotic yoghurts, subset of the more general craze for ‘super foods’, remain fearsomely popular.

No information is available on whether the punters are more or less likely to throw away their pro-biotic yoghurts compared to their merely or perhaps even anti biotic counterparts, but the fact that they buy yoghurts that are in no respects more beneficial simply as a result of the presence of a word which we might ordinarily expect them to be extremely suspicious is telling us something important.

#4 – Raspberry

When I wrote the introduction to Brook Lyndhurst’s ‘Bad Habits, Hard Choices’ in 2003 I used yoghurts as an iconic illustration of the dilemmas facing those seeking to promote more sustainable behaviour among consumers.

“Why did you choose yoghurt?” asked a new colleague on reading the report in 2005. “They’re a bit elitist aren’t they?”

It turns out – according to the official “Family Spending 2009” – that the average UK household spends £1.90 per week on yoghurt and yoghurt-like products; the poorest ten per cent of households spend an average of 90p, the richest £2.90. Compared to their spending as a whole, the poor spend more on yoghurt than the rich.

So no, they’re not elitist.

#5 – Apple & blackberry

What is a behaviour anyway? As I stretch to pick up the chosen yoghurt, what is it, precisely, I am doing? I am being in a shop. I am being in aisle thirteen. I am standing here, not there. I am smelling A, hearing B, seeing C. I am thinking about football/sex/the weather. I am holding a trolley, carrying a phone, wearing some clothes. I am slightly tired, worrying about my weight, remembering my son’s need for new shoes, noticing my sore toe. I am breathing, digesting lunch, wondering whether I shall need to break wind whilst still in the shop.

And you thought I was ‘choosing a yoghurt’.

#6 – Strawberry

The remarkable Thomas Schelling – Professor of Economics at Harvard, Nobel laureate and author of the wonderful ‘Micromotives and Macrobehaviour’ – is one of the principal architects of what is now known as ‘behavioural economics’. He has not, as far as I know, written on the matter of yoghurt. He has, on the other hand, very carefully considered the intricacies of the human decision-making process across a wide range of behaviours, with a particular focus on the instability or variability of these processes. In his valedictory text ‘Strategies of Commitment and Other Essays’ [Harvard University Press 2006] he devotes a chapter to the notion of ‘Commitment as Self Command’. He considers and explores the wide variety of occasions in which we humans say, and genuinely mean, one thing one moment – and say, or do, something entirely different the next. The things we might want to do are in perpetual competition with one another, inside our own heads. He writes (p70):

“The conclusion I come to is that this phenomenon of rational strategic interaction between alternating preferences is a significant part of most people’s decisions and welfare and cannot be left out of our account of the consumer. We ignore too many purposive behaviors if we insist on treating the consumer as only having values and preferences that are uniform over time, even short periods of time.”

This tells us much about yoghurt. Whether in our kitchen when the yoghurt is safely in the fridge; or as we gaze into the fridge pondering whether this yoghurt will satiate the ineffable wish flitting across our tongue; or as we decide that this particular yoghurt ought now to be disposed of, or as we write our shopping list, as we travel to the shop, as we amble along the aisle or as we stand before the abundant array, Schelling shows us that absolutely nothing simple is going on. The past, the present and the future are all involved; my age, gender, class, income, ethnicity, health, family circumstances, fantasies, self-image and history of self-control are all implicated. The personal heuristic that collapses all of this into a simple, subjective Yes/No decision cannot be aggregated in a stable fashion. May be I will, maybe I won’t.

It is like quantum mechanics. Reality exhibits stability at the levels at which we customarily perceive it, much like aggregate consumer spending on yoghurt. Close up, however, reality is no more than a cloud of probability densities – and Schrödinger’s yoghurt may, or may not, be in my trolley. I won’t know until I look…

Richard Feynman would have described it all as a miracle: ““Incidentally, the fact that there are rules at all to be checked is a kind of miracle; that it is possible to find a rule, like the inverse square law of gravitation, is some sort of miracle. It is not understood at all.” [The Meaning of it All, p23]

Enough. Time for the next item on the list.

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