As we immerse ourselves in conversations about health and nutrition, food policy and possible future food systems, it's easy to forget that nutrients don't exist only in the realm of physical science. When we talk about 'fat' or 'protein', we bring into the conversation all of the associations that nutrient has for us—with the time we first learnt about it, what foods it is found in, health conditions arising from getting too much or too little of it, and so on. These associations shape our thinking, leading us to give more or less importance to certain nutrients, to regard some as 'good' and others as 'bad' in ways detached from scientific findings. This is also a driving force behind nutritionism.
Here, we offer some explorations of the webs of meaning and consequence for protein. Cultural connotations and meanings are inevitably different in every country and community, and we have asked researchers embedded in food or sustainability to create impressionistic maps for a country with which they are familiar. Click each of the thumbnails below to explore these maps differ. Clear themes emerge across them, with the symbolism of meat and milk always playing a big role but the details—and some of the key foodstuffs—vary.
These maps are not based on empirical research. Rather, they express the intuitions and cultural knowledge of individuals. However, we are all experts in our own cultural context, and introspection and observation can take us a long way. We warmly invite further contributions to this project: what have we missed? What meanings, in your experience, get loaded onto protein? After exploring the maps below, click the final link to find out how to add your map to those listed here.