The meal–snack distinction: preliminary reflections

“Who in the rainbow can draw the line where the violet tint ends and the orange tint begins? Distinctly we see the difference of the colors, but where exactly does the one first blendingly enter into the other? So with sanity and insanity.” Herman Melville, Billy Budd, Sailor.

Amongst the things we eat, we sometimes distinguish those things taken to constitute a meal from those things taken to constitute a snack. What drives us to distinguish things in that way? And do we thereby carve at a natural joint? The aim of this post is to sketch out some preliminary considerations that may figure usefully in more extended reflection on these questions.

The first issue has figured in some recent work in occupational and health psychology, on the hypothesis that the question might be connected with issues of appetite, including over-eating. Here are extracts from the abstracts of two recent studies:

“What determines whether a person perceives an eating occasion as a meal or snack? The answer may influence what and how much they eat on that occasion and over the remainder of the day. A survey of 122 participants indicated that they used food cues (such as the food quality, portion size, perceived healthfulness, and preparation time) as well as environmental cues (such as the presence of friends and family, whether one is seated, and the quality of napkins and plates) to determine if they were eating a meal rather than a snack… ” (Wansink et al., ‘”Is this a meal or snack?” Situational cues that drive perceptions,’ Appetite 54, 2010: 214–216.)

“The purpose of this study was to investigate definitions of snacking, perceptions of snack foods and snacking behavior… The majority of participants believed that snacking was best defined as food or drink eaten between main meals…. This study supports previous evidence that snacks are best defined relative to meals however it highlights a need for further research to be done examining the relationship between meals and snacks. The findings identify that not all snack foods provide extra calories and therefore snacking is not necessarily a predisposition to obesity.” Chaplin and Smith, ‘Definitions and perceptions of snacking,’ Current Topics in Nutraceutical Research, 9, 1, 2011: 53–59.)

Wasnink et el. mention earlier, anthropological work by Mary Douglas, in which she claimed that “a key driver in meal/snack perception is whether a “mouth-entering” utensil is used.” (Wansink et. al., 2010: 214, discussing Douglas, Implicit Meaning: Essays in Anthropology, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975.)

Here, the following ideas are emphasised:

  • The suggestion is made that the snack-classification may be parasitic, in one or another way, on the meal-classification. (For example, it may be that a snack is food or drink consumed between meals and thus is not itself a meal.)
  • The suggestion is made that the snack–meal distinction, or distinctions, may be multi-faceted. (For example, it may depend upon consideration of timing, method of consumption, manner of presentation, food quality, preparation, &c.)
  • The focus is on discerning the cues subjects use in perceiving, or judging, things to fall into one or another classification, rather than attempting to capture the natures of the kinds subjects track.
  • It seems to be assumed that an appropriate method is to ask subjects to assess presented definitions of either “snack” or “meal”, rather than asking subjects to classify presented cases in one or another way, and then seeking to construct definitions on the basis of their classifications.

Although it’s not implausible that consideration of folk judgments might play a role in further reflection on the issues here, it’s not obvious that the folk are, just by virtue of their native lexical or conceptual competence, especially well placed directly to assess definitions. It’s plausible that one could be competent to classify events as meals or snacks without having an articulate view about the grounds for that classification. For instance, one might be able reliably to judge whether a dog is a spaniel without being able to say in more detail what features of dogs one’s classification relied upon. Similarly, one might be able reliably to judge whether some food, or its consumption, amounts to a snack without being able to say in more detail what grounds one’s classification.

Furthermore, it’s not obvious that either “meal” or “snack” is definable in an interesting way. Perhaps we can say something about the characteristics of all and only those things we count as meals or all and only those things we count as snacks. But it’s not obvious that what we can say would put someone who was entirely ignorant of meals and snacks, and of the ways of life into which eating either is woven, in a position reliably to sort things into one pile or the other. And it’s far from clear that our competence in classifying resides in our knowledge, and exploitation, of the kinds of definitions that might be able to serve such a purpose.

Suppose that, one way or another—either by direct questioning about presented definitions, or by eliciting the classification of cases—we had assembled a range of data about the conditions in which the folk count things, or fail to count them, as respectively meals or snacks. Still, that result might fall short of providing the basis for an account of the distinction for any of the following reasons.

  1. Some of our judgments are liable to be erroneous, even by our own, present standards. One reason for this is that our conceptual abilities are, like any human ability, fallible. We must distinguish between those judgments that reflect our competence and those that are due to extrinsic factors that limit our performance—crudely, grit in the mechanism. Another, related reason is that our judgments typically issue from our conceptual competence only in combination with the exercises of other capacities and abilities. Hence, even where a judgment reflects the proper operation of the system as a whole, it may not transparently reflect the operation of conceptual ability.
  2. Our conceptual capacities can develop over time, in light of reflection and also the gathering of additional evidence about the natures of the things we aim to classify. For example, new discoveries about the nature of gold—its chemical constitution, and so forth—can lead to changes in the types of cues we exploit in classifying stuff as gold. Not every such change in conception amounts to a change in concept: we allow that we can improve our grasp on conceptual requirements of which we were anyway dimly cognizant. It is possible that such developments might occur in our conception of the requirements for being a meal or a snack. We might think here of our changing views about the standing of the mark to which Douglas appeals: use of “mouth-entering utensils”.
  3. Some such developments amount to our coming to see that cues to which we appeal in classifying stuff as gold are only superficial characteristics of gold—features that a stuff might manifest without being gold, or that a stuff might fail to exhibit even though it is gold. Similarly, we might come to see that our initial judgment about a case of food consumption was based on merely superficial cues: perhaps it was a case of a fool’s meal—a snack with the superficial characteristics of a meal—or a fool’s snack—a meal with the appearance of a snack.

A question to be addressed by future work in this area, then, is this. Could there be fool’s meals or fool’s snacks?

  1. I was just wondering what you thought of this idea (which I don’t necessarily endorse): it is of the essence of a meal that it can admit of courses. In contrast, it is not of the essence of a snack that it can admit of courses.

    We might even add: snacks essential *cannot* admit of courses. One might have a period of snacking, on crisps, and on chocolate, but the crisps aspect and chocolate aspect are not courses of the snack.

    So I wonder if we can gain any insight into the nature of meals, and how they differ from snacks, but appeal to courses?

    • Thanks. I think the idea is definitely worth pursuing further. I think there may be issues in applying the idea with respect to those cases in which there is putatively a meal that does not involve courses. For we will then need a conception of merely being such as to admit courses that is non-Megarian. Perhaps primitivism about the required modal profile is an option. But if not, one will need an account of potential to admit courses that explains its possession by appeal to other characteristics of meals, and I simply don’t know whether that can be done.

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