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Future criminals be warned: If they send you up the river and you act out in the joint, they will punish you. Not with solitary confinement, loss of privileges or bread and water. Oh no. Instead, they'll make you eat healthy! It's called nutraloaf. Your special of the day will consist of a repugnant mixture of cubed whole wheat bread, non-dairy cheese, carrots, spinach, raisins, beans, vegetable oil, tomato paste, powdered milk, and dehydrated potato flakes. Some recipes are completely vegan, (which is a crime in and of itself). Moreover, to prevent any potentially dangerous items from falling into the hands of crafty inmates, it is served without utensils. And would Monsieur care for a bottle of our finest Chateau de Prison tap water with the nutraloaf?
Prisons throughout the country have been employing nutraloaf, or some equally gross variation thereof, for decades as a behavior modification technique. The penal system's rationale is simple: an individual can be punished via his sense of taste without harming his nutritional needs. (The Vermont penal system’s version of nutraloaf provides almost 1000 low-fat calories per serving). In essence, the inmate gastronomically suffers without starving. One individual likened it to “eating sawdust.” However, the “healthy” concoction is so vile that some of the prisoners actually prefer being famished.
In Vermont, convicts have filed a class action suit challenging nutraloaf's use as punishment. A past lawsuit by Washington state inmates declaring nutraloaf "cruel and unusual punishment" was defeated in court. Lawsuits have been filed against nutraloaf in a number of other states as well. In some cases the challenge is whether food can even be used as punishment, let alone whether it is cruel and unusual.
Many people would harbor no sympathy for the murderers, kidnappers, rapists, and other assorted scofflaws forced to dine on nutraloaf. But whether you believe that to mete out such punishment is just or not is superfluous to our discussion. What I find intriguing is that the penal system chose food as a means of reprimanding its unruly jailbirds. But even food per se is not the actual instrument of punishment. Food is merely the vehicle. Assaulting one’s palate, i.e., causing an unpleasant taste, is the real penalty. Sort of gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “tongue-lashing.”
The ineluctable truth is that we are physical beings and our senses are portals to our hearts and minds. What we feel, see, hear, smell and taste has great bearing on our psyches which consequently affects our emotions and even biological processes. Have you ever been very hungry, waiting with increasing anticipation for your meal, and when the food finally arrives it tastes terrible? The gustatory repulsion tends to stifle your entire appetite. It can even color the way the entire dining experience is perceived. Offensive food can put a damper on a social occasion, thereby assuaging its positive attributes. “How was Mary’s wedding?” “Oh it was very nice but the food was terrible.” How many times have you heard similar conversations like that in your life?
This is why we wait with bated breath as our dinner guests take their first bite of the meal we’ve prepared. And how disappointed we are, (and in some insecure cases even insulted), if our food is not met with pleasure. On some level we’re all cognizant of the power that food has over our reactions and perceptions which in turn influence our interpersonal world. But what is the nature of that power?
As stated, our senses are gateways to our hearts and minds. Reality must pass through them to reach and influence our inner world. The crux of the matter is this: noxious stimuli generate negative emotions. A loud noise, a putrid smell, a horrid scene, an unpleasant physical sensation, and, for the purposes of the present discussion, a repugnant taste, can all produce waves of uncomfortable feelings. Naturally the more offensive the stimuli, the stronger the emotion, the longer it lingers, and the more we must endure a disconcerting state of being.
Returning to our delinquents, revolting food is so aversive it can be used to modify behavior. Indeed, the sense of taste is so powerful that as stated, some offenders choose hunger instead. Even our will to survive, arguably our strongest instinct, can be mitigated to some degree by the disturbing experience of an abhorrent taste. The flip side of course is that satisfying our sense of taste can be rapturously satisfying emotionally and physically. This is how food feeds are souls as well as our bodies. Good food generates an internal sense of well being, which in turn spills over onto the context within which it’s enjoyed. Delicious food makes the party more fun, your date seem sweeter, your in-laws more tolerable, and overall, life a little bit better. Now that’s what I call an aftertaste.