In her new book, Devoured: From Chicken Wings to Kale—How What We Eat Defines Who We Are, Sophie Egan invites readers to take a hard look at the American food psyche. The food writer and a program director at the Culinary Institute of America spent two years studying with Michael Pollan while completing her Master’s Degree in public health at U.C. Berkeley. Her work in this book continues the tradition of looking critically at facets of our food culture many of us take for granted.
Chapters such as “The Muddle of the Modern Meal” and “The Age of Stunt Foods” examine the ways in which convenience has become a part of our national food heritage. Egan takes a look at how American values such as work, freedom, and progress have helped to shape a food culture that is often unhealthy and obsessive (such as the fixation with “having it our way.”) The picture Devoured paints is not exactly pretty, but in piecing together the psychology, food science, marketing, and behavioral economics of food, Egan offers an in-depth analysis of America’s current culinary landscape. In the book’s introduction, she writes:
More and more, we look to food products to provide nutrients in inventive ways. From fortified cereals to air-popped snacks, the number of food products introduced each year has been increasing over the last decade. Each year we are hit with over 20,000 new items. By extension, our deference to science and new food products means deference to food scientists, which means—whether we intend it or not—deference to food companies. We take cues on what to eat not from, say, our parents, but from the marketing magicians of the food industry. They are behind the fabricated food shortages on Super Bowl Sunday, which are just one example of how food companies create both the chaos and the supposed solutions.
We spoke with Egan about Big Food, labels, and her suggestions for improving our food culture.
You talk about how convenience has always been part of American food culture, but much of that has come about in the last 30-50 years. Can you say more about how Big Food has played a role in overhauling the definition of the American meal?
Big Food has normalized convenient foods like microwaveable single-serve entrees by making them available in greater number and greater variety than ever before. In addition, Big Food has not only packaged various foods in [combinations] never before considered meals (i.e., Lunchables “Pizza+Treatza”), often distorting portion size in the name of value (i.e., the 5 for $4 value meal at Burger King). Value menus are especially troubling because the price points appeal to anyone on a tight budget, and yet food companies have offloaded those foods’ true costs from the diet-related health care costs to the environmental costs that are bound to appear down the road.
You mention that we’re being bombarded by marketing tactics that can be confounding and concerning. What policies do you think could effective reign corporate food marketing? What can the average consumer can do to stem that tide of ads?
I am definitely most concerned about marketing to kids and teens—who see over a dozen ads for unhealthy foods or drinks per day. They are the most vulnerable to marketing messages, which can create brand loyalty for life. So I would encourage people to focus their efforts there. They can add their voices to calls from consumer advocacy groups like Center for Science in the Public Interest to restrict food companies’ ability to target youth to sell unhealthy products. In particular, there is an opportunity to support policies requiring that brand mascots and media characters only be used to promote healthy foods and beverages.
This would be effective because of research showing how powerful the urge for certain foods can be when kids are presented with toy giveaways in fast food meals or characters on food packages, whom they consider to be their “friends” (think Tony the Tiger on cereal boxes, Dora the Explorer on popsicle boxes, or Spongebob Squarepants on PopTart boxes). The tide of harmful ads is daunting for sure, but as we have seen with everything from antibiotics and artificial food dyes to trans fat and the “yoga mat” chemical, coordinated consumer activism can be a force to be reckoned with.
Can you say more about food labels and the role you believe they play in the phenomenon you refer to as “health halos”? Do you think there are any labels that are helpful? What about the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s certified organic label?
As we know from Michael Moss’s bestselling book, countless combinations of salt, sugar, and fat fill the vast majority of supermarket real estate with an overwhelming sea of processed products. As we navigate those waters, most of us rely on certain labels as our life rafts. The trouble is, in reducing the decision about a food to whether certain words are present or absent on the label—gluten-free or non-GMO or low-fat or what have you—we place that food as a whole in our mental “good” or “bad” bucket. Often that means gorging on foods that aren’t actually healthy but whose marketers have slapped on these labels knowing how we interpret them.
One label that is actually helpful is “100% whole grain” as opposed to “multi-grain” or “made with whole grains,” which are meaningless because the criteria are not clearly defined. “Certified Organic” has pros and cons. In general, it can be helpful because it serves as an umbrella for a large list of factors consumers are looking for (no synthetic pesticides, no genetic modification, no antibiotics, etc.), but, on the other hand, the “organic” label leads [some] consumers to think that just because a cookie is made with organic butter it’s healthy.
You write that you don’t have an “8-point plan for a perfect food culture,” and you offer some thoughts on what we might do differently, including that you think we should work less. For many low-income people, this simply isn’t an option, even if, as you recommend, employers should pay people a living wage. What other policies or examples do you think could move the needle further, faster?
My emphasis on working less comes from my conviction that we need to look upstream at the root causes of problems related to food, so I welcome a wide variety of solutions so long as they address the social and cultural determinants of food-related challenges. Time constraints are clearly one of the most common. Rather than blaming individuals or merely offering more nutrition education, recipes, food delivery apps, or dinner kits, we need to ask why—why don’t people cook or eat healthier in the first place? Our habits are shaped by our environments, and our workaholic culture is a powerful force at odds with mindful eating and thoughtful food preparation.
For low-income employees, I would love to see employers provide one paid, hour-long “meeting” per week where workers could take a hands-on cooking class on-site and leave with enough servings to feed their family that night. We spend a lot of time at home on screens, so we might also find some creative time swaps there. Financial constraints are of course a significant barrier as well, so I am encouraged by incentive programs that empower families to eat and cook healthy foods. Some examples are Wholesome Wave’s fruit and vegetable prescriptions, farmers’ market coupons for low-income families, and new programs being funded by the$31 million that the USDA has awarded to help increase fruit and vegetable purchases among participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
How can we have more “ownership over what kinds of agricultural, environmental, and labor practices we support with our food dollars”? Do you believe that voting with our forks is the only way to actively shape our collective food system? How else might we do so?
Voting with actual votes is important too, and we don’t have to wait around for nationwide legislation in order to make a difference. As we have seen with the Vermont GMO-labeling bill and the Berkeley soda tax, local initiatives can make a major impact on a broader scale. Whether you have concerns about pesticides, farmworker’s rights, wages for restaurant workers. or water use in food production, speak up to your local representatives.
Along with voting with our forks and our votes, we have some serious cultural shifts to make in the U.S. if we have any shot at shaping a better food system. We can’t continue treating food as an afterthought. For example, we can ask K-12 school district officials to allocate more time for students to eat lunch, and to help students connect the dots about where food comes from by integrating not only school gardens but actual eating into the curriculum.
We can encourage efforts like the growing number of colleges and universities that offer degree programs in food studies and food systems. We can call on employers to establish the office norm of taking a real lunch break. And we can insist that hospitals and senior care facilities elevate the social importance and the quality of the food they serve. We need a multi-pronged and multi-disciplinary network of approaches—collective purchasing patterns, legislation, and cultural change at the very least—to get us closer to a food system based on a more responsible use of natural resources and a more just use of human resources.