March 30, 2017
Inside the American Food Psyche
Expert Q&A

Inside the American Food Psyche

by David Tuller, DrPH  |  

As the author of the acclaimed new book Devoured: From Chicken Wings to Kale Smoothies—How What We Eat Defines Who We Are and a program director at the Culinary Institute of America in San Francisco, Sophie Egan combines her passions for food and journalism to promote a healthier and more sustainable approach to eating. Her family’s year-long stay on a Tuscan farm when she was in fourth grade sparked her lifelong interest in food production and food culture. As an undergraduate student at Stanford University, Sophie managed a student dining hall. In 2014, she received her Masters in Public Health from UC Berkeley, with a focus on food systems, food innovation, and food writing.

Devoured, Sophie’s first book, takes the reader on a surprising and entertaining ride through the highs and lows of our perplexing, fascinating relationship with what we eat. She spoke with us in advance of a talk Oct. 27, 2016, at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, co-sponsored by the Graduate School of Journalism and Kaiser Permanente.

Many people, I think, have the sense that our nation’s food system is a total mess. Is that the case?

Yes and no. On many fronts we are going in the right direction. For example, people are paying more attention to ingredients in their food, there’s a movement toward cleaner labels on products, and there’s interest in the environmental and health implications of not only what’s in the food, but how it’s grown and how it gets to us.

What’s broken is the generational transfer of knowledge about food, like learning a language when you’re a kid. Or how to ride a bike. So we are outsourcing more of our meal making to professionals. In 2015, for the first time ever, spending on eating out in the U.S. outpaced spending on groceries. That’s a big tipping point that represents a distancing from our food. At the same time, there’s that interest in the food system and a desire to become more connected to the sources of food, so the very fact that people are making less of their own meals is at odds with that. In general, there’s a loss of food literacy.

What is food literacy?

To me, food literacy means having a certain intimacy with food, an ease that comes from deep familiarity. It’s an understanding of not only how food is produced and how it gets to stores and to tables but also what is in season when, what ingredients pair well with others, how to use the ingredients in your pantry to feed yourself. It also means confidence in navigating not just your kitchen but the food environment—determining fact from fiction on food product labels, understanding nutrition, and navigating marketing claims about health attributes. Media headlines about the stunning results of some new nutrition study can undermine that knowledge, because often what’s considered newsworthy is the study that counters the established consensus about the food or nutrient being investigated—for example, a study two years ago that contradicted longstanding warnings about saturated fats and was then criticized by other experts. And despite some journalists’ good intentions to translate study findings for lay audiences, often the story poorly interprets the actual results. So we end up with a bizarre and unfortunately misleading game of telephone. Those headlines make it hard to just rely on common sense, to trust your judgment about what’s healthy.

Social media is a hotbed of sites and information about food. Isn’t that a good thing?

There are more recipes online than ever, there’s Food Network, social media, blogs, and entire Instagram feeds devoted to avocado toast and so on. But having online access to recipes is not the same as having an intuition about food. In some ways, it’s actually about having a greater dependence on the food and food-service industry. A lot of this posting on social media is a kind of fetishizing of food, and can in some ways make the act of preparing a meal feel more intimidating—‘Oh, I could never make something so photogenic!’

So how can we change that?

One of the biggest things that needs to happen is to signal from an early age that food should have greater cultural significance in American society. Right now in elementary school, kids might have 20 minutes to scarf down lunch. Putting aside for a moment the low quality of many school lunches, the fact that from that young age you are shown you have this busy day and lots of important things to learn—and that food is merely this pit stop—sets you up for a lifetime of a dine-and-dash, food-as-fuel mentality. It then translates to when you’re in college or out in the working world, and your default is to rely on grab-and-go items. We could start to instill more food literacy and convey this great importance of food in daily life simply by allocating more time for it—not just for eating it, but by bringing education into the cafeteria, using school dining experiences as classrooms about food, how it is grown, along with culinary skills. And some schools are doing that, with school gardens and other great programs.

How about organic food? Is it becoming more accessible to more people?

On organic, the biggest sign of hope to me is actually Costco. They’re the single largest retailer of organic in the U.S., and they are bringing organic to the masses. Right now, demand outstrips supply, so organic food is expensive. Costco is working with conventional farmers to compensate them for the costs and three-year period of transitioning to organic. If you have a greater supply of organic food, then the prices will come down, and more people will be able to afford it. Working with farmers, building those relationships, and offering that security in transitioning to organic are really pivotal. Steps like those can help ensure that organic food is not just for the elite but something everyone has access to.

What’s the deal with the gluten-free trend?

Gluten-free is among the latest in a long pattern of what I refer to in my book as “selling absence.” It has been going on at the very least since the whole boom of fat-free foods, and today you see it in non-GMO, low-sodium, and reduced-calorie foods, air-popped snacks, and all of the various ways of marketing food where you’re valuing it based on what it lacks. Gluten-free is really the latest manifestation of that. I think the hysteria has to do with gluten as a proxy for larger concerns—people want to eat less processed food, and they want to feel good after they’ve eaten something. Gluten is at the heart of the increased overall awareness of the connection between what you eat and your digestion, or gut health.

But with gluten, most people overlook the risk of avoiding whole grains. People don’t think of that trade-off when they go gluten free—they also don’t think of what replaces the gluten, which in many cases might end up being worse. If by going gluten-free that means you’re drinking less beer and eating less refined carbs, and generally being more thoughtful about what you’re putting in your body, then you probably feel great. But it’s a misattribution of the source of that improved feeling of health. With such self-diagnosis, people often make inaccurate assessments of cause and effect.

You can live stream Sophie Egan’s talk at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health Oct. 27, 2016, 5-7 pm PST, at this link.

Also see Sugar Daddies of Nutrition Research.