Culture

Name-Place-Animal-Thing: On Eating Healthy, Our Need to Eat and Food Porn

This week: Why eating ‘clean’ means eating ‘expensive’, whether food is a nuisance or a pleasure and how food porn impacts our brains.

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Name-Place-Animal-Thing. Credit: Vishnupriya Rajgarhia

What goes into a $700 grocery tab? 

Google “New York store that sells jars of dust” and the first result is ‘How Amanda Chantal Bacon Perfected the Celebrity Wellness Business’. I read the piece when it first came out a few weeks ago, marvelled at it and then forgot about it. Bacon and her company’s name (Moon Juice) were both too generic-sounding to stick in my memory. But I remembered that the pretty lady’s company sells jars of stuff like ‘Brain Dust’. Except I didn’t remember it all that well because I spent a full ten minutes googling ‘Enlightenment Dust’ with the names of various publications I thought I’d read the piece in. ‘New York store that sells jars of dust’ was my inarticulate version of SOS, and to think that it worked.

The article profiles Amanda Chantal Bacon, a successful ‘wellness guru’ who owns a chain of restaurant/stores that sell health-based products like juices, jars of powders that are meant to enhance your libido and your brain power and everything in between. Bacon, who starts and ends her day with yoga, is vegan and eats a variety of ‘food’ that you’ve probably never even heard of (I certainly hadn’t). For instance, in the morning she has “silver needle and calendula tea” served in a copper cup. Other components of her diet include bee pollen, pearl, reishi, shilajit, maca, reishi, sho wu. When Bacon first revealed her diet to Elle, it went viral with people writing about how they hadn’t even heard of such ingredients, and another site estimating that Bacon’s grocery bill was “$709.75 [Rs 45,684], or about 4.5 times what a typical American spends on food a week.”

Molly Young, the writer who interviewed Amanda Chantal Bacon described Bacon’s bowl of coconut yogurt and Power Dust as “fairy food”. Credit: Youtube

Although Molly Young, the author of the piece focuses on the prevalence of ‘wellness culture’ in the US, food itself forms a large part of Bacon’s personal brand and business. It’s definitely a big part of ‘wellness’ but what we eat is also an excellent signifier for wealth. As processed food is increasingly associated with being poor, there’s an accompanying shift towards more ‘natural’ eating. In Bacon’s case, the shift is so natural that we seem to have gone well past fruits and vegetables to things like bee pollen – like breaking down natural ingredients to their most unprocessed form.

Bacon’s daily diet includes little to no cooked food, her lunch is made up of “zucchini ribbons with basil, pine nuts, sun-cured olives, and lemon, with green tea on the side.” Snacks include coconut yogurt with cinnamon sprinkled on top and some raw chocolate. And Brain Dust, Power Dust etc. are well-incorporated into her diet too – they can be sprinkled on lattes or yogurt for example. But just be warned, according to Young, Power Dust tastes ‘soil-forward’. That doesn’t exactly sound appetising.

But for some reason, food that is good for you seems to have been divorced from ‘taste’. Raw zucchini ribbons probably taste exactly like a raw vegetable, which doesn’t sound like it would be enjoyable to eat. Green juices, which feature prominently in the diets of several Instagram-famous wellness gurus, are a staple joke on several sitcoms in which characters feel obligated to drink expensive juices in a fit of ‘self-improvement’ but then complain about the taste. We love to buy and hate green juices so much that they’ve become a fixture of popular culture. So why drink them at all? Because it’s supposed to be good for you and will make you more energetic and productive. The unsaid assumption here is that food is about nutrition and utility, not about taste. Only people who don’t care about their bodies or are too poor or dumb to know otherwise eat processed food which is full of fat, sugar and carbs right?

It’s definitely not just the US or developed world either, the urban elite in developing countries do it all the time as well. When was the last time you ate a samosa and didn’t feel a twinge of guilt? How many times do you mentally negotiate the amount of sugar you’ll take in your tea? (For the record, I take none, and yes, I do feel superior about it.)

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Why do we need food?

Is food just a biological need that we need to solve as efficiently as possible or is it an emotional and creative endeavour that’s innately human? Credit: Wikimedia Commons

While those obsessed with natural food don’t say things like ‘utilitarian’ or ‘efficient’ when talking about their diets, Soylent – a company producing entirely man-made meal replacement products that come in liquid and powder form – blatantly promises consumers exactly that. Google ‘What is soylent’ and the description under their website link says:

“If you’ve ever wasted time and energy trying to decide what to eat for lunch, or have been too busy to eat a proper meal – Soylent is for you. Each Soylent product contains a complete blend of protein, carbohydrates, lipids, and micronutrients: everything the body needs to thrive.”

In the article detailing her diet, Bacon describes the green juice she drinks every day as her “alkalizer, hydrator, energizer, source of protein and calcium, and overall mood balancer.”

Both are basically giving you “everything the body needs to thrive” but in starkly different tones. Note that neither promises you taste but relies on the ‘scientific’ terms to tell you what their products offer you. (‘Deliciousness is for the weak,’ I often tell myself as I sample atrocities like low-fat banana bread.)

If Bacon’s diet sounds like its bird food, Soylent is definitely the human equivalent of dog food. Little brown pellets that have all the nutrients your pet needs to stay healthy and active! And this way you’re spared the hassle of cooking for your pets, even though it’s obvious that our beloved dogs and cats probably ate a whole range of ‘real’ food before the advent of the packaged food industry changed their lives.

The sentiment behind the tech industry’s drive to transform what humans eat doesn’t seem all that different from the one that drove the pelletisation of pet food. In an article about Soylent, David Sax describes the movement as something “that blends the utopianism of Silicon Valley’s culture with the quackery of Dr. Oz-approved “superfoods” and the idea that you can live forever if you just eat enough pomegranate seeds.”

So maybe Soylent and Bacon’s interests are not so different and the meal substitute extends the ideas that Bacon’s business thrives on – we need to know that everything we put in our bodies is good for us and the best way to do that is to reduce is to its most basic form – like pills or powder.
The only major difference is that Bacon’s brand is built on the idea that caring for yourself is a luxurious pursuit, the ingredients on your plate have to signify your wealth; whereas what Soylent promises you is affordability and health. Both ultimately (and profitably) assume that we all want to transform the way we sustain ourselves.

Sax, however, thinks that Soylent’s makers are wrong in this assumption. According to him consumers in the developed world don’t want to pelletise their food in a bid to get to the future, instead they want to revert to the era of ‘real food’ before the canned and processed food became the norm. He writes,

“When you look at the recent arc of food culture, the most significant food movement is the purposeful pushback against the postwar industrial food system, a system that was the food futurism of its day. This industry brought us preservatives, Wonder Bread, Tang, and microwavable frozen TV dinners. It lowered the price of food tremendously and increased convenience in innumerable ways, but it also made us fatter and sicker, and robbed our meals of their original flavors,replacing them with addictive but unhealthy substances.”

According to Sax, we still want real food at the end of the day and “Though it may be possible to create technically feasible products for any aspect of our lives, those only succeed if they improve—rather than seek to replace—the human, highly tactile, and pleasurable world we want to live in.”

That’s what really seems to be missing from Bacon and Soylent’s approach to food, the fact that we take pleasure in it. Not just for the end-goal of nutrition and energy but because the acts of making and consuming food are themselves enjoyable and innately human. Though I’m not sure about the latter, as pet-owners know all too well, those brown pellets don’t stand a chance when pitched against yummy ‘real food’ treats. (My dog loves mangoes, carrots, tomatoes, paneer… this is not an exhaustive list. And yes, he does eat ‘cleaner’ than I do and I’m pretty sure he feels superior about it.)

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The pleasures and perils of food porn

Turns out all those pictures and videos of food we keep consuming actually do leave their mark on us. Credit: _SoFie/Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0

Unfortunately for us, marketers and advertisers know all too well that we relate to food in a million emotional and associational ways that aren’t fully under our control. Which means our propensity to eat junk food that’s full of artificial flavouring is only enhanced by all the food porn we’re consuming on a daily basis (Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook all feature pictures and videos of food)

In an article on the science behind food porn, Charles Spence explains the neural reactions that take place when we see food:

“In terms of the brain’s response to images of palatable or highly desirable foods (food porn, in other words), research shows widespread activation of a host of brain areas, including the taste and reward areas. The magnitude of this increase in neural activity, not to mention the enhanced connectivity between brain areas, typically depends on how hungry the viewer is, whether they are dieting (ie, whether they are a restrained eater or not) and whether they are obese. (The latter, for instance, tend to show a more pronounced brain response to food images even when full.)”

To top it all, our brains really like foods that are densely calorific and not all that good for us – and since images of such food are the one’s we’re most attracted to, its food of this kind (think fried anything) that we’re most likely to be shown in pictures and sold in eateries.

There’s another strange movement that Spence highlights in relation to food porn that just goes to show our desire for food goes well beyond sustenance. ‘Mukbang’ is a trend that started in 2011 and involves people watching videos of other people eating and talking about food. Spence is careful to note that these videos don’t feature celebrities or chefs but regular (though photogenic) people. The popularity of this trend can partially be attributed to the fact that research shows we like to see our food in motion, it signifies freshness (like juice being poured or melty cheese that stretches as we pick up a pizza slice). But Spence adds, “I also get the sense, though, that some people who eat alone are tuning in for a dose of mukbang at mealtimes to get some virtual company.”

Clearly, we find consuming food pleasurable but we also find it rewarding to look at it, in addition to watching other people enjoy it as well. This may be the fundamental difference between what makes Bacon’s diet seem desirable and Soylent somewhat repelling. The stuff on Bacon’s plate is presented beautifully and she herself is attractive too, so getting the chance to eat beautiful food and feel like we’re doing so with a beautiful person makes us want to try our hand at it. In fact, Young is so moved by the same emotion that she admits to ordering a “16-ounce sack of bee pollen on Amazon” in the middle of a conversation with Bacon.

Young, Sax and Spence all know that our relationship with food is highly relational. It’s about how food makes us feel, not just physically but emotionally – we eat certain things to signify status, we resist utilitarian meal replacements because they lack the tactile pleasure of food, we desire forms of food that we know we can’t eat, like dishes in images and videos. The way we consume food certainly needs to change, health data from developed and developing countries shows that processed food has indeed been bad for us, and the visual bombardment of food porn evidently doesn’t help either. If we want to eat healthier and also produce food in more sustainable ways, we probably need to better understand how we feel about the things we eat and drink, not just how they impact our bodies.

Spence thinks that part of the answer lies in how we look at food (literally), “There seems little chance that the impact of sight will decline any time soon, especially given how much time we spend gazing at screens. My hope is that by understanding more about the importance of sight to our perception of, and behaviour around, food and drink we will be in a better position to optimise our food experiences in the future.”

Want to suggest a piece that should be included in this column? Write to me at nehmat@thewire.in
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