Why Food Media Fails When They Tell Us How to Eat

July 28, 2016

There's a lot to take into consideration when you eat—what you just feel like having, the cost, the ethics, the season, the nutritional content, the environmental impact. You know this. And as a desire to know what's in our food has converged with an inability to know that very information, the number of factors to keep in mind while decision-making has reached a new peak. A fever pitch.

But recent guides have promised to calm us down, to sing through the din.

Following New York Magazine's July cover story, "The Neurotic Eater's Grocery List," comes Wired's August "How to Eat Now" issue: "Your Scientific Guide to Eating Like a Good Human in 2016."

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Was Wired upset to have been "scooped"? How different is a neurotic eater from a scientific one, anyway? And what story can we expect next month?

Where NY Mag owned its fear-mongering, practically parodying it, Wired includes more seemingly utilitarian articles: easy rules for cooking in a drought; a mock-up of food labels that would prioritize actually useful information; one-bowl meals that pack a nutrient punch (developed by Bon Appétit and Buzzfeed alum Alison Roman); and a list of our modern food crops' wild ancestors and their genetic advantages (wild tomatoes are heartier than conventional ones, for example).

But it promises a lot more than these (or any amount of) articles can cover. The opening sentence of the intro blurb is ominous—"Eating today is almost impossibly complicated"—yet then, just a few sentences later, the graf concludes, "So relax, pick up your fork, and chow down."

Why are we still writing to a utopian audience that has the time, money, and resources to make these changes?

Wait a minute: How did we get to the point of relaxing? How did we go from acknowledging the complexity to relaxing and "chowing down"? These articles certainly don't work to put my mind at ease.

While the issue presents a few serious problems facing the food system like droughts, big agriculture, and foggy labeling (but almost completely ignores others: waste, welfare, climate change), the solutions are superficial at best. The "Power Bowls" section, for example, opens with the line, "You are depriving yourself of the vitamins and minerals you need" and the statistic that 90% of Americans don't get enough potassium. Sounds scary, right?

But the recipes that follow are not altogether practical for a real person with limited cooking knowledge who wants to make them at home. The "Blood Booster" instructs you to pile warm buckwheat soba into a bowl with steamed broccoli, then pour hot dashi broth over top. But how do you cook the soba? And what is dashi? The "Bone Builder" has you add a piece of seared rainbow trout to a bowl with wilted kale. Wilted how? Seared how?

And the "easy rules for drought-friendly cooking"? One advises you to "Grow your own [leafy greens] to cut the impact of a nice salad even more." But how? And where and when? Another recommends seeking out dry-farmed produce: But is it more expensive? Is it available everywhere? What about the carbon footprint of having it shipped? Chicken is recommended over beef—you'll use 15% of the water needed to grow a steak in a pound-per-pound comparison—which seems like an easy enough change. But refer back to NY Mag, where Nick Tabor and James D. Walsh have told us that, "Chickens are pumped up with more drugs than an ’80s Soviet Olympian." Okay, so no chicken or beef.

What's left? Where does all this information leave us? How many people have the space and energy to grow their own salad greens? How many people know how to sear rainbow trout (or how to source it) without any guidance? How many people will even do as much as give up avocados because they're terrible for the environment and tied into cartel lordship? Why are we still writing to a utopian audience that has the time, money, and resources to make these changes?

This issue, and NY Mag's, too, asks you to either devote an incredible amount of time and research to every food decision or to sit with the guilt of knowing you're not eating "like a good human." I'd argue that that's not productive, and that they're a bit misguided in who they're trying to reach: Maybe these two publications already know that their readership (largely educated and fairly affluent, I'd guess) will pick up a copy that promises health-based shock value. But if their real priority is to make an impact, rather than sell issues, I'd say that they need to develop some practical advice that will make its way to a more mainstream audience—that can be adopted by people who struggle to find 30 minutes to cook dinner, let alone dry-farmed tomatoes at the local supermarket.

And maybe that means putting more onus on industry, too. So that it's not only about all of the decisions we make at the store (though I understand that consumer behavior determines what companies produces, yes), but also about holding our businesses responsible. They should feel the pressure, too. As should our politicians.

Part of the problem is that this paranoid, scientific approach removes us from food. Just think: How convoluted, how indecipherable, has our food system become that we need a scientific guide (or a neurotic one) to fulfill a basic human need? I couldn't help but remember the skepticism of Joan Gussow—the woman who is responsible for much of food movement maven Michael Pollan's core philosophy—in regards to the intersection of food and tech:

What we need is a more direct contact between people and the earth. Computers can't move physical things. [...] Food is a material object that needs to be moved around by people so it can get to your mouth.

I think food technology is the future—an inevitable one, at that—but I still want to know that there are tangible tweaks I can make in my own life, if not to cleanse myself of guilt, then to know I'm making a better decision, even if it's not a perfect one.

Here's what I'd like to see more of, and what I think food media should be working hard to provide: Real, manageable tips that can be applied to daily cooking, to weekly shopping, that are better choices. I want to know about the big problems, of course, but I'd also like to see solutions, fixes, options that are both big and small. So that it's easier to take action and harder to write these issues off as too big, too scary, too inaccessible to do anything about.

What kind of information would YOU find helpful? Tell us in the comments below, and we'll do our best to provide it.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • EL
  • Katherine
  • Darlene
  • Cinnamin
  • PHIL
I used to work at Food52. I'm probably the person who picked all of the cookie dough out of the cookie dough ice cream.


EL August 12, 2016
While I understand your (the writer's) frustration with the latest diet trends and suggested nutritional advice (especially when given in 1 --2 sentence soundbites), I find it interesting that basic gardening would be considered utopian (raising salad greens). I also find this question from the writer somewhat annoying: "How many people have the space and energy to grow their own salad greens?" How much energy do you need? Why not take the 15 minutes to 1/2 hour to put some soil into a pot and do this? Or are you a complete couch potato?

For your information, it is possible to raise salad greens in a container in a window (as long as you don't have a brown thumb). It is simple and doesn't take a lot of energy. I am quite lazy and I am able to do this. If you have a deck or small outdoor space (you don't even need a ton of sun for salad greens) you can use a bigger container. It certainly is no more difficult than raising a houseplant. This summer I raised enough lettuce in a container to give me a salad every day. Salad greens also can be grown indoors in a cool house during the winter without needing a great deal of extra light other than what you can get through a window. With the abundance of basic gardening information online (including how to grow veggies in pots), most people should be able to do this if they have the urge. If you don't have the urge to do it you won't. But this is not utopian and is quite basic.

I am living on a limited income and the last time I was in at the local food bank, they were giving vegetable seeds away. In addition, SNAP benefits also pay for both vegetable plants and seeds. Dirt is generally free if you are willing to dig it up, but if not, then fairly inexpensive potting soil is available in a lot of places. Cheap pots are also available (heck, most people are struggling to recycle the black pots they get plants in). They may not look ornamental but will do the job.
Katherine August 12, 2016
I wouldn't get too judgmental about the writer you are answering. I live in Arizona and have eminently unsuccessful gardening. Too much heat and sun outside and too many cats inside. They love produce whether flowers of herbs. I yearn for my days out east, with abundant moisture, perfect growing climate, lots of goodies. But my own brown thumb has not prevailed. Do I want a garden badly enough to move for the thirteenth time? Hm. I'll have to think about that one.
EL August 12, 2016
Yes, Katherine, I do understand how circumstances can intervene. I have lived in the intermountain west all my life (including AZ) and when I moved to Mississippi for a while, had problems growing veggies there, but what I am addressing is the comment about growing salad greens as a utopian enterprise (Not!!!!). I am not writing about having a brown thumb due to circumstances or about not having the urge to garden (I can sympathize and understand both -- everyone has different talents and likes and needs). But the question that I quoted was not about that. The author did not ask "What if I hate gardening or cannot get plants to grow?" That question I would have sympathized with.
EL August 12, 2016
BTW: I absolutely understand the need for cats! Very necessary and necessary to grow things for them. I used to garden for my moggies rather than just for myself.
Katherine August 12, 2016
I do get it. Did you get to grow things in AZ?
Leandra B. March 28, 2018
The people who don't take 15 minutes to put some soil in a pot are not couch potatoes, as you may suggest. They are the single parents in inner city Baltimore with no access to a grocery store, much less a seed source. They work 60 hours a week. They may have a chronic illness or a child with a chronic illness. They make minimum wage and struggle to pay bills. Their idea of lettuce is the pale shredded stuff in a bag, because their parents also lacked a grocery store or the know-how to cook asparagus. I implore you to scrutinize food media, and the food system as a whole, from a perspective other than your own.
Katherine August 10, 2016
I have just read this article, scanned the Neurotic Eaters.... & 10 healthy choices articles, and also checked a number of other links. My head is spinning. I have been through so many food trend in my 70 years (in October). I started cooking at 8 yrs. because my mom had polio and was confined to a wheel chair. We had fish sticks and Kraft dinner, hot dogs and bologna, fruit cocktail, Ann Page white bread, and other things that should have shortened my life. Then I watched and learned from Julia Child and learned the wonders of butter, among other poisons. Then I had an autistic child who was diagnosed ADHD and went Feingold - made my own bread, cereal, etc. He traded for school lunches - canned spaghetti, jello, canned corn - oh well. And so on. I truly believe current science about chemicals in food and over harvesting seafood - have lived through many shortages. Once was told that shellfish don't suffer at our hands, and now suffer guilt over the pain I have caused them and other animals. So, what to do? I feel like the only totally conscientious ways to live are vegan and/or raw food. And to raise my food in an organic field created by composting. I do care about the planet and health and humane care for animals. Deeply I might add. But Darlene is right. Organic chicken are very expensive. Produce is expensive and organic produce is even worse. The price of cage-free eggs raised organically without antibiotics etc. is in the $5.00 a dozen range. Over time we have made drastic changes in our diet. Everything is from scratch except some stocks and my San Marzano tomatoes, pickles, olive etc. Even at this I spend a lot of time and money cooking. My question: How can we regain our joy and celebration of food, family and friend feasts and traditions, etc. without guilty and anxious thoughts playing in the shadows of our minds? Food 52 doesn't help! How can I resist this or that wonderful idea? So much delish to explore. So, caution and exuberance are constantly at war. Help!
Darlene August 2, 2016
I appreciate the point of this article - esp. the comment about "...writing to a utopian audience that has the time, money and resources to make these changes". Interestingly, I most recently encountered this type of writing here at Food 52 with a recipe I've tagged as one of my favorites: Judy Hesser's Oven Fried Chicken" which I decided to make decide the slightly condescending direction to use "chicken thighs (organic or natural, not Perdue or somesuch)". As I noted in my comments on the recipe, budget restrictions required me to use "Perdue or somesuch" (actually, Stop n Shop Value Pack) and it was delicious, but I'm sure there are some who may be hesitant to make the recipe based on that ingredient note, fearing if they don't have the optimum ingredients, the recipe won't succeed. Of course I wish I could grow all my own fruits and veggies, or, lacking that, only buy local, fresh and organic, but on a single mom budget, it just isn't feasible. Saying "ideally organic or natural" would encourage people to still try the recipe even if they can't afford the finest ingredients.
Cinnamin July 31, 2016
What else we'd find helpful is more articles in the Down & Dirty sections, so we can understand our ingredients better. And less nonsense like the article about throwing Kristen Miglore a virtual wedding. Do it on your own time; why involve readers? I couldn't care less.
nannydeb August 1, 2016
Personally, I enjoyed the virtual wedding article and all articles about Kristen's wedding (and other "nonsense" like that). Some of us readers want to be involved!
PHIL July 29, 2016
Thanks for the link to the article YGC.
AntoniaJames July 29, 2016
Seeking to understand before seeking to be understood, as always . . . may I respectfully suggest that publications that do not include answers to the "where" and "how" questions within their pieces may be relying on the ready availability of that information elsewhere on the internet. By not including the basics on such topics as how to make soba, the editors wisely make those articles more widely relevant and interesting to the many potential readers who already know the answers to those questions. As cv correctly noted, no one is going to please everyone all the time. Articles that assume that the reader knows how to perform elementary tasks, or knows where to look for them, work for me.

As for what information I'd find helpful . . . . I'm not entirely sure what you have in mind when you use the word "helpful," but one question that seems overlooked is, could enough food be produced to feed everyone on the planet were all currently arable land farmed using "sustainable" practices? I realize that this inquiry may be beyond the expertise/capabilities of the Food52 staff and likely contributors. I raised it during a live chat Food52 hosted a few years ago, and although one person on the hosting team promised to get an answer, no one did. (I wasn't surprised.) If I remember correctly, Tim Lang at University College London has done research on this over the years. ;o)
PHIL July 28, 2016
Are you really Kenji? I wonder......
PHIL July 28, 2016
Thanks, will read it later.
PHIL July 28, 2016
Hi Sarah, Thanks for the article. I'm not sure it's the Food media's job to tell us how to eat. If I am reading the NY Times, the food section is for fun, The science times is telling me the serious information. Maybe that's just me. If you listen to some of the articles you mentioned you would be eating twigs. No matter what we consume , food or otherwise , it impacts the environment. If we are able to afford to tread lightly on the planet we should, not just for our well being but for the planet. Many people don't have that luxury or don't care. I come to Food52 for the fun of it and maybe learn something, help someone or read a good article or two along the way. It's all positive.
702551 July 28, 2016
No matter what, no one is going to please everyone all the time. If some food media outlet says "eat this, not that" some people will say "great, will do" and others will say "I disagree" or "Not enough information presented for me to make an informed choice."

How much information people need varies on the person. Does Michael Pollan need more information on where a tomato came from than some mom putting tomato on her kid's plate at a picnic table in a park?

People come to Food52 for different reasons. Some people are definitely here for recipes, inspiration, instructional tips, etc. Others are here for specific columnists or features. For sure, there is a substantial amount of people who sign up to ask one question on the Hotline, then never ever post again.

It's really Food52's editorial team to decide what they want to be. It's up to us as reader to decide how much of it we actually read and agree with. For sure, Food52 has a lot of competition out there, at least on the editorial content side, it's their call what sort of readership they want, the type of content that gets published here, and a general philosophy of what they are trying to accomplish using what type of methodology.
702551 July 28, 2016
Four helpful things in recipes would be

1. Better process photography of the dish being made (mentioned previously) - Most recipes are terrible with this, just showing a bunch of beauty shots of the final product. Here's one recipe with decent process photography:
Unfortunately, article clipping services like Evernote do not gracefully handle photo slideshows, so you only see the beauty shot in the clipped recipe article. But, when you press the "Print" icon on the Food52 page, it *DELETES* all the photos and just turns it into text. That's worse than using the web browser's native "print page" function.

2. Better headnotes - I touch on this in one of my comments below, giving some context about the dish.

3. Mass-based measurements - alongside conventional measurements (typically volumetric Imperial units). If possible, mass-based measurements in metric. One can purchase a cheap metric/Imperial kitchen scale for $15-20 at

4. Nutritional information - yeah, I know this is a reach, but would it be helpful? For some who have dietary restrictions, for sure.
PHIL July 28, 2016
others are trying to copy the format. Food network is doing shorts with the celebrities.
702551 July 28, 2016
Media outlets will try to do what engages and retains their primary audience. I'm old so much of what I want doesn't overlap with what younger audiences want.

That's fine, I was young once. That's just the way life goes.
Cinnamin July 28, 2016
You puzzle me Sarah Jampel. You're so quick to take digs at Wired (wilted HOW? Seared HOW? What is dashi?) for expecting the reader to have a certain degree of knowledge and understanding; for not catering to the mainstream. Well, your recipe for Spring Vegetable Panzanella doesn't even bother telling the reader what panzanella is. You expect a Food52 reader to already know what it is; that it isn't usually served with a poached egg on top. So aren't you, too, writing to the utopian audience that your colleague Kenzi mentions in her tweet? You may not be telling us HOW to eat and make a lifestyle choice. But you are sharing a recipe for the preparation of food; and that does counts as educating someone in the art of eating. So in a sense, almost all food media is writing for their own utopian audience. You can argue that a community site like Food52 is only meant for people who are home cooks and genuinely interested in and enthusiastic about food and cooking. But what about the novice cook, who barely has 30 mins to cook a meal, who searched for poached egg on your site and finds this panzanella recipe and doesn't even know what it means? So if you feel Wired is writing for people who have the time, energy and resources to take in their suggestions; much of what Food52 has to offer makes the same assumptions. That the readers have the time, energy and resources to already have a basic knowledge of food and cooking, and won't be put off by recipe headnotes that make no sense.
702551 July 28, 2016
Actually, Food52 certainly does tell readers how to eat by their editorial decision making and many of their features. Sarah wrote one that covered breakfast staples that included a lot of sweets and dessert-like items that aren't healthy and should not be considered breakfast staples. On top of it, it was completely American-centric, it didn't touch on the ways that breakfast items from other cultures could be incorporated -- many of which are *FAR* healthier than typical American breakfast items and the ones listed in her article.

Another example is the "make this dish and eat it all week" articles. That is specifically instructing someone to make an excessive amount of something and then suggesting various ways to eat that some item for an entire week.

Utopian audience? Food52? I dunno about that.

Clearly, a significant part of Food52's target audience is Americans with a certain amount of disposable income to be able to purchase the items in the Food52 store. I'm sure they like it when readers from outside the USA visit (and hopefully contribute some comments), but seeing as how the store can't ship to these people right now, they aren't the primary focus.
PHIL July 28, 2016
Remember , Food52 is really a blog of sorts, Most of the recipes are user created so may lack some proper instructions (certainly mine do). And most food magazines are definitely appealing to the Utopian audience. I'll read Saveur and then go make a box of Kraft mac & cheese.
702551 July 28, 2016
The user-contributed recipes are a separate matter. Some of these are frightfully written and the vast majority of authors simply don't understand the value of process photography (documenting various steps) and are only interested in multiple beauty shots of the finished product. They just don't get it, maybe never will. (Some of these are very skilled cooks and recipe writers.)

I've certainly seen some atrociously written recipes (ingredients not presented in order which they are used, weird combinations of metric mass measurements, Imperial volumetric measurements, Imperial mass measurements, weird temperatures/timing). Sometimes user-contributed recipes languish here for years before someone comments that an ingredient or preparation step is missing. I guess there are a lot of sleep-deprived recipe writers out there.

Like many sites, this site will freely criticize other sites, write critical cookbook reviews, then wail when someone criticizes them. Certain staffers here react very poorly to criticism, even when constructive and/or SOLICITED. They claim to welcome reader feedback then refuse to view negative comments as an opportunity for improvement.

This happened multiple times during the last Piglet contest; I abandoned following those proceedings because of extremely poor reactions from certain Food52 staffers.

If you publish something online -- food article, Instagram selfie, revolutionary manifesto, a joke, whatever -- you are open for comments, both positive and negative.

A lot of American food media is hyper focused on presentation and sourcing.

Gone are the days of the old Cook's Illustrated magazine.
PHIL July 28, 2016
Certainly cooking books and magazines are more entertainment than in the past agreed. Regarding your other comments, I haven't seen an Food52 staffers react negatively but you have been here longer than me. But dude, you have to admit , you can be a little harsh at times and that's okay too. Enough said on this article, enjoy your day and I hope you eat something good today!
702551 July 28, 2016
I would like to see more in-depth articles about a particular dish or preparation. A (non-comprehensive) list of considerations:

*WHY* something is done.
What shortcuts are available and their implications.
What doesn't work.
The history of this dish/technique/etc.
Variations, both local and around the world
Changes to the ingredients/process over time

Over at Serious Eats, they publish these sort of articles regularly. Kenji is particularly good at this, he is a bonafide food scientist, employs scientific methodology and presents data well, including photos of the analysis process.
Dani L. July 28, 2016
Great article! I think it is so important that we make clean food assessable to all and that we find ways around the idea that real food must be expensive. Its my mission in life to share this message and I appreciate all who do as well.
702551 July 28, 2016
More process-oriented food photography. Photos of key steps in the preparation of a dish, not just six beauty shots of a cake and one slice, a common occurrence at many American food sites.

Video. You can write two pages on how to roll out puff dough or you can demonstrate it in a one-minute video. Watch this Japanese YouTube video on gift wrapping:

Imagine it was an audio podcast in Japanese.

Then imagine if it were an article written in Japanese with five beauty shots of the wrapped gift.

How wider is the audience for the video? How much more helpful is it?
PHIL July 28, 2016
cv, the tasty videos all over Facebook show you just how much people like videos
702551 July 28, 2016
Sorry Phil, I don't do Facebook.
PHIL July 28, 2016
If you're curious : HI-speed videos for the 0% attention span generation
702551 July 28, 2016
Excellent! The cookie & cream puffs video is a good example of how videography can add value.

Editing video is laborious, a video like that one probably had about 40 shots, cropped/sped up, and stitched together with a few informational interstitial screens thrown in.
702551 July 28, 2016
Hey Phil, I got one for you! Kenji from Serious Eats making a chicken sandwich for Sunset magazine:

Here's the written recipe:

A neat collaboration between Serious Eats and Sunset, wonder if this portends to a future change for Kenji.
702551 August 1, 2016
You can always use headphones if you don't want to disturb others around you while watching video.