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Why Food Media Fails When They Tell Us How to Eat

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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.

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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."

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?

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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).

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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."

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?

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.