Food as fashion

by Robbin Johnson
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For perhaps five billion of the world’s seven billion people, food is often an elusive necessity. It can take up half or more of the family’s meager income. Yet undernourishment and micronutrient deficiencies stubbornly persist, continuing to stunt mental and physical development and to keep many from leading healthy, active lives. For another perhaps one billion people, overeating has taken hold. Obesity and diet-related diseases have followed in its wake.

These are real problems. A 2013 paper published by Lancet attributed nearly half of all deaths among children less than five years old to hunger issues. A wide variety of public health reports places the costs of obesity in America between $500 and $2,500 per person, amounting to tens of billions of dollars in medical costs, lost productivity and the like.

However real these problems are, they seem remote to most readers of Milling & Baking News. Much more on their minds are food fads and shifting consumer preferences that reflect value judgments or nutritional perceptions that may or may not be factually based. Together, these trends might be called the transformation of food into fashion.

A small, but growing market

Food as fashion is a small market globally, perhaps entailing only about 10% of those living in the developed parts of the world. This market is growing rapidly, however, and these 100 million — give or take — consumers exert a powerful influence on food policies and practices.

Food as fashion can take many forms. It is a powerful force behind demands for more “sustainable” products and production methods. It manifests itself in the rising popularity of organic, local and natural foods; while organic has an official U.S.D.A.-approved version, “local” and “natural” are more in the eyes of the beholders.

Fashionable foods also include negative features, like “non-G.M.O.” or “gluten-free.” They include demand for new items, like kale and “juicing” of vegetables. They include efforts to avoid foods, like dairy products and red meat or foods with a high glycemic index. And they include fashionable restaurants, urban farming and paying to forage for one’s own food.

All of which leads to the question: is treating food as a fashion item good for us? The record seems mixed. The available science — and common sense — support adjusting our diets — and our portions — to conform more closely to the dietary guidelines in MyPlate and from the public health community. But that is not really where the food fashionistas are. What science is telling us is that many food fashions have more psychic than physical benefits (i.e., if you like it, fine, but it — whatever “it” is — is unlikely to deliver great health benefits).

For example, virtually all regulatory agencies — including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — and science academies — including the National Academy of Sciences — say that bioengineered foods are “as safe as” conventional foods. Nina Teicholz, in her carefully researched book “The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet,” challenges the American Heart Association’s campaign against saturated fats and the notion that substituting carbohydrates for fats is healthful. A recently released study from Harvard and Johns Hopkins researchers raises similar questions about foods with a high glycemic index.

In April 2014, Food Business News reported on a study published in the British Journal of Cancer that found that eating organic foods does not reduce the risk of cancer in women. Since organic fruits and vegetables generally cost more than conventional produce, eating organic may discourage the increased produce consumption public health officials recommend. And this magazine’s Dec. 9 issue had a cover story reporting that the January 2015 issue of Consumer Reports claims a gluten-free diet may not improve physical or mental health even though many Americans believe such a diet will.

What to do?

With all of these fads and fashions going on, what is a person to do? Certainly it helps to follow the best scientific and regulatory advice. And where that seems inconclusive, perhaps following the old dictum of “everything in moderation” is the best counsel.

Beyond that, some people derive psychic satisfaction from paying more for what is current and fashionable; that is why fashion industries and exclusive brands exist and often prosper. So, the market for food as fashion will probably continue to prosper and grow. This is likely to be the case in spite of Dan Jurasky’s findings in “The Language of Food” that restaurants that use longer words to describe their offerings are adding about 18c per additional letter to the price of their dish. One can hope, however, that fashion does not crowd out science and common sense at the dining table.
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