Sizzling, Crispy Zucchini: Michael Carolan Talks Food and Language

On the heels of nutritional literacy campaigns, restaurants, grocery stores, and health officials are busy promoting the benefits of nutritious foods to encourage people to choose them. There is a significant problem with that strategy, however: it risks turning people away from these foods, as eaters tend to rate foods they perceive as healthier as less tasty. So why not draw upon some of the same language used to describe, say, sizzling crispy bacon to talk about a zucchini dish? Sizzling crispy zucchini anyone? 

In a recent article for Fast Company, Adele Peters describes research findings that reveal that our use of words and descriptions of foods shape choices and dietary behaviors.  It is certainly makes sense that we should not expect people to choose healthy foods if they are not described in ways that align with what we are motivated to eat.  But why stop there? Once we start talking about our veggies, beans, and fruits using tastier descriptors, what then? Sizzling crispy zucchini or sizzling crispy bacon? To me, both sound delicious.  But While Peters’ article, The Simple Menu Innovations that Science Says Can Get People to Order Vegetarian Options, speaks of getting people to order vegetarian options, really the goal should be about something larger. In addition to what Peters is urging, we should also be asking  how  do we draw eaters to vegetarian options more often once we make those dishes sound like something even meat eaters would enjoy?

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A poster at Camp Pendleton’s 21-Area Health Promotion Center describes the effects of junk food that many Marines and sailors consume, via Wikimedia Commons

Not long ago I conducted research, bits of which I later published in a peer-reviewed article and in my book No One Eats Alone, which involved interviewing roughly 100 eaters, twice: first, just before they engaged in alternative food practices (e.g., farmers markets, community supported agriculture arrangements, food cooperatives) and again, after two years of exposure to these spaces. I was curious about how these experiences shaped participants’ feelings about food. I discovered that while many spoke about taste and health as principle reasons for trying in these offerings when first interviewed, those justifications changed by the time of the second interview, and as I previously described, I was able to link directly to their continued involvement in these alternative food practices. For most, the new or revised rationale for eating these foods and buying from these networks centered on wanting to support local growers and communities; quite a few also justified buying these foods for reasons related to environmental sustainability.

Our food systems, or what I prefer to call foodscapes, can pull us in different directions, leading us to exhibit extrinsic and/or intrinsic values.  

Extrinsic values, those that pull us inward, concern social standing and self-advancement. People with deeply held extrinsic values are likely to obsess over financial success, status, and fame. Conversely, intrinsic values, those that lead us outward, concern finding worth and reward with and through the support of, rather than at the expense, of others. Research suggests that when individuals place greater importance on extrinsic values they are more likely to express prejudice toward others, be less concerned about the environment, human rights, and animal welfare, and express lower levels of personal wellbeing and happiness. Can you guess about which values advertisers tend to target?

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"While we want them to eat properly for their health, we also would like them to incorporate thoughts of how their eating impacts community health," via Wikimedia Commons

I mention this because Peters links taste to indulgence, asserting that we need to make healthy food sound more pleasurable and hedonistic. I counter that in looking for solutions to poor nutrition, for ways to encourage people to try or eat more vegetarian options, we need to think about the type of eaters we seek to create while being aware of those we might unintentionally create. In turning people on to vegetarian options, we should avoid unintentionally creating eaters who think only about themselves when making dietary decisions. For example, while we want them to eat properly for their health, we also would like them to incorporate thoughts of how their eating impacts community health.

This brings me back to my study: how we engage with food and those responsible for producing it matters greatly in shaping our feelings about what we ought to eat and why we ought to be eating it. I offer that we should be able to agree that while we do aim to create healthier eaters, we also seek to develop eater-citizens who give a damn about whether that sizzling crispy zucchini was picked under exploitive labor conditions or produced using methods that were unsustainable.

For additional insights into this topic, see Michael Carolan’s most recent book, No One Eats Alone: Food as a Social Enterprise, published by Island Press.

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