Feeding on myths, stories and image

Kai Ryssdal Jan 9, 2007

KAI RYSSDAL: This might not be something you think about when you walk into your local supermarket. But as you wheel that shopping cart down the aisle trying to figure out what’s for dinner, you’re at the receiving end of an enormous marketing campaign. It’s not unlike clothes or cars. Manufacturers trying to get consumers to buy — and to buy into — a certain brand or model to make them feel better about themselves. Author Barry Glassner says food today is way more complicated than just You are what you eat. His latest book is called “The Gospel of Food.”

BARRY GLASSNER: I think we think that what we eat and what other people eat tells us a whole lot about who they are, who we are. And I think a lot of what we pay for in our food these days is not just the basic food but some kind of image of ourselves that we get by eating one way rather than another.

RYSSDAL: And we’re alright with that because we keep spending.

GLASSNER: We definitely keep spending. And the food industry depends on this. And they do a great job with it. And they do it in some really clever ways so they can get us to pay more for less. So if it’s low-fat or low-carb or low-sugar — whatever we’re into — we’ll pay more money for that.

RYSSDAL: Do you think they take advantage of consumers when they do that?

GLASSNER: I think they’re just doing their job, frankly. I think there’s certainly some issues with some parts of the food industry, but that’s not one of them. They’ll sell us whatever food we want. Now, I think it’s interesting, though, that we will pay for foods that aren’t any better for us than the foods that cost less just because they’ve got some label on them that makes us think that they might be better. Like “natural,” for instance. A lot of food that’s markeed “natural” is actually as processed as any other food.

RYSSDAL: Here’s another good one: Organic.

GLASSNER: Organic is complicated. You know, there are very elaborate rules for what can count as organic food these days. But as we know, lots of organic food is grown and processed by very big corporations. And one has to ask, what’s the difference, really, in the outcome. Are we really going to be healthier by eating it? In some cases, certainly we want to be careful if we have little children and so forth, but by and large what are we really paying for there?

RYSSDAL: Well, what are we paying for?

GLASSNER: I think what we’re paying for, for most food these days, is a story. A story about the food, a story about ourselves. That, you know, somehow if I eat something that is labeled as cage-free — in the case of eggs — that I’m saying something about myself. I’m doing something great for the world.

RYSSDAL: What does it say about the food industry in this country that, uh . . . Last week when I went to the supermarket, I saw Rachael Ray on five different magazine covers, came home and she was on three different TV shows, and we are now turning it into, you know, this sort of cottage industry. The celebrity chef, and you can make money, and where does it go?

GLASSNER: I think what they’re selling is image. So they’re selling the image of the celebrity chef — that that will bleed over on you, if you will, simply by using their product. Now, all sorts of other industries have done this for a long time incredibly well, right? If I buy athletic shoes, I’m certainly going to be doing that to a certain extent, right? And in fashion we see that a lot. But food has become a lot more like fashion now. We don’t like to talk about that. That’s not widely talked about. That’s one reason I wrote the book, is to sort of expose that. What people like to say is, “Oh, no, no, it’s all about health. It’s all about nutrition. It’s all about being righteous.” No. It’s mostly about who am I, and who am I trying to say I am?

RYSSDAL: Where does this leave you? You spent five years writing this book. You’ve obviously thought about it long and hard. Where’d you come away?

GLASSNER: Where I came away from this, frankly, is thinking . . . really coming to understand . . . that this kind of bipolar interpretation that we have. You know, that foods are either good or bad. You know, they’re saintly or they’re demonic is just a weird, American thing that has happened in recent years. And we need to get over it. They’re none of those things. But, at the same time, we eat a much more diverse diet now. We are much more sophisticated about the food we eat. And some of us are enjoying our food a lot more while others just torture themselves about what they buy every day.

RYSSDAL: The latest book from Barry Glassner is called “The Gospel of Food.” Barry, thanks a lot for coming in.

GLASSNER: Thanks for inviting me.

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