4 Ways the Food Industry Is Warping Our Psyches

Sean Curry takes aim at the rapidly evolving "gourmet" food industry that is warping our expectations, mindsets and first-world privilege to a scary new level. 

Arby’s has a new addition to its menu: venison. From late 2016, it’s been rolling out deer burgers in select markets across Tennessee, Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, Georgia, and Pennsylvania, in a play that it hopes will attract hunters and people involved in hunting culture.

Recently, McDonald’s Canada added the “Keep Calm, Caesar On” salad to its menu, a “nutrient-rich lettuce blend with baby kale” with “real parmesan petals” and fried chicken covered in a creamy Asiago Caesar dressing.

Meanwhile, Subway continues to test out its Subway Café franchises across the country, to mixed results.

We’re living in a weird time for American food. Our culinary consciousness has grown by leaps and bounds in the new millennium and our eating habits have grown with it. We don’t want the same old warmed-over beef and potato crap anymore — we want better food and we know how to get it.

But the forces of capitalism wait for no stomach. As quickly as our preferences change, the food industry changes with them. Arby’s and McDonald’s are experimenting with gourmet meats and superfoods. Subway is trying to compete with Starbucks’ coffee culture.

It’s hard to eat nowadays, is what I’m getting at. No one can just grab a sandwich and be content anymore, because…

Everything is available all the time.

Not only is Anthony Bourdain on every screen within a ten-foot radius of me, eating the food I wish I could be eating in an exotic place I wish I could be visiting, but there’s a Thai hawker shop, a Brazilian churrasco restaurant, and a falafel cart that was literally named the best street food in New York City in 2010, all between here and my train stop.

How can I be expected to be satiated with heating up leftovers when I know I could have had rodízio-style short ribs and roast chicken with a side of farofa? I don’t even know what farofa is, but I know it didn’t spend the last two nights in a Tupperware. 

What’s more, when I open my phone to find a recipe that uses the peppers, onions, parmesan and scallions I have on hand, three Instagram notifications pop up first. I check them quickly, then check in on my feed before heading out of the app. Within the first ten posts I see are: “hickory-smoked Niman Ranch ribs,” “shrimp-stuffed cream cheese tomato bites,” and a friend’s homemade stuffed shells.

How does a person feel content with whatever they can whip up when they’re being presented with gourmet-looking stuff like that every time they look at their phone?

And on top of that, we can’t even be satiated with our food anymore, because…

Social media is making us full.

Seriously — your Instagram feed is making you less hungry. A team of social scientists at BYU conducted a study with a sampling of 232 people to see how looking at food pics all day is affecting how we think about food. 

Half of the participants were shown 60 pictures of sweet foods, while the other half were shown 60 pictures of salty foods. At the end of the pictures, each group was given salty peanuts to eat (the salty food group had not seen pictures of peanuts). 

The salty food group reported feeling less happy with the peanuts than the sweet food group, leading the researchers to conclude that looking at pictures of food makes your brain feel the effects of that food’s taste, even without eating it.

By celebrating food, we are literally killing our ability to enjoy it. 

But maybe that’s a good thing, because…

We are pushing food way too far.

Holy shit, you guys, have you looked at your Instagram feeds lately? Are you guys actually eating all of this stuff?

This is a picture of soft serve vanilla ice cream with sprinkles served in a churro cone.

This is a Bloody Mary with a garnish that consists of shrimps, olives, pickles, and a fish taco

Here’s one with bacon, cheese, olives, shrimp, and a cheeseburger.

On their own, these are all ridiculously delightful treats for one to enjoy on occasion.

Taken together within the context of an Instagram feed, they’re called #foodporn. In other contexts, they’d be called overindulgence or desensitization. 

“You’re being too serious,” you might say. “These are just for fun! Restaurants and influencers just do this to get people to follow them!”

You might be right — these could simply be props in a larger marketing campaign. But setting aside the troubling prospect of food being used as a prop in a world where 3.1 million children under five die of starvation every year, treating food as props is a recipe for disaster because...

We’re raising a generation of gluttons.

Growing up, I remember my parents rarely serving my siblings and I fast food. If anything, it was a rare treat, not a regular occurrence. 

I also remember watching Saturday morning cartoons. (OK, so: “Saturday morning cartoons” were a block of television programming most networks aired on Saturday mornings that was directed mainly at kids. This was before Netflix and Hulu.)

And of course, with Saturday morning cartoons came all the commercials that played within them. (Right, “commercials”: every single piece of television programming used to have commercial breaks, and you couldn’t fast-forward through them.)

Even with my extremely limited exposure to fast food as a child, I still knew exactly what a Big Mac tasted like. I had never eaten a Big Mac before — not only would my parents never give an eight year old a Big Mac over a kid’s meal to begin with, but the fast food joints near us were a Burger King, a Taco Bell, and a Wendy’s. 

I had never eaten a Big Mac before, but I knew exactly what a Big Mac was supposed to taste like. How was that possible? 

You might be rolling your eyes at my definitions of “Saturday morning cartoons” and “commercials” just a moment ago. “We get it, Sean, Saturday morning cartoons aren’t a thing anymore, but they’re not that far removed. Young kids aren’t reading Big Think, and besides, we’re not THAT old.”

Aren’t we, though? If you’re someone who grew up watching Saturday morning cartoons, you’re old. By today’s kids’ standards, you’re very old. You’re old enough to have watched Saturday morning cartoons.

You are out of touch with what it’s like to be a kid today. You don’t know what kind of media environment they’re currently immersed in. You might recognize how vulnerable a child’s mind is to it, but the media environment you remember wasn’t so bad. You ended up alright, didn’t you?

Children today are exposed to a nightmarish amount of media. Between phones, televisions, computers, and games, they can spend up to 44.5 hours a week staring at screens. For context, that is more hours a week than the average American spends at their job. They do it more than they sleep. The average child between two and seven years old sees 12 ads a day. A teenager between 13 and 17 sees 17, on average.

A child between 8 and 12 sees 21. A day.

And that’s only the things that are obviously ads. How many YouTube vloggers do they follow? How many pop stars on Instagram? How many influencers on Snapchat? 

And how many YouTube videos, Instagram posts, and Snapchat stories do you see in your feed every day that have something like this in it?

To be fair, the Epic Meal Time guys are awesome and should keep doing what they’re doing. There’s an appropriate place for extremes, be it in food, music, film, or anything else.

But right now, that extreme is becoming dangerously close to the normal.

So how did I know what a Big Mac was supposed to taste like at all of eight years old, even though I had never eaten one?

I was told to.

And now, we’re telling eight years olds to eat this stuff:

I don't know the answer for this one, guys. More kale? Exercise? We've fetishized the hell out of fitness, too — I don't think more extremes are the way to go here. 

I'd recommend moderation and self-control, but... c'mon, let's be honest, this is social media we're talking about here. Besides, that rainbow sprinkles/sugar doughnut/chocolate milkshake looks damn good.

Luckily, chef Dan Barber is here to talk some sense into us:

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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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