Do you ever feel like it’s not enough to choose foods that satisfy your hunger, taste good and provide the nutrients your body needs to thrive? Increasingly, our food choices come with baggage that has nothing to do with nutrition. Take nonorganic foods, genetically modified foods, carbs, fat, meat, dairy, grains, beans, gluten, nightshade vegetables, sugar and preservatives — just for starters. There are some strong opinions about whether to eat or avoid each of these, and those opinions are typically based on beliefs, not facts.
In her new book, “Food Bullying: How to Avoid Buying B.S.,” Indiana-based author, podcaster and farmer Michele Payn delves into how marketing and misinformation are used to bully and demonize your eating choices. The discussion is more relevant than ever as we stock our own pantries and cook our own meals with increasing regularity.
“I wrote the book more in frustration than anything,” Payn said. “I have friends who go to the grocery store and feel guilty about what they purchase. Food should be about celebration, tradition and nutrition, not guilt.”
So what does food bullying look like?
Let’s say you know the food claim “all natural” means nothing, because it’s not a regulated claim with specific standards behind it. But when you serve a brand of hot dogs that’s not labeled “all natural” at your child’s birthday party, the other parents express disapproval. Or, your dinner guests ask you if your salad greens are organic and raise their eyebrows when you say, “No.” Or you feel like it’s your fault that you developed cancer because you didn’t eat the “right” foods according to a nutrition blogger with a million Instagram followers. This is all food bullying.
Why do we allow ourselves to be bullied?
Like it or not, we’re influenced (consciously or unconsciously) by food bullies. What do we hope to gain from kowtowing to impossible standards, or from being a bully ourselves? Payn finds parallels between our food-buying needs and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. At the base is our physiological need for nourishment, followed by our need for safety — including safety from food-borne illnesses. The next two tiers — belonging and esteem — are where food bullying can come in.
Payn said the only questions we need to ask ourselves about food is, “Is it safe?” and “Is it nutritious?” When you seek affirmation or status from what you put in your shopping basket, you may be responding to food bullying. When your food choices and beliefs become a form of activism and you shame people who don’t eat the way you do, you may be the bully.
“Bullying begins when firsthand expertise ends,” Payn writes. Many bullies operate from a position of implied power, which may or may not be accompanied by any actual expertise in nutrition science, or in how our food is grown and produced. This includes everyone from dietitians, doctors, teachers, chefs and fitness instructors to celebrities, friends, activists, social media connections and journalists. Health claims and other marketing messages on products can also bully us into making different choices.
“In some respect, I think we’re all responsible for bullying,” she said.
The impacts of bullying
Given that food is a basic necessity, Payn said there are dangers in believing that one single story about food is superior, particularly when that story is skews toward elitism. For example, eggs have traditionally have been an inexpensive source of high-quality protein, but organic, free-range omega-3 eggs aren’t affordable for all.
The issue of food bullying may be more relevant than ever given the current coronavirus crisis. If you demonize canned foods, what does that mean if you have to self-quarantine? What if the grocery store that’s spacious enough to allow for social distancing only stocks “conventional” broccoli? Will that stop you from buying broccoli?
One major food bully, the Environmental Working Group, recently released the 2020 version of the “Dirty Dozen” list, which ranks fruits and vegetables based on detectable levels of pesticide residues. Almost 90% of Americans don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables, and bullying with a scientifically meaningless ranking doesn’t exactly encourage eating more, and releasing the 2020 version in the middle of a pandemic only breeds more fear.
It’s important to remember that organic doesn’t mean pesticide-free, as more than 45 man-made pesticides — plus many “natural” pesticides — are allowed in organic farming. Organic farmers need to protect their crops from weeds, insects and diseases, too. Besides, the mere presence of pesticide residue on food does not mean that food is unsafe, no matter how you rank them. Pesticide use in this country is strictly regulated. If you prefer to buy organic food and can afford it, fine. But demonizing nonorganic fruits and vegetables, and judging the people who buy them and the farmers who grow them, is bullying. Conversely, choosing not to buy or grow organic food and judging those who do is also bullying. It’s a two-way street.
“That’s the most unfortunate thing about food bullying. It’s removing choice from the people who are shopping for food and the people who produce food,” Payne said. “I believe in choice. Choice on the plate and choice on the farm. This onslaught of negativity about farming practices has an impact on farmers’ mental health.”
Moving beyond bullying
The top tier of Maslow’s hierarchy is self-actualization. With food, this means understanding the systems that produce our food and the science behind food claims, and being able to sort through which information is credible, then ultimately deciding what’s best for you. When we’re disconnected from the facts about where our food comes from, this breeds distrust, which can turn to fear — and that’s what bullies prey on. Having toured many farms, big and small, I know that much of the negative rhetoric out there about farming practices bears no resemblance to the truth.
Payn’s book offers practical ways to overcome food bullying by learning to evaluate food claims, examine our own biases and learn to think critically about what matters to us. “Sometimes people just need to step back and consider their own standards and weigh all claims against those standards,” she said.
That’s still true, now more than ever.