I recently ran into Sophie Egan, who works as the director of programs and culinary nutrition for the Strategic Initiatives Group at The Culinary Institute of America. I am a fan of her work, which has appeared in The New York Times’ Well blog, Time, The Wall Street Journal, Bon Appétit, WIRED and Sunset magazine. (At Sunset, she worked on The Sunset Cookbook and The One-Block Feast books). Sophie holds a master of public health from the University of California, Berkeley, with a focus on health and social behavior, and a bachelor of arts with honors in history from Stanford University. This summer, she was named one of the UC Global Food Initiative’s 30 Under 30.
Sophie’s recently written Devoured: From Chicken Wings to Kale Smoothies – How What We Eat Defines Who We Are. I zipped through it in a couple of days and highly recommend it. This is one of the most fascinating books I’ve read this year.
Q) What inspired you to write Devoured?
To answer this question: What unites us as eaters in America? I’ve been driven by that question to define a national psyche, or way of relating to food on a daily basis. I have often heard that we don’t have a food culture in the United States the way that France and Italy have firm social norms around food.
For one, we’re such a huge country. We’re also a nation of immigrants and have thrown into the “melting pot” all of the food cultures of the waves of people who have moved here. America has what has been characterized as an unstable food culture. By this I mean that we’re constantly changing what we eat. The flip side of that fast pace of change and great diversity – which are both strengths of ours – means that we also tend to be very open-minded about food. So given all of this, I wanted to bring to light what can be said about our shared food ways.
In the course of my research I found 10 phenomena that collectively define American food culture.
Q) What was most surprising to you?
Two aspects. One is the prevalence of snacking and how blurred the lines have become between definitions of snacks and mealtimes, and the times and places you eat or don’t eat. This has happened in a very short amount of time – in the last five years or so, to where suddenly, food is everywhere.
For example, Staples – an office supply store – is like a regular grocery store at the front counter. We snack in meetings, we snack while shoe shopping…it’s a constant parade of intake. It shocked me to learn how widespread snacking is. It used to be for kids, or for special occasions. Now it’s so prevalent it is without question the norm. It’s been driven by a lot of nutritionists who have said we can keep a more even blood sugar level by grazing. Perhaps, but in reality most who are snacking are supplementing meals they would already eat. Some research indicates that only about 10 percent of snackers forgo regular meals. The result is that Americans are eating more in total than before.
The social etiquette of all this has not been worked out yet. It’s like cell phone use or texting at the table. What is polite? What is not polite? The social mores need to be worked out. There are externalities that we do not yet understand, because we’re in the middle of one big social experiment.
I was also struck by the rugged individualism in the United States and how much it shapes eating habits. Whether we realize it or not, it’s significant to be able to customize and personalize our eating experiences. There are 87,000 possible drink orders to be had at Starbucks. The four adjectives that many use to place that Starbucks order are an expression of identity. We see it as our right in the U.S. that you can “have it your way” (the original Burger King slogan, kicking this notion off in the 1970s). Fast-casual dining, at assembly-line places like Chipotle, along with mobile ordering and other technological innovations, have really enabled more customization than ever before.
It surprised me that this desire to personalize dates back to a uniquely American way that we place a premium on independence, as opposed to inter-dependence. That’s different from many other cultures around the world. We are so trained to see ourselves as being separate from, or distinct from, those around us. We have a desire to be exceptional. In fact, it was interesting and fun finding a basis for this in the psychology literature, which is called the superiority illusion.
Q) What’s next for our food culture?
What I think is happening is based in consumer empowerment; we have more leverage than we’ve ever had in the marketplace. There has been a rapid pace of change among big food companies to reformulate their products and be more transparent in their sourcing practices. There’s also been regulation that is responding to consumer demand, like the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) including added sugars on the nutrition label. These things are driven by the power of the Internet and social media to give voice and power to consumers in ways they didn’t have before. I think about how Food Babe was able to call out Subway for using the “yoga mat” chemical in its bread and how quickly Subway had to respond.
That’s one role of my book…to provide further ammunition to consumers who want greater accountability among those who provide the food they eat. Consumers are interested in responsible health claims, more transparent information having to do with labeling and a whole host of social factors, such as animal welfare, fair wages for the people who produce and serve food, etc. I see this book—and some of the marketing tactics I helped to expose—as a tool for enabling consumers to take more control over the foods in their lives.
I am excited by further examples on the policy side. For instance, the FDA has held open comment periods for both the “natural” and “healthy claims,” which haven’t had a definition up to this date. It’s interesting to see what food companies are doing, what awareness consumers are displaying and the changes they are demanding, and the ways that regulators are responding to support a more navigable food environment.
Q) Does a new administration undo all these things?
People often talk about “food systems change,” or “the food movement.” There are concrete actions that might be a part of those lofty visions of a more humane, healthier, and more transparent supply chain and food marketing environment. All of those potential improvements are based on momentum. So, I do have concerns that a lot of momentum that has been generated could have some serious trouble continuing.
Q) What are you eating for Thanksgiving?
I am having Thanksgiving with my immediate family, my husband’s family, and my 100-year-old grandmother. We have a range of preferences and appetites to satisfy, and have developed quite the menu. We’ll have the traditional turkey and my mom’s famous stuffing, some roasted carrots, spinach salad, mashed sweet potatoes, and pie and bread pudding for dessert.
Q) Are you an apple or pumpkin pie person?
I’m an apple pie person. I’m from Washington State, and we take great pride in our apples!
Q) What else would you want to tell people?
Right now there is a lot of guilt and anxiety about food in the United States. I want people to come to eating with joy. To me, joy means the whole food experience, including savoring a meal with friends and family, or the deep satisfaction of cooking a meal from scratch.
There are also, I think, misinterpretations around the idea of what constitutes happy and celebratory foods, which usually are just code for junk food. Instead, I want people to feel comfortable relying on their own intuition about food and about which foods are really meaningful to them, and to find ways to incorporate that admittedly easier-said-than-done wisdom of “everything in moderation.”
That would be a major improvement in the quality of life of millions of people who today unfortunately succumb to that pendulum swing of indulgence and deprivation, enjoyment and atonement. I hope that, armed with the bird’s eye perspective I offer in Devoured, more people can find a more sustainable equilibrium for themselves. One that brings not only ease but pleasure to the relationship they have with food.
Editor’s Note: Here’s a link to Sophie’s live streamed talk with Jaspal Sandhu, hosted by the UC Berkeley School of Public Health in October. To learn more about eating habits have changed, read this far-ranging Q&A with UC ANR nutrition experts Dorina Espinoza and Lucia Kaiser.