Why Are Millennials So Obsessed With Food?
The author Eve Turow argues that a generation’s taste for natural ingredients will shape the future of restaurants, grocery stores, and agriculture.
When Eve Turow returned to her college campus for her five-year reunion, she realized that she’d changed: Back when she was in college, she was content subsisting on “gelatinous brown rice, pre-cooked mushy pinto beans, [and] blocks of bouncy tofu.” But if she were in college now, she says, she’d be taking rice-bowl inspiration from Pinterest and making good use of the nearby farmer’s market and the greenhouse attached to the science library.
In her recent book A Taste of Generation Yum: How the Millennial Generation’s Love for Organic Fare, Celebrity Chefs, and Microbrews Will Make or Break the Future of Food, Turow, who has written about food for NPR’s website and has worked as an assistant to Mark Bittman, tries to figure out why food came to be something she and her generation obsesses over.
Turow’s theory is that in a digital-first era, many people latch onto food as something that engages all of the senses and brings people together in physical space. I spoke with her about why food culture has changed, whether it’s confined to the Millennial generation, and what that means for the food industry—chains, grocery stores, and big corporations included. The interview that follows has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Joe Pinsker: I want to start with a simple definitional question. When you say that young people are obsessed with food, what exactly do you mean and what are the best examples of this obsession?
Eve Turow: I think that a lot of people in our generation are thinking about, ‘What am I going to eat next?’ ‘Where am I going to go dine next?’ ‘What’s in the fridge and what can I put together tomorrow?’
I think that that’s expressed in social media. I think if an outsider were to come in and be like, ‘What’s your proof that people are actually interested in food?’ I would say, a) talk to anyone who lives in Brooklyn and b) go online. If you look at any of the statistics for Instagram or Pinterest or Twitter or Facebook: Pinterest, the food boards are the most popular boards. There’s a website that’s just foodporn.com where you can go look at food all day.
Then there’s the Food Network, there’s Chopped, there’s the food proliferation on cable channels. I think it’s the most obvious way, so that you’re seeing the user-generated content and then also the media market's response to all of that interest.
Pinsker: Why has this happened?
Turow: I really think it comes down to technology, for a few reasons. One, is sensory deprivation. We have formed into a society that’s so accustomed to sitting in front of a screen and typing, for the vast majority of the day. And the truth of the matter is that it’s not exciting all of our senses. Through interviews over and over again, I kept hearing that people want something that’s tangible, that they can see and feel and smell and taste and that we’re the guinea pigs of growing up in that [digital] world.
At the same time, it’s also making us more isolated. We’re craving community. And food is also allowing us to access the globe, so we can find out what harissa is made with and how to prepare something with it, in two seconds on our phones.
Pinsker: You brought up the idea of community in your book and you quoted Michael Pollan as saying “The food movement is really a communitarian movement.” But there's also a large group of people who are totally pleased cooking and eating alone and obsessed about food anyway. What’s that about, then? Is it that eating can be broadcast out over social media, so no one’s truly alone?
Turow: There are a few sides to this. First of all, there are probably going to be people who like cooking and eating alone no matter what generation they’re in. Another part of it is that one pleasure of cooking comes from breaking something down, feeling like you’re in control. We live in a time where we’re really not in control of very much. You can’t get a job, you can’t get a date without branding yourself properly on, you know, whatever app you’re using. You don’t really understand how the Internet works or how your phone works, but food is something you can break down. You can understand it, so you can have control over the final product.
Pinsker: Do you think this is something everyone in this generation is experiencing or is it among people with a certain socioeconomic background?
Turow: I very clearly outline at the beginning of the book that I’m not talking about every person in this generation. There is a huge difference between someone who is growing up in low-income housing and living off of food stamps and someone who has enough disposable income to even think about getting a four-dollar coffee. There is this kind of bizarre balance within the generation because on the one hand, we’re broke, at the moment. But, we were more likely than generations before to have been raised with money. So, we have this taste for arugula and prosciutto, even though we’re making $30,000 a year and five years out of college.
I think that there could be another, entirely different book written about Millennials who don’t know where their next meal is coming from, because there are plenty of them in the United States and that's something that I’m hoping that we as a generation are going to start addressing—issues in food policy and food security and food distribution.
Pinsker: I feel like one reason that young people, or really, people, obsess over food is that it lets people have social currency. It’s a way of showing off. And there’s a weird dimension: You are demonstrating that you have the luxury to be very, very deliberate about something that a lot of people really struggle to have. Do these things cross your mind when you find yourself obsessing over cannoli or a pastrami sandwich?
Turow: I have a whole chapter dedicated to this, because I think it’s one of the most fascinating parts of the entire trend. And I think it’s one of the more uncomfortable ones. Because, even for myself, I had to look up at a certain point and say really, “Why am I posting this picture?” Is it for a sense of community or is it to show off?
And if I was being honest with myself, it was a little bit of both, but mostly to show off. There’s a commodity fetishism around organic kale at this point because we’re using it as an identifier. We’re using it as a signal of education, of knowledge, of income.
One of the biggest things that’s thrown at this generation time and time again is that we’re narcissists. Part of the impetus for writing this book was a) I’m confused about why everyone is obsessed with food and b) does my generation really suck that much? Really asking a genuine question and part of the answer is well, yeah, we are more narcissistic because we are the kings of self-branding. You’re going to brand yourself differently for LinkedIn, than you are for Facebook, than you are for Snapchat, than you are for any other social media platform, OKCupid, or whatever.
I’ve talked to a number of people about this and everyone has a jolt of shame when they really start to think about why they’re, in essence, performing, via food, on social media. And Anthony Bourdain talked to me about this and he said there are three things going through his mind when he posts photos of food: “to share the experience with friends, to develop my brand as a food writer and maybe, if I’m being honest with myself, to show off.” That’s something that I ended up just accepting. But the question is, how can the food movement take advantage of that to change the way people eat and get food?
Pinsker: You were very specific in saying that this is a trend unique to the generation that graduated college in recent history, but is this a change that has taken hold in older generations too? Isn’t this how America is thinking about food, rather than just young Americans?
Turow: I definitely think it’s specific. I think that Millennials are affecting their parents. I think that we are driving the change. And it’s easy to say that this is something that’s happened with everyone, but take a look back at history. In the ’70s, there was a huge backlash against DDT, and there was the macrobiotic movement, and as Marion Nestle said to me, it used to be a bunch of funny people out in the woods doing it by themselves.
So these are not issues our parents have been unaware of. Maybe they were vegans for a little bit in high school and then it wore off. But you look around today and you’re seeing amazing things happening with Chipotle, with Kraft mac and cheese saying they’re going to take the yellow dye out. There is huge progress being made and it's largely because the industry is seeing that Millennials are not going to be spending their money on processed foods.
Pinsker: Actually, that’s what I was going to ask about next. When a company goes “all natural,” do those changes matter?
Turow: I don’t think that overnight these big food companies are suddenly going to become entirely altruistic and say, “You know what? We’re going to make all of this stuff with more expensive, all-natural ingredients”—“all natural” meaning actually plant-based, because “natural” isn’t a word that’s subject to any regulation in the U.S.
I think they’re going to try to please their audience by making the small changes that they can, in hopes that no one looks really hard. That’s obviously not every food company. I am hoping that the Millennial dollars and decisions will begin to weed out those who are honest and those who are not. And there are so many people now who are looking at labels to see what's actually in these products.
Certain things like Chipotle saying they’re going to go largely non-GMO, to me, is just playing into hype*. Not that that’s a bad thing, necessarily. I personally don’t think that GMOs are anything to be afraid of, at this point, so that, for example, is playing into a trend. But, the fact that they’re buying all-organic produce is super important because that’s putting money into the hands of organic farmers, so it’s kind of a wait-and-see situation.
Pinsker: Do you think this is a fad or something that’s going to be a feature of American eating for a long time?
Turow: I really hope that it’s not temporary. I do think that it’s possible this generation will move onto something else that’s also fulfilling the same needs. For example, you’re seeing that coloring books are taking off and it’s like, okay, that makes sense: That’s also something that’s a break from your screen. It’s tangible. It’s like your zen time.
It’s totally possible that something else will pick up on these needs for us, but I ended up asking these questions to Michael Pollan. He said that even if we’re just saying, “Oh my god, have you been to that restaurant?” “Do you know that chef?” “What’s that great recipe on Bon Appetit?” we’re going to be thinking about the way that we’re feeding our kids and we are thinking about what we put into our shopping baskets. That’s not likely to go away.
The other really exciting part of this is all of the students that we have in food-studies programs. A few decades ago, Marion Nestle started the first food-studies program, at NYU, and people told her no one was going to attend. Now, undergraduate and graduate programs are proliferating across the country and across the world. To me, it’s exciting that people aren’t just eating and talking about their meals, but thinking critically about food policy, food distribution, food equality, food deserts, all that stuff.
Pinsker: So do you hope that food obsession, as you defined it, is something that could be used to raise awareness about those bigger issues?
Turow: I hope so, but there’s a lot to tackle. Some people are concerned about pesticides. Some are concerned about antibiotics. Some are concerned about animal welfare. When I talked to him, Michael Pollan brought up the analogy of the gay-rights movement: It wasn’t decided on that gay marriage was going to be the one thing they fought for first, but that decision was made and then they could come together in a cohesive movement. And they’ve clearly been extremely successful in that and the next question is well, okay, what’s next for the gay-rights movement?
Then you see the food movement. Well, what is that one topic for the food movement and who is our leader? I don’t necessarily think that we have one. He just looked at me and said, “Well, that's what I'm relying on your generation for.” And I was just like, “Oh, gosh. I wonder who that person is going to be.”
* This article has been updated to clarify that Chipotle's offerings will not be entirely non-GMO. The chain has stated that there is likely corn syrup made from GMO corn in its soft drinks and that meat and dairy may come from suppliers who feed GMO grains to the animals.