This is a sampling of headlines about a recent study published in the journal Appetite. What the study found was this: Women aged 20 to 35 who both got information from cooking shows and regularly cooked from scratch weighed about 11 pounds more, on average, than women who didn’t watch those shows, or who did watch them but didn’t often cook from scratch.
So, while it’s a special form of media madness to take this study’s findings and extrapolate them to say “cooking shows might make you fat,” the correlation is compelling, and the impulse to interpret it is logical. The Food Network, for one, has been around for more than 20 years, and its programs are popular, with somewhere around a million viewers a night (at least in 2012). Cooking shows on network television, like Hell's Kitchen and MasterChef on Fox, pull in millions of viewers as well. And considering how thorny conversations and attitudes around food can be, it seems like the shows must be doing something to people. What that something might be, though, is more complicated, and interesting, than just whether they promote good or bad eating habits.
“We were surprised that we found this relationship,” says lead study author Lizzy Pope, an assistant professor of nutrition and food science at the University of Vermont. “It’s generally assumed that cooking from scratch at home is healthier, but just because you’re cooking it at home doesn’t automatically make it healthy. We still have to think about the recipes that we’re using at home.”
It’s true enough that cooking shows may not promote the healthiest recipes. An early Food Network show called Two Fat Ladies revolved around its titular stars totally eschewing healthy food. Paula Deen, disgraced former Food Network star, was well-known for her love of butter and mayonnaise. Emeril Lagasse, non-disgraced former Food Network star, used to regularly spout his catchphrase “Pork fat rules!” And a study of 904 recipes by celebrity chefs in Britain found them to be high in fat, sugar, and salt, on average. “The nutritional composition of celebrity chefs’ recipes is comparable to the nutritional composition of fast food outlets and ready-made meals,” the authors wrote in the journal Food and Public Health.
So if the women in the study were regularly cooking the recipes they saw on TV, it’s certainly possible that as-seen-on-TV food could have a negative impact on their health. But even though we know one group of women both cooked regularly and reported getting recipe information from TV, we don’t know if they were making the recipes from those shows, and if so, how often.
Drawing a direct link from what people see on TV to what they go out and eat is “notoriously difficult,” Signe Rousseau, author of Food Media: Celebrity Chefs and the Politics of Everyday Interference, wrote to me in an email. “To measure something like a correlation between eating behaviors and TV with any accuracy would require controls for so many other factors (exercise, poor self-reporting, consistency and so on) that it’s almost impossible to know. I’d say that it probably could [affect eating behavior] but that for the most part, it probably doesn’t.”
It seems more likely that cooking shows are neither the cause of nor the cure for poor nutrition, but rather part and parcel of the entire culture built up around food in America. As Mark Meister of North Dakota State University put it in a paper in Mass Communication and Society, the Food Network “promotes the feeding of excesses in modern culture and promotes waste, indulgence, and gratification.”
A little strongly worded, perhaps. But there is something to the idea that cooking shows can feed people’s appetite for food, without, you know, actually feeding them anything. A 2000 article in the Journal of American and Comparative Cultures calls it “vicarious consumption.”
“Food Network offers vicarious pleasure for the arm chair cook and the couch potato alike,” the article reads. “It epitomizes the culture of visual and psychological consumption: consumption of cooking, of tasting, of hunger, of passion, of the familiar and the exotic, and of the television viewer’s willingness to be entertained by someone performing in the kitchen…Food Network has little to do with food as nutrition and survival, and everything to do with pleasure.”
And “sadly, for some people there is as much pleasure in not eating food as in eating it,” Rousseau writes. “If the pleasure of eating is followed by the guilt of having eaten (perhaps too much), then consuming food vicariously may indeed be more pleasurable, or at least the ‘safer’ option.”
Maybe viewers are here for that vicarious pleasure because they aren’t cooking themselves. (People in the U.S. spent the least time cooking out of 34 countries in a 2011 study.) It’s certainly easier to watch the Barefoot Contessa make beef bourguignon than to do all that chopping and sautéing and simmering yourself.
But interestingly enough, as America goes, so has gone the Food Network. The network is now less cooking, more competition, as Quartz reported last year. In 2014, the five most-watched primetime shows on the channel were all competition shows: Food Network Star, Worst Cooks in America, Chopped Tournament, Cutthroat Kitchen, and Guy’s Grocery Games. And that’s been the Food Network’s goal for some time. “The more we can convince people that we’re not a cooking channel, the better,” Rousseau’s book quotes former Food Network president Judy Girard as saying in 2000.
And while, sure, these shows are cooking competitions, they aren’t very educational. Turn on an episode of Chopped (it won’t be hard, it’s always on), and you’ll hear contestants tossing around culinary jargon rapidfire as they struggle to cook with whatever ingredients they’re given. In a recent episode I watched, somebody made a “sabayon” which, as far as I can tell, is an egg yolk with sugar in it? There is a certain amount of learning through osmosis, but not really any step-by-step instruction.
The competition show formula is successful, though, on the Food Network and elsewhere, and it may be because research shows people are coming to cooking shows to be entertained, not educated. That’s what Martin Caraher, a professor of food and health policy at City University London found when he surveyed people in the U.K. for a study published in the Journal for the Study of Food and Society.
“The majority of respondents reported not actually trying recipes from TV cookery programs,” the study reads. “When asked about the role of cookery programs in providing health messages, the overwhelming opinion was that this was not why people viewed them.”
Even the instructional shows (which are still aired, even if they don’t tend to get the primo primetime slots) err on the side of entertainment. They need to be compelling, after all. So they portray “consumer fantasies,” according to a paper by Cheri Ketchum in the Journal of Communication Inquiry. She notes “attention to aesthetics,” and “the fantasy of closeness…achieved through hosts consistently using the term you.”
Caraher agrees. “I think what they’re doing is creating an elite culture around cooking,” he says. “They set out to make it ‘everyday’ and somewhere along the line, the plot is lost. It’s not really everyday for most people. I think that’s a major problem.”
Watching talented chefs create elaborate dishes is entertaining, but even if people were inspired by these shows to cook more themselves, Caraher thinks they may become frustrated trying to replicate these recipes without the skills or resources the chefs on TV have. “Most people look and say, ‘I haven’t got a kitchen like that, a knife like that, a fridge like that,” he says. “And preparing something in 20 minutes, if you’ve got good knife skills, sure, but if you’re just chopping things individually, it may take 45 minutes.”
That’s an issue whether chefs are baking indulgent cakes or making healthier fare. Cooking truly “from scratch” may just be too time-consuming for some people, especially if they come from families where home-cooked meals are not the norm.
“Some people have been disengaged from food, and we suddenly expect them to start at another level,” Caraher says. “It’s unfair. There’s an assumption that cooking from basics is inherently good, and we have to question why. Why is cooking better than buying a healthy takeaway? Why is chopping carrots from scratch better than buying chopped carrots?”
When it comes to changing people’s cooking and eating habits, food TV is a relatively small piece of the puzzle. But it could help influence behavior, if only by setting norms. “It could help [re-work] our idea of what’s normal, and what we should be eating,” Pope says. “If people really want to watch them, and they start portraying healthier recipes without telling people they’re doing it, that might be a powerful way to affect behavior.”
Viewed through the lens of the so-called “obesity epidemic” what food TV is and what it means could easily be distorted. “I think [TV] essentially disengages people from lots of things,” Caraher says, and one could make the argument that Americans are either too engaged with food, or not engaged enough, depending on how you look at it.
But whatever their relationship with the food they eat, people are seeking out food for entertainment as well. And though each show is different in what it offers viewers, “if there is an overarching culture,” Rousseau says, “it would be normalizing food as spectacle.”