Your Most Controversial Food Opinions

Readers weigh in on eating habits, politics, and morality.

Farmers work in a dome-shaped hydroponic lettuce factory.
The Asahi Shimbun / Getty; The Atlantic

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Earlier this week, I highlighted a debate about the merits of the Slow Food movement and asked readers to share any contested opinion about food or foodstuffs that they happen to hold.

Some correspondents took aim at particular foods. “Green beans are chalky garbage,” Molly asserted, “and no, I don’t think that just because I haven’t had them the way you prepare them.” George insisted that “barbecue is overrated,” reasoning, “There are plenty of better ways to prepare meat. And barbecue sauce isn’t any more interesting than, say, mustard or ketchup.” Tony opined, “Brownies are terrible. They are neither cake nor cookie. They reside in an interstitial, undead space. They are zombies roaming the dessert landscape. Raisins are worse. They are the landmines of the food world. Nobody has ever been happily surprised upon biting into a raisin.” Said Patricia: “I HATE American cheese. I like other cheeses but not American cheese. I worked in NYC until the pandemic and we LOVE our breakfast sandwiches but I insist on a different cheese than American. There’s been multiple occasions that I’ve still gotten American cheese and I’ve returned to the bodega and insisted they make me a new one.”

Unpopular likes were aired too.

“Banana & mayonnaise sandwiches are great,” John claimed. “Arby’s is very good,” a defensive Doug wrote. “I’ve never understood the hate. The roast beef sandwiches are fantastic.”

Tom, who lives on a farm in Kentucky, describes the influence Michael Pollan has had on his eating habits:

We bit the bullet and went away from processed food. Very healthy with good blood numbers. Today we eat greater than 50% game (mostly venison that we hunt here on our farm in Central Kentucky), local in season vegetables which we grow, and fruit from a large orchard we planted 10 years ago. We shop at Kroger. We also get meat from local Amish and local pastured butchery. Tonight we had a venison crock pot roast, purple potatoes and a fruit salad of papaya, avocado, mango green onion and lime with salt …  

We will not willingly poison ourselves with seed oils, soy or chemicals. Unless it was a matter of eating poison to survive, if that’s possible, we won’t do it. We have wine or beer with dinner. Digestif after dinner. We make our own Liqueurs here on the farm. Our own version of Chartreuse but better, plus wild sassafras, wild blackberry, wild persimmon, Hopfenlikor, maple chamomile and hazelnut liqueurs. But just for digestif and gifts.

Charlene defended her method of dieting:

By far, my most-contested food choice is periodically doing 24-hour fasting while on a ketogenic diet and calorie cutting. I did this for the entire month of November. I’m now back to just doing keto … If I could get the nutrients I need from a vegan diet, I would. Since it doesn’t work for me, I’m eating meat … But fasting is my most controversial view since people freely accuse me of causing eating disorders by daring to do it.

Caitlin advises: “Any product that has a recipe printed on the package––make it. You have to figure the people who make the damn stuff know what to do with it.”

Many correspondents wrestled with the intersection of food, politics, and morality.

Athena’s most entrenched view about food “is that we each actually have our own philosophy,” she writes:

For me, that means I eat seasonally, as a vegan, and try to make choices of sourcing food where I can at the intersection of climate impact, worker impact, and affordability.  I'm so much more interested in people's answers to these next questions, though, than I am in defending any of my choices or certainly than I am in prescribing them to others:

  1. What food makes you feel good, inside your body? How do you know?
  2. What's the best quality food can you afford and source?
  3. What’s the way you choose to honor and recognize the mutuality we experience in these choices with the rest of the planet & its living beings?
  4. How are you having fun with and sharing food?
  5. How are you working so that those who don’t have your choices—whatever they are—can get them?

Inviting all of us to have an intentional food philosophy is, to me, among the many necessary acts for bringing us into a right relationship with each other, the earth, and the future of life on this planet.

Jake defended a popular fast-food chain. “I’m gay and I love Chick-fil-A. I eat it very frequently because I think their food is very good and their service is the gold standard for fast food,” he wrote. “I receive a lot of flack about it from others, especially my friends who are more progressive. Although I do not like their past donations, I do appreciate their values of treating all patrons the same. I’ve even seen many gay people work at Chick-fil-A. I also think every single large company has major flaws in it, so people will always find a reason not to eat somewhere or not support a business. Other fast food restaurants treat their workers poorly and overwork them. Bottom line is Chick-fil-A’s chicken is great, they’re locally operated and support local schools and organizations more than other restaurants, and I am going to keep eating there.”

Vincent opined on the future of eating meat:

I don’t think this should be considered “contested,” but at the moment it probably is in some circles: Cultivated meat is the only ethical way forward. The animal industry is torture and humans as a whole will never go vegan. Cultivated meat will reduce more suffering than any other development ever.

I’m less convinced that lab-grown meat is the future. This article convinced me that its near-term prospects have been overstated, but I’m no expert, and am open to rebuttals on its points.

Matt is against eating chicken but okay with eating beef:

Factory farming of chickens causes profound suffering due to the awful, cramped warehouses they are raised in. Conversely, cattle raised for beef are generally raised in somewhat more humane conditions. A single cow provides the same amount of meat as hundreds of chickens. Even if my moral intuition about the suffering of chickens vs. cattle is wrong, we still kill far more chickens than cattle for food. Therefore we inflict suffering on far more chickens than cows. Cattle does contribute to global warming. However, I have other options to offset my carbon emissions, such as solar panels on my home. There is no way to offset suffering inflicted on factory farmed animals.

To be maximally ethical, I would go vegan. However, I aspire to be morally good, not perfect, and I really enjoy meat. Avoiding chicken while having a burger every once in a while seems like a good compromise. Also, I hate cheese. This isn’t a moral stance, I’m just broken.

Lynn, who loves cheese, is conflicted about meat and industrial farming. She writes:

Yes, I eat meat, eggs, cheese, even veal, but I buy it from local farmers here in Seacoast NH/Maine. Most are kind people who treat their animals well, and who, by farming, keep the land from development, protecting the natural world I love so much. Yet, at times I can’t resist a juicy Five Guys burger. I eat eggs in restaurants where I know the chickens are not cage free. I haven’t been able to eat octopus since I read Sy Montgomery’s book, even though I love it. (It’s on the menu of the lovely chef-owned locavore restaurant where I’m dining tonight! So tempted!) I try not to eat farmed shrimp or salmon because of how that impacts the environment, but sometimes that is beyond my control. And as a New Englander, I can’t imagine life without lobster.

As my spirituality has evolved to where I feel a kinship with these living creatures, even though I eat them, I feel a growing cognitive dissonance. I think the Native American idea of thanking/honoring the creature for the gift of its life, as well as the work of all those who brought it to my table, is how I try to justify my continued eating of these beings.

That’s where Ezra Klein’s recent article on the cruelty of our food system comes in. And not just to animals. Industrial farming of plants causes harm to the soil, to the rivers, to insects, and other life. And the cruelty to the people who work in those factories, with owners who don’t care whether their workers die of Covid—who are raising prices to make money for themselves and shareholders—don’t get me started on this destructive emphasis on shareholder value above all, even though as a retiree living off my investments, I’m one of them!!!

Yet, I’m uncomfortable with the idea of creating meat-tasting substitutes, like using chicken breast genes in a lab. So here I am. Aware. Conflicted. Committed to my local farmers and fishermen. And still joyfully savoring the bounty of wonderful food I am privileged to be able to enjoy.

Have I mentioned triple-crème cheeses?

Errol defended eating meat, depending on how it is raised, before sharing what concerns him the most. He writes:

There are plenty of sources for meat where the animal’s life is not torturous, and they are slaughtered humanely, so whenever I’m cooking in my home, I stick to only those farms. Although I find it perfectly ethical to raise and slaughter animals for food, I do not find it ehtical to torture them throughout the process. I have more options in Los Angeles than someone does in more rural areas, however I’m only pointing out that there are ethical companies to buy meat from. I struggle with octopus. There’s a chance they have intelligence comparable to ours. But all other animals widely on the market I’m okay with.

My main concerns over food come down to antibiotics––superbugs are coming, and throwing antibiotics into everything we eat will only speed up that process––and opposition to GMOs.

GMOs are an exciting display of science and should be treated as such, not scorned by people who know nothing about how they’re created and demand labeling of GMO products. The argument that people should be allowed to know does not apply to this situation because the mere act of requiring something to be labeled “contains GMOs” implies there’s something wrong with them, or that there could be. It’s similar in my view to an anti-vax argument. There have been no studies I have seen that give any hint at all that GMOs have a negative effect vs. non-GMOs and yet people will act as if there haven’t been enough, or that it’s too soon to tell, or whatever mental gymnastics they take to attach a negative connotation to something simply because it’s “not natural” … I get it, Monsanto sucks, but Norman Borlaug didn’t. Without him we’d have 1 billion fewer lives in the world now, and that’s because of GMOs. People talk a lot these days about privilege, and it’s an awfully privileged perspective to be picky about how your corn grows.

Stephanie worries about the future, and anticipates less abundance than we presently enjoy. She writes:

I agree with the Slow Food movement that agricultural practices are too often harmful and can cause more problems for us to fix, like polluted waterways, but I also understand that we have to feed people. But I think we have to look beyond the slow vs. fast question, and see what is coming down the road, and how it is going to change our relationship to food. The negative effects of climate change are coming. Madagascar will have famine and a lack of fertilizer related to pandemic effects will cause food shortages elsewhere. States affected by the new Colorado River water usage agreement are taking cropland out of production due to lack of water, as CA has been doing for years. Our world is changing, and our food production and consumption must change with it …

Americans have a culture of abundance. We like to feel that we can always have whatever we want. We trust technology and innovation and capitalism to bring us these things. Business will figure it out for us, we think. All we have to do is imagine it into existence! We have faith that somebody somewhere wants to make money off of our desires. It will be very uncomfortable embracing lack. We didn’t like it during Covid. We won’t like it while we are learning how to combat the effects of climate change. And we especially won’t like it if we find we can’t overcome those effects. So food is about more than slow food or food justice or the best way to worker power or all the things we believe we can have just by insisting on them. It’s about limited resources and how we can use them efficiently, and sacrifice, and less, and lack. And people don’t like that. Investment in changes will be slow, and in the meanwhile we will be exacerbating the problems. As much as we Americans want to believe everything will be fine, it won’t.

Thanks to everyone who shared their thoughts on food.