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Q: My two daughters are both “foodies.” My 23-year-old daughter has a stressful job in which she doesn’t make much money, yet she spends a good chunk of her income eating out at new restaurants, trying new foods, and buying foods produced by companies who share her values for regenerative, organic agriculture. My 18-year-old daughter, who’s a senior in high school, seeks out organic, gluten-free food, prepares homemade dishes, and posts about it on social media. This is so different from how I was raised. Is it common for people these days to be so focused on food?
A: Yes, it really is! What you describe are examples of larger shifts that have taken place among food consumers over the past decade. The changes are fueled mainly by people under the age of 40, but also by individuals of any age who are feeling lonely and anxious in today’s fast-paced, digital world.
“An obsession with all things food has taken hold in nearly every nook and cranny of the globe,” writes Eve Turow-Paul in her book Hungry. Focusing on food—one of our core, innate needs as human beings—actually serves as a healthy antidote to the loneliness, stress, and anxiety that tech-tethered people, especially those in younger generations, tend to feel. Anxiety is often caused by a sense of lack of control in many areas of our lives, but we can control the food we eat, and many are choosing to do exactly that.
What Are Foodies?
“Foodie” is a term used to describe a person who has an ardent interest in food and who eats not only out of hunger, but also as a hobby. Today half of all Millennials and members of Generation Z worldwide identify as “foodies.” But calling oneself a “foodie” isn’t enough. People want to connect with others through shared experiences with food, have more purpose, and make a positive impact on something important in life.
In research for her book, Turow-Paul sifted through a few top psychologists’ theories of what each of us needs to lead a fulfilling life, and found the common themes of control, belonging, and purpose. She believes that these are the driving forces behind our renewed attention to food.
Control—The one thing people want to have control over is what they put into their bodies. To improve their health, foodies are increasingly adopting restrictive, therapeutic ways of eating, such as Paleo, keto, or vegan diets. They also tend to avoid ingredients they regard as “unnatural,” such as genetically modified ingredients, gluten, and coloring agents. They want simple and clean products with easy-to-understand ingredients, and they want to know where those ingredients are sourced and processed. They generally don’t trust large industrial food and pharmaceutical companies, and put their money where their beliefs are by purchasing products made by smaller companies that share their values for a more sustainable and healthier world.
Belonging—To counter increasing isolation and loneliness, foodies focus on eating out with friends and sharing recipes or photos of delicious food on social media. Another way to connect with more people is by joining diet tribes, support groups and chat rooms for people who follow specialty diets. This type of community experience helps fill the need for connection in individuals who have moved away from family, don’t know their neighbors, and are no longer part of religious groups or political parties, Turow-Paul says.
Purpose—Foodies are also looking for meaning and a life more worth living. There is growing interest in unplugging, shutting down, and taking the time to cook from scratch or go out into nature to garden, hike, or ground and center ourselves. Those who spend more time in nature feel like they have more purpose in life. And many times this purpose leads to using food-purchasing dollars not only to satisfy our taste buds, but also to improve our physical and emotional health, connect with others, and support companies that share our environmental and social justice values. On many different levels, we want food that we feel good about feeding our bodies and promoting the integrated health we desire.
“Our ‘foodie’ culture, devotion to tribal fitness groups, and restrictive diets are small symptoms of a much larger societal tidal wave, one that extends far beyond the Millennial generation,” Turow-Paul writes. “These passions are not feckless fancies, but a form of self-care, emblems of people choosing to spend their discretionary income and money on activities that fill in the gaps where life is otherwise leaving them famished.”
2020: Year of the Foodie
Although some consumers don’t have the disposable income to buy a new car—and many wonder if they’ll ever be able to buy a home—Millennials in particular find it soothing to splurge a bit on luxuries they can afford by investing their recession-hit incomes on high-quality food.
So it’s not surprising that even though things slowed down and, in some cases, shut down in 2020, the organic industry continued to thrive. In a record year, U.S. natural and organic sales grew 12.7 percent in 2020, experiencing their highest growth since 2008. Eating organic is one of the top trends guiding food shoppers, and eight out of 10 Americans now buy organic food at least occasionally.
These numbers are right in line with the change in food trends that have been occurring the past 10 years, according to Turow-Paul. “Our desire for control is strong. Our world feels chaotic. Anxiety levels are high. What are people going to look for? They want things that protect their bodies and their families. They want to feel good about what they put in their bodies.”
Fueled by more cooking at home and a desire to boost immunity and keep themselves and their families healthy, foodies embraced the practice of using food as medicine and sought out and bought clean food products and health-promoting supplements in droves in 2020. And Americans’ increased interest in supporting wellness shows no signs of slowing down.
About the Book
In Hungry, author Eve Turow-Paul looks at the connections between the top trends in today’s global food culture, how we find well-being, and the impacts of the Digital Age. Weaving together evolutionary psychology and sociology with investigative reporting from around the world, Turow-Paul reveals the modern hungers—physical, spiritual, and emotional—that are driving today’s top trends, while showing how the “foodie” culture provides an answer to our rising rates of stress, loneliness, anxiety, and depression.