Understanding the Why Behind Food Culture: Our Interview With Eve Turow-Paul, Author of the Newly Released Book “Hungry: Avocado Toast, Instagram Influencers, and Our Search for Connection and Meaning”

hungry by Eve Turow-Paul

“What is it that we are so hungry for?” asks author Eve Turow-Paul in her newly released book Hungry: Avocado Toast, Instagram Influencers, and Our Search for Connection and Meaning. Similar to The Hartman Group’s long-standing quest to understand food culture and “the why behind the buy,” Turow-Paul “decided to look into the ‘why’ behind my own behavior and that of the people around me.”

Her search soon morphed into an in-depth, global examination of what the Digital Generation (now food-obsessed — but why?) is really looking for. Intrigued by her inquisitive, investigative, and ethnographic eye for detail (and far-reaching quest to plumb the depths of what drives food culture today), we reached out to the author to find out more about where food culture is and where it’s headed.

The Hartman Group (THG): Your book is like an in-depth lexicon of many topics that The Hartman Group has been examining for decades, ranging from an ever-growing cultural focus on diet, wellness, and sustainable agriculture to more nuanced topics like biohacking, plant-based eating, animal welfare, and mindfulness. We noticed that in addition to examining American food and wellness culture, you weave in many different stories with locations in China, Hong Kong, South Korea, and India. What do you think globalization's role is today in terms of surfacing trends that link to food?

Eve: In many ways, global food culture has become homogenized. I recall, a few years back, flying into Kuala Lumpur and that day seeing signs for matcha lattes and rainbow bagels. Coming from New York, I had a moment of thinking: ‘Why’d I fly all the way here to eat the same things?’ The combination of social media and a globalized food system has made it so that similar foods are trending at the same time, often on opposite ends of the world. In the early 2000s I remember traveling overseas and the songs of 5 years prior were just starting to catch on in Europe. There’s no lag time for pop culture like there used to be.

At the same time, the way we live has also become homogenized. So many of us belong to what I call the Digital Generation — people who are on devices, who have access to 24/7 news, who feel the pressure of online communication (texts, emails, snaps). I spend most of Hungry looking at the emotional and physical impacts of our attachment to technology and then analyzing how this new way of living is driving today’s most potent food and lifestyle trends. In many ways, our connection to our devices is catalyzing the rising rates of stress, loneliness, and a desire to engage with sensorial and tangible things. I found these trends to be consistent whether I was speaking to someone in Seoul or in Sonoma. The biggest difference between human behavior now is not geography — nor age — but technological connection.

THG: Hungry communicates a deep appreciation for trends in food and wellness as driven by Millennials and younger consumers. You also raise a consistent point about the tension that exists between "digital life" (which is, of course, heightened among younger consumers) and a rising appreciation for the hands-on tangible world, elements of which include a growing appreciation for farming, gardening, houseplants, "maker culture," and DIY movements. How do you think the search for greater connections to nature and physical experience will be expressed going forward?

Eve Turow-Paul

Eve: The COVID-19 pandemic is supercharging many of these trends. My research for Hungry took me deep into academic research on the impact of technology (such as our smartphones, access to email, and 24/7 news) on well-being. One important aspect of this research centered around the rising disconnect between our bodies and nature as well as a lack of sensory stimulation (beyond the haptic touch of keys on our fingertips). Amidst the pandemic, many of us are spending even more time on screens, so it makes sense that we’re also looking for antidote experiences that engage our bodies and get us, in some way, communing with nature. Now stuck inside for much of the day, even those who don’t consider themselves to be nature lovers are finding an ache to be outdoors, to pet an animal, to grow a garden. (Just look at the #cottagecore and #gardenfocaccia trends!)

There’s also an element of finding purpose and meaning that’s pushing these behaviors forward: How do we mark our days as successful — or even note time passing — when we’re never leaving the house, never producing anything tangible? For many, baking a loaf of sourdough bread, regrowing scallions in their windowsill, or completing a home DIY project is a way to feel successful in a period of time that feels constant and unchanging.

At the start of the pandemic, we saw sky-high sales of vegetable seeds, yeast, flour, and even baby chicks. I would expect that those who have taken up a new skill — baking or gardening — will likely continue these habits when the pandemic has passed (contrary to a new, funny Bud Light commercial) because they’re viscerally satisfying. I learned so many eye-opening things while doing research for Hungry, one of them being just how hardwired we are to be in nature and use our bodies. Our bodies reward us by engaging with the natural, physical world by releasing feel-good hormones. Our reliance on screens is depriving many of us of these essential experiences for well-being.

My best guess is that we’ll continue to see investment in home gardening, biophilic home design (and workplace), and home cooking. (I wouldn’t be surprised if we see an uptick in young farmers as well!) We’re likely to see these trends show up in travel, too — interest in camping, hiking, fishing, and other similar outdoor activities. Demand for immersive, highly sensorial activities will not wane — be it in a restaurant or on vacation.

THG: You discuss the intersection of meaning in life and restrictive dieting. Related to this, is the rise in anxiety, coupled with a preoccupation with food, a distraction from something more existential? To add, do younger generations seem more sensitive to what we are leaving for future generations?

Eve: Perhaps it is a distraction! But whether it truly distracts us or not from the major, scary issues in this world, restrictive dieting certainly serves as a coping mechanism. (To be clear, I am not advocating nor condoning food restrictions — I’m simply interested in the psychology behind these behaviors.) In a world that feels increasingly out of control, gaining autonomy over a small part of your day, drawing very clear black and white lines (‘Yes’ to these foods, ‘No’ to those) can help some create a sense of order and autonomy in a sea of chaos.

I’ve been doing research on the why behind food and lifestyle trends for over a decade — mainly through journalistic practices like interview and primary-source research — but for this book project I wanted to take on some original quantitative work, so I ran a survey of 1,100 Americans in partnership with market research firm Datassential, and we did, indeed, find that younger Americans are more likely than the general population to be generally anxious, to restrict their diets, to be lonely, and to be searching for a sense of meaning and purpose in life. And while Gen Zers were more likely to restrict their diets in the name of animal welfare and environmental issues, they didn’t claim to be any more worried about the climate crisis than our other respondents. (We saw those who worry about the climate crisis to be well above 50% for all generations.) That said, I’ve seen plenty of other surveys that note that Gen Zers are, in fact, more concerned by the climate crisis than others. And this makes perfect sense! Their lives are going to be more significantly impacted by rising sea levels, rising temperatures, super storms, etc. And in our study, whether they claim to be more concerned about the issue or not, they’re likelier than members of other generations to change the way they eat in order to reduce their carbon footprint. This is something important for all food and beverage companies to take note of.

THG: The pandemic has dealt a severe blow to experience-driven elements of food culture that relate to discoveries and explorations consumers were making in a huge range of restaurant and food retail settings. You focus on the importance of experience in relation to the world of food in your book and mention authenticity, a favorite topic of ours that we've written about for years. How do you see authenticity currently being expressed in relation to food culture?

Eve: Great question! These days, we’re all in a stage of collective suffering, loneliness, fear, and grief, and people are searching for ways to connect with others as well as engage their bodies. (There’s only so much time we can spend on Zoom and social media). Over these past few months, it’s been a lot of fun to see the creative ways people are coping, together. One popular method has been learning to bake. But people aren’t taking up this hobby in isolation; we’ve seen people of all ages turn to social media to learn from others, support one another — answer questions, cheer people’s successes, give a virtual pat on the back for a flat loaf. You can see these behaviors on display by looking at rising interest in sourdough but also through sub trends like focaccia garden loaves, banana bread, and babkas. We’ve also seen a rising interest in our local food systems, with a jump in searches for local CSAs, with an effort to support local restaurants and Black-owned businesses as well. We’re in a phase, culturally, where we’re all just trying to cope with a new reality, and we’re all in it together. (Though it’s important to note that the lived experience of COVID-19 is very different across socioeconomic and racial lines.)

I think the discussion of authenticity and food experience in this moment also needs to take note of the Black Lives Matter movement. Food culture is not exempt from these issues. In fact, our industrialized food system is a key factor in the prevalence of higher co-morbidities in communities of color and low-income communities. Further, many minority culinary histories have been co-opted or nearly erased in our current food culture. I expect, as we begin to recover (eventually!) from this pandemic, that we will see an increased interest in “authentic” culinary representations of people’s heritages, and authentic culinary experiences that celebrate individual talent.

THG: Related to the previous question about connections to nature, we've been tracking a rising interest among consumers in topics that intersect under the umbrella term "regenerative agriculture" — elements of which (soil health, biodiversity, biodynamic farming, carbon sequestration, etc.) you mention in your book. Are there aspects of these topics that you think resonate more strongly with younger consumers when compared to, say, older consumers?

Eve: I think that young people are spending more time than other generations looking for a way to have impact, as it relates to the climate crisis. Trust among young people in government, in big business, to “do the right thing” is extremely low — lower than older generations. At the same time, they’re more likely to trust scientists, and more likely to be food-obsessed. So it makes sense that these interests are colliding!

Unfortunately, a lot of the language around food and sustainability is confusing. We know — based on interest in things like gut health, climate issues, organic food — that folks are eager to take action on the climate through food, but often, people become confused by the nomenclature. (For example, what’s the difference between regenerative, organic, permaculture, biodynamic, biodiverse, upcycled, etc.?) As such, I don’t think we’re seeing the uptick in sustainable food and beverage sales that we could be. Last year, I started a non-profit, the Food for Climate League, aimed at addressing this very issue, by creating a new, clear, approachable, and empowering narrative around food and climate. We see a huge market of young, climate-concerned food enthusiasts waiting to be spoken to in a new way, and we’re working with industry leaders to research, test, and develop new concepts for implementation industry-wide. (If you want to work with us, we’re always looking for new sponsors, partners, and allies!)

THG: How do you think some of the headlines that have developed during the pandemic (employee welfare, social justice, food safety, the food supply chain) will influence food culture going forward?

Eve: Without a doubt, this environment has caused many people to think about where their food comes from for the very first time. And I mean this not as in “a farm,” but people thinking more critically about all the steps it takes for food to arrive on their plates: the people who harvest their food, who break down their meats, who drive items in trucks, stock them onto shelves. Prior to the pandemic, these jobs were not being talked about as essential — they’ve been in the shadows of food culture. I expect, and hope, that an awareness of just how critical each of these players are will continue long after this crisis has passed. These issues, of course, also relate to the racial justice movement, as many of these “essential workers” are people of color, often immigrants, people making minimum wage. I would be very surprised if racial and social justice issues aren’t front and center in youth culture during the months and years to come.

We’re in a brand-new world. There’s no going back to how things were before — pre-COVID-19, pre-George Floyd’s death and subsequent protests. So now it’s time to think about what eater interests and demands will be and how you, as a business leader, can best meet those needs. There is a small upside to the chaos — many businesses are being forced to rebuild right now, so why not build back better? There’s no need to break anything down in order to shift your business model to a more sustainable, socially just one — the entire arena is already disrupted. Those who can see this as a fresh opportunity, a blank slate to build from and be inspired by, will be the ones who succeed.

You can learn more about Eve Turow-Paul and obtain her book here: The Hungry Book