Is Instagram making us fat?

First, a caveat: I’m part of the system. Let’s call it the Social Food Media Juggernaut.

As a writer and content-maker focused on food & wellness, I write plenty of blog posts, share recipes through Pinterest and Instagram, even make those cute little recipe videos that show up in your Facebook feed. I’m part of the SFMJ.

Yet I’m often utterly dismayed by the SFMJ. The recipes and photos that cycle through my social feeds look delicious enough. But holy smokes! All you need to do to understand our nation’s obesity problem is to search ‘food’ on Pinterest.

Fried food. Stuffed food. Loaded food. Food that’s loaded and stuffed and thenfried. Unicorn food. Knockoffs of food from Red Lobster. Food made with bottled ranch dressing and boxed cake mix and canned soup and Just. So. Much. Cream cheese.

Maybe it’s just me. But, ugh.

Clearly, it is just me.

The word ‘recipe’ is the third most-searched word on Pinterest.

Per an article posted on Business.com in February, there were, at that moment, 168,375,343 posts on Instagram hashtagged #food. That was three months ago; think of how many more there are now.

Starbucks has 14 million followers on Instagram.

Posting pics of food — whether it’s a gorgeous recipe Instagram with perfect props and natural light or a blurry snap of that plate of wings you hoovered at the sports bar last night — has become an obsession.

Why? According to insight from psychologist Susan Albers on PsychologyToday.com, we love showing off how virtuous — or how naughty — we are via pictures of what we eat and drink. We post to impress with that super pricey meal at that very exclusive restaurant. Sometimes, we post to gross other people out.

Mostly, we post food photos because we want people to understand us. French philosopher and prototypical foodie Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.”

With all these yummy things constantly streaming in front of our eyes, don’t you wonder what it’s doing to us? Honestly, my Instagram feed makes my stomach growl. I spotted a video for perfect oven roasted potatoes on Facebook and made them twice in a week. I bought rainbow sprinkles.

Look more closely, and you’ll see overt cues that tempt us to eat more, to eat unhealthy food, to cook with cheap mass-produced packaged foods. Microwave Cake-In-A-Mug! How cute! That’s 200 calories for you. Cheese Fondue in a Bread Bowl! There’s about a decade’s worth of carbs and fat. Crock Pot Chicken and Mushrooms — great! Let’s use canned soup AND dried soup mix AND cream cheese!

Want some irony? Check out this screen shot of my recent Pinterest search:

What’s more, this pornographication of food makes us more conscious of how something looks than how it tastes, and may make us value food less. A headline in The Guardian back in February hints at this problem: “Instagram generation is fuelling UK waste mountain, study finds.” The story references research suggesting that Millennials, inspired by photos in their social feeds, are experimenting with exotic ingredients, impulse-shopping and creating Instagram-worthy dishes, only to throw out leftovers and items they’ll never use again.

It goes on: “A post-war increase in household food waste is due to changes in how we value choice, time and money in relation to food,” said food historian and broadcaster Dr. Polly Russell. “Gone are the days of eating the same food, on the same days of the week, week in, week out. Most people today, particularly younger generations, demand variety. However, with a menu which changes often, it is more challenging to control waste and plan ahead.”

Big Food is paying attention. Guess who capitalized on the whole “unicorn” food trend sparked on Instagram? Starbucks, that’s who. The 400-calorie drink created a “significant” bump during its five-day run in April, according to the company, which promises even more “unique” drinks to come. Oh, goodie. More 400-calorie drinks.

You bet: I watch those superquick recipe videos. I search ‘#foodporn’ on Insta.
But I’m ever more mindful of what I — as a writer, teacher and recipe developer — put out in the world, so that I’m not contributing to the overconsumption.

By the way, check out my recent recipe for Buttermilk Biscuit Muffins. ;-0

2016: A (writing) year in review.

Globally speaking, I’m beyond ready for 2016 to beat a hasty retreat. Seriously.

Professionally, though, I’m still marveling at what a great year it was. Seriously.

I was fortunate to collaborate with a number of longstanding and new clients, broadening and deepening my portfolio of writing about food and wellness. My work fell evenly into two camps: writing for publication and online marketing content. The subjects were inspiring, the teams fun to work with, the finished projects stuff I’m proud of. A few high points:

A visit to one of my top clients. After working together — closely, on lots and lots of projects — for two years, I traveled to connect in person with my colleagues at the Produce Marketing Association. We’ve worked together to promote dozens of global events for growers/suppliers/retailers in the fresh produce and floral industry. It was so neat to meet the PMA team face-to-face. And 2017 looks to hold even greater collaboration.

Giving life to local food coverage. Call me old-fashioned, but I still love reading the local newspaper over my morning coffee. And my recipe file is full of old clippings from newspapers’ food sections. So when editor Amy Wilson asked if I’d regularly contribute to the Cincinnati Enquirer‘s weekly food coverage, I jumped at the chance. I got to write about the pleasures of eating breakfast for dinner, shared delicious ways to enjoy summer tomatoes, and declared that making your own butter is just about the best thing ever. Coolest encounter of the year: Running into an Enquirer reader, toting my recipe for herb and spice cashews that she’d cut from the paper, as she was buying the nuts at Dean’s Mediterranean Market. Local food — and local media — for the win!

Tackling a new medium: recipe videos. You know those 1-minute recipe videos you see in your Facebook feed all the time? Turns out, those take about 2 hours to film and are a whole lot of fun to create. Working with Curiosity Advertising and their client, The Christ Hospital, we’re rolling out a series of quick recipe videos.

Supporting local food producers, farmers and retailers. Serving as editor of Edible Ohio Valley remains a passion and pleasure, as we get to tell the stories of people who are working hard to bring beautiful, healthful food to our tables here in Cincinnati. One of my favorite stories to write this year was a feature on farmers’ markets and their importance to our community, economy and our collective health.

Here’s hoping you had a productive and fulfilling 2016, and that 2017 will bring you more of the same!

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New work: Christ Hospital wellness site.

My food writing work hits the sweet spot when the subject intersects at healthy and local. So my new collaboration with The Christ Hospital and agency Curiosity Advertising is right in my kitchen, so to speak.

We’re working together to spotlight local food — producers, farmers’ markets, seasonal flavors — and encouraging the Christ Hospital community to cook and eat healthful foods. In addition to a new series of recipe videos — SUPER FUN! — I am writing online content around healthy cooking and eating. My subjects so far include a feature on local winter farmers’ markets, strategies for stocking your pantry to make home cooking easier, and ‘locavore’ New Years Eve party ideas. Take a look at some of the work:

New Work: recipe videos.

I’ve just launched a cool new collaboration with the creative team from Curiosity Advertising and their client, The Christ Hospital. We’re working to develop friendly, approachable stories and videos that encourage people in the Greater Cincinnati area to cook healthfully, love local food and pursue their wellness goals.

First up: a video demonstrating how to make an easy recipe for roasted fall vegetables. Click the image below to see the video!

easy-roasted-vegetables

 

Dynamic content for a dynamic client.

I love those situations when doing great work for one client leads to doing great work for another …

As I was developing online content for a new portfolio website for my super-talented client Evi Abeler, she connected me with designer Cody McBurnett of Loki Loki, who’d designed the logo for her photography business. Cody has a distinctive and delicious visual sensibility. Cody was in the beginning stages of creating a new website for fashion stylist Ronit Abraham, and she asked if I could create the online content to spotlight Ronit and her services. I could, indeed!

Unlike other fashion stylists in NYC, Ronit has a kinder, gentler approach to going through a client’s closet and helping her figure out what to wear. Ronit isn’t all about Ronit … she’s like that friend whose taste you admire, your best shopping companion and your “what should I wear?” fashion guru, all wrapped up in one. It was really fun to work with her to tell her unique story.

Ronit’s website has recently launched (I love the little illustrations):

 

Fast food: Why we need to slow down

We eat in our cars, at our desks, on the go, in front of the TV. We eat drive-through, take-out, delivered, packaged and prepared meals.

We need to slow … down.

Consumer trends around the globe show that over the past three decades people are purchasing more prepared foods at the grocery and eating out more. It’s projected that we’ll spend a record amount at restaurants in 2011. We’re consuming an increasing number of calories and bigger portions. Simultaneously, we’re getting less healthy.

While debates rage over the food industry’s contribution to our growing waistlines and our resulting health problems, the bottom line is this: What we eat, where we eat and how we eat are all 100% under our control. We can choose to eat a fast-food lunch on the go (spending that extra $6 and adding 150 calories to our day). We can throw a frozen meal in the microwave and call it dinner.

Or, we can dedicate an hour of the day to cook and enjoy a meal with our families. We can spend a few minutes in the morning to eat a healthy breakfast. Eating sensibly doesn’t take much time or money, but it does require you to make a conscious decision to do so. Here are some steps you can take:

Respect food. Prepare it with love, enjoy it with mindfulness, use it to your healthy benefit.

Shop your local farmers’ markets. Studies on both coasts have shown that farmers’ market produce is comparably priced to grocery produce—and it’s much fresher, it’s better for the local economy and it’s more sustainable.

Be mindful of what you put in the shopping cart. Why buy salad dressing that’s full of high-fructose corn syrup and preservatives, when you can make your own salad dressing for much less money and better health?

Be careful about coupons. Buy-one-get-one on PopTarts seems like a good deal. But is it? Is that coupon prompting you to buy something you don’t want or need?

Read more about these and other steps you can take toward your own slow-food movement and eating healthier today in my article for SparkPeople.com: Why a Fast-Food Nation Needs a Slow-Food Movement.

Food for Thought: creating clarity in marketing

You remember “pink slime,” right? Earlier this year, this PR fiasco in the food industry revealed a huge communication challenge (or, let’s call it an opportunity) for both brands and consumers. And the lesson goes beyond the food industry.

(A refresher: pink slime was the moniker given to lean finely textured beef, a beef byproduct sanitized with ammonia that was added to ground beef products to reduce fat content.) At its core, the controversy centered on duplicity—the willing withholding of information about a product. What created such outrage is that people simply didn’t know that it was being added to the ground beef or prepared hamburgers that they were purchasing. Why? Because LFTB is pure beef, and USDA regulations did not require it to be labeled separately. Consumers felt duped, and they were outraged.

Grocery Carts lined up

photo by Polycart, used under Creative Commons attribution license

In so many niches, marketers throw around words so much that they become ubiquitous and ultimately, confusing. Like the term ‘natural’ (and the word ‘organic’ before it) it’s lost much of its meaning. The USDA defines ‘natural’ this way:

A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product. The label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural (such as “no artificial ingredients; minimally processed”).

Brands often tag products ‘natural’ as a shorthand for ‘healthy,’ ‘safe’ or ‘quality.’ But those words don’t necessarily equate. Pink slime is natural. So is high-fructose corn syrup. So is yogurt loaded with sugar.

B2C brands that deliver highly technical products and services are also guilty of hiding behind complex language. Take this sentence as an example, from an IT provider in my city:

Using virtualization technologies, multiple server operating systems are encapsulated to run across a pool of highly available servers. This enhances average server utilization and availability.

Huh?

Talking over customers’ heads isn’t just disrespectful—it creates confusion that muddies the sell-buy relationship. And customer confusion is bad for branding.

Any brand in any market—whether product or service, big or small, global or local—is wise to learn a lesson from pink slime: Customers crave—and deserve—clarity. In any market where the common language has been corrupted or become jargon-y, brands that cut through the BS with clear, straightforward communication truly stand out. People embrace brands that don’t pull the wool over their eyes.

Look at the industries you serve: Are there opportunities for your brand or your clients to rise above simply through language? Can you decipher complex messages, decode jargon-filled descriptions of products or services? There’s opportunity—and, I’d argue, obligation—in clarity.

Worth Reading

The Proposed Nutrition Label:
Commissioned by The New York Times, Werner Design Werks of Minneapolis created a prototype for a new food label that accounts for nutrition, sustainability, processing and production.

FTC Issues Advice on Eco Labeling:
From nutritionist Marion Nestle, an update on new Federal Trade Commission guidelines for brands using words like ‘natural’ and ‘sustainable.’

Worth Eating

Better Than Store-Bought:
My Better Than Store-Bought recipe series teaches you how to create homemade—and excellent!—versions of common store-bought items. My homemade granola bar recipe rocks.

 

New work: Recipes and blog posts for SparkRecipes.com

I love collaborating with my editors at SparkPeople.com and SparkRecipes.com, and here’s why: Their goal, like mine, is to help people who perhaps don’t love to cook learn to prepare healthy food for themselves and their families. My work with Spark presents an unusual challenge—unlike readers of, say, Edible Ohio Valley magazine (to which I contribute the Cultivators column), Spark-ers aren’t necessarily devoted cooks or foodies. I have to write with Spark members’ unique needs in mind: They want quick, easy recipes for food that tastes great and supports their health and fitness goals.

My work for Spark includes a new series of Power Foods articles that dig deep into the nutritional profiles of common fruits and vegetables and offer simple ways to prepare them.

Why Potatoes Are Good for You—This Power Foods article extols the virtues of the poor potato, so maligned by low-carb diet gurus. Potatoes lend themselves to unhealthful preparations, like deep frying and topping with sour cream and butter. But all the specialty varieties are fantastic when prepared simply.

I also regularly contribute a series of 10 Ways With … articles for DailySpark.com.

10 Ways to Enjoy Tomatoes—This article gives Spark members a variety of quick and easy ways to cook with this summer garden staple.

Another ongoing assignment: Hack the grocery store, with a series of Better Than Store-Bought recipes that let Spark members make homemade versions of supermarket staples, with an emphasis on recipes that are healthier or less expensive.

Fresh no-cook tomato sauce—If you still have access to ripe local tomatoes, either in your backyard garden or at the farmers’ market, then you’ll want to make this. I’ve tried other fresh tomato sauces to toss with pasta, but this one is different: You warm a bit of olive oil and drizzle that over peeled and diced tomatoes. The warm oil gently heats the tomatoes and deepens their flavor.

Chewy-Crunchy Granola Bars—So many store-bought granola bars include high-fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors or preservatives. My version of homemade chewy-crunchy granola bars offers great texture, healthful whole grains and nuts, and tasty dried fruit.

Client love: Sterling Cut Glass

I happened to meet Mike and Leslie Dyas, owners of Sterling Cut Glass, at a memorable party last fall. That wine-infused conversation led to a terrific new collaboration. Since midsummer, I’ve been helping Leslie and her colleagues Linda Sacolick and Greg Grupenhof create blog and newsletter content that connects their small business with their loyal customers and prospects.

Sterling Cut Glass is a Cincinnati stalwart, with a retail store that offers monogrammed crystal stemware, table settings, home accessories and items to commemorate life’s biggest occasions. For generations, Sterling has been the go-to for wedding and baby gifts. But Linda and Leslie felt that the store had been pigeonholed as a place to shop for brides and newborns; in fact, they offer so much more for the home and table.

In short, Sterling Cut Glass helps customers create beautiful, unique dining and entertaining experiences at home, in addition to helping them commemorate life’s most special occasions with memorable gifts.

Linda, Greg and I have collaborated to create content for the Sterling Cut Glass blog and newsletter that offers customers new ideas for decorating and entertaining. Articles have included the hows and whys of pairing wines to specific glasses, new trends in home decorating and ideas for hosting a fun Halloween party.

I love writing about food and cooking—and with my partners at Sterling Cut Glass, I also get to write about special ways to share great food with friends and family.

 

Client love: SparkPeople.com

With more than 12 million members, SparkPeople.com is on a mission to help people live healthier lives. Whether that means losing weight, getting fit or running a marathon, SparkPeople has tools that lead folks toward nutritious food choices and inspire them to exercise.

Since 2010, I’ve been collaborating with the small and mighty team at SparkPeople.com, developing web content about healthy cooking and eating. I’ve written about healthy and creative ways to top that morning bowl of oatmeal, tips for stocking a spice rack, strategies for a disaster-proof Thanksgiving dinner. I’ve written about nutrition-packed foods, CSAs,  container gardens, and more. To date, we’ve teamed up on more than 20 web articles. And our work together is now expanding to include recipes and articles for SparkRecipes.com.

It’s terrific to be a part of the SparkPeople community and to help inspire others to get fit, get active and get healthy.