Food

Why Food Is Taking Over Your Life

Filling a primal physical need turns out to be a perfect match for the digital age.

Food glorious food.

Photograph: Courtesy of Starbucks

Starbucks Corp. peddles pink unicorn frappucinos. Ikea’s food operations go from a fun way to keep up shoppers’ stamina to a fast growing division offering much more than meatballs. Amazon.com Inc. enters the hyper-competitive meal-kit market. Losing customers to supermarkets, Whole Foods Market Inc. faces pressure from activist investor Jana Partners, which hires food writer Mark Bittman as a consultant. Malls replace anchor stores with food halls. American teenagers start to spend more on food than apparel.

All these stories are part of the same phenomenon. As my colleague Tyler Cowen recently wrote, food -- and, I would add, the business of food -- has become central to contemporary culture. Filling a primal physical need turns out to be a perfect match for the digital age. The question is why. Cowen emphasizes snob appeal -- economists love stories of status signalling -- but there are other reasons as well. If status signals were all people wanted, they could stick to fashion.

In a world of black boxes, food offers a sense of knowledge and control.

In her book on millennials and food, A Taste of Generation Yum, Eve Turow Paul zeroes in on this theme. She even suggests that her generation’s many food taboos -- vegan, paleo, gluten-free, assorted -arians -- represent socially acceptable expressions of the same yearning for control that leads to eating disorders.

For more-catholic eaters, knowing where ingredients come from and how to combine them into tasty meals provides its own gratifying sense of mastery. “Understanding a meal is a fairly effortless way to master every single element,” she writes.

“It’s like really rewarding; it’s a constant reward loop,” says 27-year-old Lola Milholland of making her own food. “The more you grow or the more you cook or the more you farm, the better it becomes. You get constant pleasure from it. And in a time in history when things feel kind of out of control or enormous, it’s a really enjoyable and self-benefitting way to participate.”

When consumers reject processed foods, it seems, they aren’t just concerned about health. They’re rebelling against their own ignorance. The answer isn’t to slap “natural” or “organic” on food labels. It’s to give customers opportunities for learning and mastery -- a reason the “new scratch cooking” embodied in meal kits is so hot. A meal kit is like a cooking lesson in a box.

Eating is sociable.

Millennials flock to restaurants, writes Turow Paul, because “they want to see people, hug people and break bread. They want something concrete to engage with after a day of participating in a virtual reality.”

Like sports or music, food provides a ready source of conversation among both friends and strangers and gives gatherings a focal point. “There are so many stories, and food is so communal,” says Elie Ayrouth, the 29-year-old founder of the Santa Ana, California-based food news site and consultancy Foodbeast. For many young people, he observes, home cooking is “less about do-it-yourself” than about socializing. “It’s about we’re coming over to my house and we’re going to cook together. Or I’m going to cook for you,” he says.

Although food taboos have traditionally been ways of maintaining boundaries -- think kosher, halal, or Iyengar Brahmin -- this sociability bridges food tribes. Unlike their ancestors, today’s eaters assume they won’t have to shed their food restrictions to widen their social circles or advance their careers. Their food culture emphasizes choice and customization. Hence the popularity of food halls (and dining out in general) and “build your own” food stations at parties.

Food is photogenic.

The enthusiasm for cooking and eating isn’t a complete escape from the digital world, of course. To the contrary, laughs Ayrouth, “we bring it right back with this culture of taking pictures of what we just did.” Decades ago, foodies were rare creatures telling tales of exotic travels and obscure restaurant finds. Today they’re an entire generation of Instagram and Snapchat devotees whose memories, stories, and crazy new food concepts take digital form. That’s where the idea of bright “unicorn” foods came from. Starbucks just grabbed onto it.

Social media rewards foods that either come beautifully plated or don’t require professional styling. An In-N-Out or Shake Shack burger looks the same in a patron’s Snapchat feed as it does in a company photograph. Bubbly drinks and beautiful views are also winners. So are customizable, signature items. The Afters Ice Cream milky bun -- a warm donut stuffed your choice of ice cream filling and assorted toppings -- is made for Instagram.

Photos are important for another reason: Food is ephemeral. It’s a tangible product that you literally consume. Only the memories -- and photos -- remain. That’s another reason food’s business importance is likely to grow. Food defies the sharing economy. Unlike a Rent-the-Runway dress or an Airbnb apartment, someone else can’t use your meal when you’re done with it. It’s gone.

Food businesses combine heritage and innovation.

The profusion of immigrant cuisines means one person’s comfort food is another’s exciting new discovery, with a near-infinite series of hybrids and fusions possible.

Take the New York-based startup Try the World, which sends subscribers curated packages of ingredients from 30 different countries. Founded in 2013, its sales doubled last year, to $14 million from $7 million in 2015. Its slogan is “Discover the world through food,” but its business has expanded beyond curious foodies. Walmart has tapped it to provide a reliable supply chain for foreign products.

“Our objective is to make basic food staples that people grew up with in their or their parents’ or grandparents’ countries available in convenient ways across the U.S.,” co-founder Kat Vorotova told Tanya Klich of Forbes. “If you come from Mexico, China or India, you’re looking for these authentic products. We look up to Walmart’s expansive distribution system which helps us serve these communities.” No snobbery there.

Food is fun.

For all the loud preaching about health and nutrition, food culture is about satisfaction and pleasure. Piper Jaffrey’s most recent study of U.S. teen spending, which found that food has surpassed clothing, also discovered -- no big surprise -- that “nutrition maintained its position as the lowest-ranked attribute of influence” on where teenagers eat. Social media photos are heavy on self-indulgence: jaw-stretching sandwiches, towering desserts, bubbly drinks.

Ayrouth contrasts the fading appeal of frozen yogurt with the rising popularity of ice cream. “We know it’s not healthy but it’s wholesome,” he says. Like a weirdly colored heirloom tomato, it is what it is, offering pleasure without pretense. Only a food snob would reduce the joys -- and profitable business concepts -- of 21st-century eating to elitist one-upmanship.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Virginia Postrel at vpostrel@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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