Who is cooking our recipe books?

A subtle marketing drive is changing our food habits and we do not even know it

In a recent television programme, the anchor asked the young audience in the studio if they loved junk food. All yelled, “Yes.” Then he asked if they ate junk food because they were guided by celebrities who endorsed it. All yelled, “No.” This only tells me how subtle—indeed subliminal—is the marketing drive that is changing our food habits and we do not even know it.

These foods are rich in sugar, salt and fats, ingredients that are addictive. It is no surprise then that this food is responsible for ill-health across the world. After all, industry is about profit, not health. We have allowed our takeover.

This is not accidental or incidental. The food industry has a game plan, of which we are unwitting participants. Read the excellent account of the food transition in the US, captured in the book, Salt, Sugar and Fat, by New York-based writer Michael Moss. The plot is revealed. As Moss explains, it was in the mid to late fifties when food giants decided that the key word for them to change people’s eating habits was “convenience”. Their obstacle to the “social transmutation was the army of school teachers and federal outreach workers who insisted on promoting home-cooked meals”. This was a time in the US when the state agriculture departments had extension services to teach homemakers the ins and outs of gardening, canning and meal planning with nutrition in mind. Home economics was taught in colleges.

This was also a time when the feminist movements were on the rise. Much like tobacco companies, food companies also found this a great platform—women who returned home after a gruelling day at work only to find that they had to cook and care for husbands and children. Both industries capitalised on this by promoting “liberation” of smoking and not cooking. This was also the time when television was making inroads into homes. Evenings were too precious to “waste” on cooking and cleaning.

The food industry, explains Moss, made two cunning manoeuvres to draw women into their fold. One, they created their own army of home economics teachers. Bright and fashionable, these women would set up their own cooking contests. By 1957, US multinational General Foods had 60 of these home economists on its payroll. These women worked with the company and promoted its products, pushing the idea of convenience. Two, to compete with home-cooking promoted at that time by a woman called Betty Dickson, who worked with the American Home Economics Association, the industry brought in its own substitute, Betty Crocker. This friendly but sophisticated food icon was created by the advertising department of Washburn Crosby, which later became General Mills, another US food giant.

Betty Crocker never slept, says Moss. She became the face of the food mix, which were sold as grand time savers. The age of processed and convenience food had been ushered in, and it took over the American family life. 

This was not all. According to Moss’s research, food industry had another insidious plan. They needed to take over and destroy the home economics profession. To do this, they funnelled funds—Moss says that in 1957 alone General Foods gave US $288,250 for grants and fellowships to the association of home economics. This partnership led to the gradual reshaping of the organisation so that it became pro-industry. Soon the profession died. In 1959, Time magazine did a long article on convenience foods and sold them as “modern living”, which was all about “just heat and serve”. Food had been revolutionised. It was now processed and pre-cooked. Industry had changed our habits without our knowing it.

This “change” in our food habits has continued. Since the seventies, the food industry has introduced new habits. Again, by design. First came sugar, and lots of it, then came salt and then snacks. All these habits have been created. We are the products of the makers of designer food. Our takeover is so complete that we do not even know it happened.

Now we need to fight back to reclaim our food and our habits. The only way to do so is to rediscover food as pleasure and be thrilled, not just by its smells and tastes, but also by the knowledge it embodies. This is what our First Food series of books is all about.

Betty Crocker, who captured stores with convenience foods, needs to be reinvented. This time, as someone who captures kitchens with our grandmother’s or mother’s recipes. We need to look for the seeds, stems, leaves and flowers that would make up our daily food. Watch this space for information about our new book, First Food: Culture of Taste, which will bring this culinary world to you.