Even before 1864, when William Banting published his “Letter on Corpulence”—arguably the world’s first diet book—people around the world have been obsessed with health and diet. In 1028 AD, William the Conqueror touted his all-alcohol diet. Through the 70s and 80s, we had the hype of the Atkins diet. Today, there are expansive health communities heatedly arguing the benefits of Paleo, keto, and veganism. And at the heart of the debates, there’s growing food paranoia—the persistent fear that certain foods or food components make us unhealthy. 


According to Nielsen’sNielsen’s 2016 Global Health and Ingredient-Sentiment Survey, approximately 64% of respondents said they follow a diet that limits or prohibits the consumption of at least some foods or ingredients. Some of these limitations are for allergies and intolerances. But for many more, these restrictions are based on whatever’s trending in the wellness community. 


Defining food paranoia


As a desire to eat healthy becomes more mainstream, it’s getting harder to know what “healthy” even means. From morning talk show hosts and viral bloggers to nutritionists and scientists, everyone seems to have an opinion about what we should (and shouldn’t) be putting on our plates. The result: there’s a lot of apprehension, and even fear when it comes to eating.


“We’re a nation terrified by food,” journalist Anya Meyerowitz asserts in her article for Prima.


But what exactly are we terrified of? According to Nielsen, antibiotics and hormones are the most commonly avoided ingredients. Next up are artificial additives, including flavors, preservatives, and sweeteners. But natural sweeteners are not exempt either; 42% of consumers actively avoid sugar in their diets. And of course, today’s wellness trends include crusades against dairy, gluten, carbs, and everyone’s favorite food villain: GMOs


Of course, food paranoias and perceptions of what constitutes a healthy diet vary by region. For example, the number of Americans going gluten-free has tripled since 2009, whereas in Turkey, the average person eats three times their body weight in bread each year. But in the Western world, food paranoia is a growing concern with far-reaching implications. 


Jim White is a registered dietician, nutritionist, and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. In a recent Vice article, he notes, “People start to control their diet in ways that are not sustainable. We’re crossing off entire food groups now, as a society. Don’t eat dairy, don’t eat carbs. How realistic is that in our society?” 


Superfoods: the flip side of food paranoia


Food paranoia also contends with the belief that certain superfoods will make us healthy. Some holy grails of the clean eating world are currently sumac, hemp, and mushroom coffee. These are a far cry from the top “health foods” of the 80s: frozen yogurt, Lean Cuisine, and artificial sweeteners. 


Evolution of the egg 


Tasty, protein-dense superfood or fatty, cholesterol-laden timebomb? The egg perfectly illustrates how public perception impacts food. 


Throughout history, humans have eaten eggs. From the foraged wild eggs of our hunter-gatherer days to the domestication of chickens as long as 10,000 years ago, eggs have been a reliable source of calories, a reputed hangover cure, and even a symbol of life


Then, in the 1970s, doctors discovered that excess blood cholesterol led to a higher risk of heart disease. By extension, many concluded that eating high-cholesterol foods—butter, red meat, and yes, whole eggs—increased the risk of heart disease. This collective fear of unhealthy fats put eggs in the doghouse. During this time, we witnessed the birth of egg substitutes and the rise of egg whites.  


And now? Though there are lingering fears (mostly fueled by lack of information), eggs are on the rise again. One analysis of 17 studies on egg consumption and health found no connection between eggs and heart disease or stroke in otherwise healthy people. Today, many fitness communities consider them an essential superfood


Did the nutritional value of eggs change over the last fifty years? Of course not. But public perception did. 


The golden child of Western wellness: coconut oil 


Sometimes, public perception even overrides science. For years, coconut oil has been a star of the wellness world. Millions laud it as an immune system booster, digestive aid, and fat burner. It’s widely used as cooking oil, added to coffee, and even eaten by the spoonful as a daily supplement. Made from medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), coconut oil is processed differently than other fats. Or so the story goes. 


This view initially came from a Columbia University study in which participants ate meals prepared from 100 percent medium fatty acid chains. At the end of the study, their overall fat levels were lower, and they reported having more energy. The problem, of course, is that the coconut oil we buy at the store only contains 10 to 15 percent MCTs. And that percentage isn’t enough to outweigh the risks. Despite a 2017 warning from the American Heart Association, 7 out of 10 Americans still think of coconut oil as a health food. 


Walking the line between “clean” eating and orthorexia


In the 1990s, Dr. Stephen Bratman began noticing an uptick in patients who fixated on diet as the main component of wellness, sometimes to their own detriment. Because their eating habits were so deeply connected to their physical health and sense of self, they began to exhibit strange behaviors. 


Lauren Muhlheim, a certified eating disorder specialist and clinical psychologist writes, “These [behaviors] included an inability to share food with others; an inability to eat foods previously enjoyed; an identity wrapped up in food; and guilt, shame, and fear associated with straying from the diet.”


Dr. Bratman unofficially coined the term orthorexia nervosa while diagnosing these patients. Ortho means “right,” orexia means “hunger,” and nervosa means “fixation or desire.” While it is not an officially recognized eating disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition, the term refers to an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. 


It’s important to note that you probably don’t have orthorexia just because you practice veganism, eat gluten-free, or avoid dairy. According to Dr. Bratman, “People can adhere to just about any theory of healthy eating without having an eating disorder (with the only caveat that such a diet must provide adequate nutrients).” 


When healthy eating turns from a choice into a compulsion and leads to extreme calorie restriction—like the lemon detox diet—it crosses a line. 


The problem with food paranoia


Food paranoia, unless it crosses the line into compulsion, isn’t inherently bad for us as individuals. But the ripple effect of food paranoia harms communities on both a local and global scale. “While higher-income communities debate over ketogenic and vegan diets, many people are fighting just to be able to access healthy produce,” writes Shayla Love in an article for Vice


In the US alone, around 23.5 million people live in food deserts—areas without access to fresh produce. And 2.2 percent of US households live in low-income and rural areas more than 10 miles from the nearest supermarket. For these communities, arguments about the relative benefits of organic and non-organic fruit are pointless. Access to fresh food is the real problem. 


Golden rice


An even more striking example is the suppression of GM foods. In many countries, vitamin A deficiency kills as many 670,000 children under the age of 5. An additional 250,000 to 300,000 children go blind each year from the same deficiency. To address this global crisis, scientists developed a GM rice that contains 23 times more vitamin A than other kinds of rice. A single bowl of this beta-carotene enriched Golden Rice can supply 60 percent of a child’s daily requirement of vitamin A. Crisis averted, right?


Rob Saik, in his TEDTalk Pushing Boundaries in Agriculture, notes, “[Golden rice has] been sitting on the shelf since 2002 while organizations like Greenpeace actively campaign against its release.” Anti-GMO groups see Golden Rice as a “Trojan Horse,” opening the door for multinational corporations to control the food supply to developing countries. Or, even worse, opening the door to widespread acceptance of GMOs as a viable food source. 


“When Western concerns keep life-saving foods away from developing countries, we have a problem,” Northerly CEO, Clayton B. R. Wolfe, reiterates. “Communities who can afford organic produce and trendy superfoods need to understand what a luxury that is.” 


The negative impact of the superfood obsession


Food paranoia hinges on the idea that certain foods are inherently bad for our health. But it also glorifies certain superfoods as inherently good for us. Many attribute the superfood phenomenon to our desire for a quick fix or “magic pill” that will keep us healthy. From acai and kale to quinoa and avocados, superfoods supposedly fight disease, ward off aging, and turn us into fat-burning machines. Unfortunately, these claims are often overblown and rarely supported by science. Even worse? The Western world’s superfood obsession is taking a toll on the planet. 


These superfoods tend to be exotic plants—goji berries from China, acai and quinoa from South America, coconut and durian from Southeast Asia. And transporting them has considerable environmental impacts. In fact, a diet of mostly imported products can use four times as much energy (and produce four times as many emissions) as eating locally. 


Just as harmful are the impacts on local economies and ecosystems. The rising popularity of quinoa has caused many Andean farmers to abandon seed biodiversity in favor of growing high-earning export crops. According to NPR, this could spell trouble for quinoa’s future, and the communities that rely on it. Plus, by growing the same boom crop year after year, quinoa growers have negatively impacted soil fertility while increasing farmland erosion in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru. 


The popularity of avocados has had a similarly detrimental effect on the planet. In South America, production has rocketed, from 9,000 acres planted with avocado trees in 1993, to 71,000 acres in 2014. Unfortunately, avocados need vast amounts of water and are linked to unprecedented droughts where they’re grown in Chile, Mexico, and California.


The negative impact of veganism


But surely veganism—with its cruelty-free, plant-based approach to eating—would make the world a better place if adopted on a global scale? Not for the millions of exploited farmworkers trying to keep up with growing demands. Examples of non-animal products strongly linked to labor abuse and exploitation are soy, rice from India, tea, coffee, cashew nuts, sugar, strawberries, melons, citrus fruits, bananas, and cocoa.


Making a case for sustainability


There’s one thing we can all agree on: today’s health-conscious eaters need access to fresh, whole foods. The real villains when it comes to rising rates of obesity, heart disease, and cholesterol aren’t the foods humans have been eating for centuries. It’s the processing, preservatives, and additives we use to make foods shelf-stable, in combination with increasingly sedentary lifestyles. 


Instead of hyper-focusing on one component of food (gluten, dairy, even lecithins), we need to return to sustainably grown, whole foods. As we use science and technology to move towards zero-waste agriculture, we’ll see substantial improvements to global health. 


Return to the days of food discovery—


We believe food should be a joy, not a stress. Instead of limiting ourselves, we want to creatively and informedly expand our food options. Northerly also has a mission to improve accessibility and return to a spirit of discovery. We’re here to reconnect people with their food and educate them about how food is grown, harvested, and processed. By focusing on the food system as a whole, we believe we can debunk myths that lead to food paranoia and keep consumers at the center of the food system.


food paranoia