April 14, 2024

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Food for thought: how TV cooking shows influence the way we eat | Food TV

5 min read

Four million viewers are tuning into the Great British Bake Off every week as it returns with its 14th season. It’s entertaining, but is it more than that? If the old adage holds that we are what we eat, are we also what we watch on TV?

Researchers agree on the power TV has to shape what we eat. Studies have shown that cooking shows not only influence how healthy our diets are, but also our food preferences. Frans Folkvord, a professor at Tilburg University in the Netherlands who has conducted research on this topic, says it’s about “priming” certain foods and “modeling behavior”.

When it comes to popular cooking competition shows – most of which revolve around preparing enormous quantities of desserts or meat – this influence can be problematic.

Take, for example, the recent season of Top Chef: Houston. Nearly every winning dish featured meat, from braised pot roast to pork tenderloin, brisket curry and Mongolian lamb. Similarly, on the most recent full season of Chopped – the Food Network show on which contestants have to prepare dishes on the fly out of often bizarre combinations of ingredients – all 13 episodes featured at least one red meat ingredient, including bison, elk, lamb, boar, pork and, of course, beef. Even in the dessert rounds, contestants were tasked with turning pork floss, rotisserie chicken, hangover burger, pork neck bones, ham and bologna into something sweet.

“It’s very strange on a show like that for there to be any challenges that don’t have to do with meat,” said Alicia Kennedy, author of the new book No Meat Required: The Cultural History and Culinary Future of Plant-Based Eating. “It’s very much ingrained that meat is part of a good meal and that really goes unquestioned for the most part.”

The US is the world’s biggest consumer of beef, and annual per-capita meat consumption is up to about 274lb a year – eating habits that are helping to drive the climate crisis.

But does what we see on TV determine what we eat, or is TV reflecting the eating culture we already have?

It works both ways, experts say, with television both creating and reflecting our food culture. It’s raised our expectations by bringing restaurant-level food into our homes while celebrating (and capitalizing on) the food we’re already eating. “You eat what you aspire to be,” said Fabio Parasecoli, a professor of food studies at New York University. If that’s a cosmopolitan, then your food choices will probably reflect the refined pastries you see on Bake Off. If that’s the average Joe, then it might be the burgers Guy Fieri devours on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.


Cooking competition shows made their first US appearance when the Food Network began airing the Japanese program Iron Chef in 1999. Within a year, it was the most watched show on the network.

Before that, the Food Network had aired mostly daytime cooking shows – the kind that teach you how to prepare a recipe for your family. At that point, the network’s viewers were mostly women. But because the network relied on advertising revenue, says Emily Contois, a professor at the University of Tulsa and author of Diners, Dudes and Diets: How Gender and Power Collide in Food Media and Culture, “they had to garner a more gender-balanced audience”. The competition show, which wasn’t just about feeding your family, but winning a timed battle in the heat of the kitchen, drew in male viewers overnight.

By 2006, Bravo had debuted its own cooking competition, Top Chef, and in 2009 the Food Network began airing Chopped and Cupcake Wars. The success of those shows may in part have been helped by the 2008 recession, when more men found themselves unemployed and taking on more domestic responsibilities, and by the 2007-2008 Writers Guild of America strike, when TV networks shifted towards reality television shows in the absence of scripted programs.

Baking shows – and the sugary treats they specialize in – have been central to the Food Network and other channels from the early days of Cake Boss and Cupcake Wars to the more recent airings of Nailed It! and Sugar Rush. Since those shows first began airing, in 2009, American sugar consumption has gone up by about 1m metric tons a year.

While cooking competition shows can reinforce some of Americans’ worst eating habits, they can also serve to expand viewers’ culinary horizons in important ways.

Kennedy pointed to the vegan chef Chloe Coscarelli. When she first appeared on Cupcake Wars in 2009, the judge Candace Nelson expressed her shock, saying: “I was surprised at the bravery and boldness to parade four different flavors of vegan cupcakes in front of the judges when everyone else was clearly going to be working with butter and eggs.”

But Coscarelli won – making her the first vegan chef to win any cooking competition show. Since then, competitions focusing specifically on vegan food, like Peeled and High Cuisine have hit the air. And some hosts (even unlikely ones, like Guy Fieri) are increasingly praising vegan cuisine instead of treating vegan chefs like exotic exceptions. Kennedy says representation can shape what viewers purchase when they go to the grocery store. Cooking shows “definitely have an effect on what people consider a good meal, a decent meal, or something fulfilling”.

In the same way, experts say cooking competition shows can broaden our palates.

Take, for example, last season’s Bake Off winner, Syabira Yusoff, a Malaysian chef who impressed judges with south-east Asian flavors, preparing dishes like coconut, pandan and caramel mousse cake, satay macarons and Malaysian prawn sambal pizza.

Some cooking shows “create a connection by understanding how [others] eat and enjoy food”, said Alison Alkon, a food studies professor at the University of California Santa Cruz.

When those global foodways are celebrated, especially on social media, Parasecoli says they can create a foodie culture that viewers aspire to copy – what he calls an “aesthetic regime”.

While cooking competition shows may influence our diets in a variety of ways, there’s one way in which they don’t. Research suggests that just because we’re watching others cook on TV it doesn’t mean we’re cooking more ourselves. In fact, as cooking competition viewership has risen over the past two decades, the rate of people cooking regularly at home has fallen.

“At the very least, you would expect that [cooking’s] rapid disappearance from everyday life might leave us feeling nostalgic for the sights and smells and the sociality of the cook-fire,” the food writer Michael Pollan wrote in a 2009 article for the New York Times. “Bobby Flay and Rachael Ray may be pushing precisely that emotional button.”

Whether or not this latest season of Bake Off leaves you wanting to preheat your own oven, maybe you’ll walk away more thoughtful about what it left you craving.

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