Food Elites: A Taxonomy

This post continues Casual Kitchen's periodic discussion of consumer empowerment.

When it comes to the food and consumer products environment, there are all sorts of forces, both visible and not-so-visible, influencing what we see and what we buy--and even how we think. Today I'm going to talk about two types of elites who play a surprisingly large role in our consumption decisions.

These elites come in two primary flavors: Tastemakers and Regulators.

Tastemakers influence us by showing us what we should like. Here's one possible example of how this influence can play out: Imagine you're over at your wine snob friend's home, and he shows you an expensive California cabernet he just bought. While he's talking about it, he casually mentions "this wine got a 93 score in Wine Spectator Magazine!"

There's a delicate fiction here: As much as your neighbor wants to think he's thinking for himself, the opposite is true: he was told. He was told what to think and what to buy. It happened by the following chain of events:

1) Winemakers make a wine designed to "ace the test" (in other words, they construct wines that wine scorers tend to rate highly).

2) Wine retailers publicize high scoring wines and generally charge higher prices for them.

3) Your wine snob friend sees the score and high price (high score + high price = must be good) and instantly "likes" the wine.

This is Tastemaking. As Pavlovian as this process may sound, it actually meets everyone's needs. Your neighbor receives ego gratification and identity construction as a successful person with excellent taste. The retailer and the winemaker receive... more money. Voila, everybody's happy.* Of course, it goes without saying that the reason you are shown this wine, and the very reason you're inclined to like it, is the same reason you pay a higher price for it.

Wine isn't the only realm where Tastemaking happens, it simply offers us a blatant example of elites doing our choosing for us. In fact, Tastemaking occurs throughout the consumer products industry and throughout nearly every life domain, from automobiles to vacation destinations, even the universities your children attend. Tastemakers brand, rate, rank and attach aspirational qualities to all of these things in a wide range of ways, all of which impact our choices, decisions and purchases. And we play along--a lot more than we'd like to think.

And let's also admit: at times Tastemaking can produce amazing products. We might laugh at the millions of hipsters sleeping out for the next iWhatever, but then again, it pays to remember the well-known Steve Jobs' quote "people don't know what they want until you show them."

Of course if it were up to me, I'd hope truly conscious consumers (like readers here at Casual Kitchen) would detect the implicit condescension in Jobs' statement rather than mindlessly "aspire" to his company's products.

Okay, let's move on to the second form of food elite: the Regulator.

Rather than telling us to what to like, Regulators tell us what's good for us--whether we like it or not. In the world of food, Regulator elites could be people like Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, Michele Simon, or former FDA Commissioner David Kessler.

Regulators often use a rhetorical tactics to try to convince us, saying things like:

This is healthy/better for you.
This is better policy.
This is better for the environment.
This is better for society, or better for the poor.
This is morally/ethically superior.

Regulators often attempt to influence the government to pass laws and regulations to get us to do what's good for us, even to protect us from our own stupidity. And this isn't a bad thing at all, not even close. After all, we have Regulators to thank for things like seat belts, food ingredient labels, nutritional information and so on.

However, there are periodic examples where Regulators overstep themselves in a tone-deaf and deeply condescending manner. New York City's failed "large soda" ban is a textbook example here: one well-known Regulator wanted this ban so badly that she lost control of her own logic centers. This is the type of food elitism that books like The Food Police criticize, and justifiably so.

Interestingly, certain food elites are both Tastemakers and Regulators. Michael Pollan, for example, uses his column in the New York Times to advocate for food and ag policy, while in his books he offers endless elite Tastemaking examples, telling us about the pork shoulder he buys from local pigs lovingly grown and "finished on acorns," or lecturing readers on the near-immorality of microwave ovens. Here at Casual Kitchen we teased Pollan for his pretensions, but elsewhere many listen... and imitate.

So, readers: is all this bothersome to you? Is the subtext from elites like these--that they know better than we do--at all frustrating, even condescending? If so, then why do so many people obey, and think they're thinking for themselves when they do so?

Readers, what do you think?

* Well, not quite everyone. Consider the unintended consequence of any widely accepted scoring system: producers produce not for consumers, but for the scorers. This helps explain why American reds are all "big" and why American chardonnays tend to be over-oaked and over-buttered. A system built around widely publicized wine scores isn't designed to help the consumer looking for interesting or original wines sold at a good value.

Read Next: How to Give Away Your Power By Being a Biased Consumer

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Anonymous said...

On tastemakers - many people do not know what good wine tastes like. If there is even one definition of good.

So tastemakers (& the scores) can help a person make a good/palatable choice.

I prefer cider myself & luckily the local producers have tastings so that I can buy what I like.

Stuart Carter said...

I find wine ratings to be severely suspect, considering the many documented cases where the same wine has been rated wildly differently by the self-appointed experts in the wine field.

At least the beer ratings sites are rated by people who pay for their product! And, as Daniel knows, I think beer is superior to wine anyway ;)

Wet Coasters said...

This type of marketing doesn't bother me because I think I can see through it. Typically, I don't buy products I see advertised, I buy the 'other' one. For example, Michelin tires are constantly advertised on TV and newspaper, and people are reminded that they are the 'best'. So they will pay the most for them. But if you do your research, you can find tires that will do the job equally well for a lot less money.
It is human nature to want to be like the 'elites', so if they tell us they know more or know better than us, we are apt to believe them. I have a good laugh at all the funny things they say (example Dr Oz)! My policy is never believe anything an 'elite' says.

chacha1 said...

I solve the problem by not reading opinion-based commentary e.g. "nonfiction" and confusing it with established fact.

I like nonfiction that is about how things work or what actually happened. I would not go to a lobbying organization for information on good nutrition any more than I would go to a random person I don't know (e.g. Michael Pollan) for information on the "best" pig to buy.

Opinion-based commentary should be read strictly for entertainment, IMO. If people take away an interesting idea or what seems to be a provocative fact, they are best served by then seeking out actual research. It's quite easy to do, these days.

I consider anything that appears in a blog (with all due respect to Dan, who knows I love him - I expect my own readers to address what I write with the same large chunk of salt) or anything that appears in an Internet "news" outlet to be 70-80% opinion until proven otherwise.

With regard to taste ... it's SUBJECTIVE.