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Fear of Food: What Social Media “Lets” Us Eat

Artificial food coloring.

Artificial sweeteners. 

Sodium nitrate.

Seed oils.

Red 40.


Every day the list of ingredients to avoid and the fear of food seems to grow, partially thanks to widespread social media videos by health influencers who garner hundreds of thousands of views walking around grocery stores telling you what is “okay” and “not okay” to eat. Some of these substances might not be the most beneficial for a healthy diet, but they are a major part of the food ecosystem many Americans contend themselves with. Many low-cost food products include these “off-limit” foods because food manufacturers are able to make them shelf-stable, long-lasting, and generally cheaper.


But following the word of these health gurus turns going to the grocery store into a battleground, engulfed in food paranoia and fear of food that feeds into larger anxieties about what is healthy or even safe for consumption. The uptick in food fear-mongering and the misinformation or over-exaggeration of claims online about the toxicity of certain foods not only promotes fear and confusion in consumers but can lead to a much more dangerous path for people who are already vulnerable to dysfunctional eating disorders.


What’s Behind the Fears in the First Place?


The fear of food and what big food companies implement into our diets are not new. 


Time and time again, experts draw the link between public health and private corporations, highlighting how modern food companies are inserting more salt, sugar, and fat into their processed foods to sell more products and hook people on their unhealthy foods. Ultra-processed foods, like candy, soft drinks, instant noodles, mass-produced bread, and more have been shown to stimulate neural circuits in the same way the addictive properties of recreational drugs would, though to a fraction of the effect. Many critics emphasize moderation or avoidance altogether as a way to protect the overall health of a person’s diet, given that food manufacturers engineer these products to be cheaper, tastier, and more rewarding to the taste buds of the consumer.


But these ultra-processed products are widespread and well-known, making them harder to avoid in the average grocery run. Candy and beverage companies like Coca-Cola and Nestlé are some of the biggest in the world, dominating the food and drink sector. And the bigger the corporation, the larger the fear.


Many consumers believe that the bigger the company and the bigger the market share, the less likely the interests of the consumers are to be upheld. Consumers understandably have concerns about what’s listed in the ingredients and what goes into food, as buying any product requires them to trust that it’s made safely and healthily. But when that relationship becomes skewed or breaks down, skeptical customers believe that a company may prioritize profit over food safety, leading to a heavy layer of distrust.


Processed Food, Real Fears


As more modern food products become highly modified, engineered, and processed, the fear of the unknown in turn amplifies the fear of food. A perceived lack of transparency and illegibility of chemical components in food has become the highest concern among North American consumers, according to a 2023 global survey by Corbion.


Even though many unpronounceable chemical compounds (like phenylalanine, hexadecanoic, and isoleucine just to name a few!) are found in natural foods like cherries and bananas, the lack of clear understanding of what these chemicals do or mean compared to easily understood, “readable” natural ingredients leads many to see these products as hiding a secret danger. 


Combine this distrust with the sensationalization of food fear-mongering claims online and well, you have a recipe for disaster.


Online Over-Exaggeration and Dramatization


Let’s focus on a few of the food fear videos many influencers are levying on platforms such as TikTok, where the rate of information exposure to millions of people can be astonishingly quick. 


Take this highly-stylized, well-edited clip produced by Steven Bartlett, a podcaster with a combined follower count of over 5.2 million across just TikTok and Instagram alone.


In the clip mentioned above, Bartlett interviews Dr. Chris van Tulleken, a doctor and popular broadcaster who works with infectious diseases and has written before on the nature of ultra-processed foods and their mark on the food industry. 


Tulleken describes a challenge where he switched his diet to a majority of super-processed foods, a diet he calls “very normal for a British person.” After an unspecified amount of time, he says he gained noticeable weight and felt anxious and tired, and had he continued the diet for a year, alludes to his own demise. 


The remainder of the video descends into alarmist points on how the food industry is controlling what we eat and how much we eat, engineering a “pandemic of diet-related diseases” that will cause future generations to lose centimeters off their height and years of their lives. The polished transitions and chopped bullet points conceal legitimate concerns about the excessive infusion of sugar and fat into common diets today, and how these contribute to health problems. However, the average viewer does not perceive this as the main take-home message.


Fear of Food Dialled Up to 11


Watching a video like this doesn’t aim to encourage adopting healthier lifestyles with reduced reliance on highly processed foods; instead, it seeks to instill fear about a significant aspect of people’s lives and compel them to listen to the “real” experts – individuals online who capture their attention and compel them to listen.


Another popular health-guru and bodybuilder Eddie Abbew has centered his content around calling out items in the grocery store, drawing tens of millions of views on his most viral videos. In one clip, he compares warning young kids about drugs and alcohol to warning them about packages of cookies, claiming on the whole that the processed sweets will kill and hurt more people than drugs and alcohol do.


Both of these videos aim to induce fear, emphasizing how little the average person considers their diet and promoting panic and alarm about the industries that supposedly coerce them to eat.


It motivates the viewer with anxiety, a worry that their grasp or control on what they’re really putting into their bodies is not up to them. Instead, according to these online sources, it’s up to the whims of multinational food industry titans who want them addicted to eating their processed foods.


These types of videos that drive fear of food lead to many viewers doubting themselves and feeling guilty about the food they eat, with the clips painting a grim picture of a world that has eliminated their potential to lead healthy lives. After watching the videos myself, I couldn’t help but feel a bit of weight in my mind, questioning if I had made the best decisions in the grocery store this week.


Even More Eating Disorder Guilt 


It can lead to an even greater spiral for those who may already be intensely preoccupied with what foods may be “safe” or “unsafe” to eat. The inundation of videos dictating what you can or cannot eat can drive a restrictive person to intensify their restrictions, meticulously counting calories and scrutinizing ingredient labels on every food item until obsession replaces healthy awareness.


Someone with an eating disorder or in eating disorder recovery may already feel guilty for ingesting these types of snacks or candies and might feel even worse about themselves, negating any good feelings they receive from eating food and twisting them to be hyperconscious and hypernegative about how bad they’re eating and how terrible they are for consuming such detrimental foods. It accelerates the ingrained fear of food and paranoia, exasperating thoughts of what might happen to them or their bodies if they eat something “not allowed.”


Eating good food is a critical component of leading a healthy life, but twisting nutrition from a positive experience, one that nourishes you and provides for your capability for a good life, to a pathological one, focused solely on seeing food as a source of danger that must be controlled without mistake, only serves to feed maladaptive behaviors that end up deteriorating your health in the long run. 


Don’t Feel Ashamed to Enjoy the Food You Eat


There’s already so much guilt and shame out there associated with food, and social media’s way of perpetuating these feelings and broadcasting them magnifies them to an even greater degree. Constant scaremongering about and driving fear of food only fuels reactive and unhealthy attitudes, leading to rigid restrictions with entire categories of food being marked off or restricted and feelings of inadequacy for eating these “forbidden foods.”


Instead, focus on moderation. It’s okay to enjoy treats like chocolate or soda without feeling like you’re “cheating.” Strive for balance by being mindful of foods high in sugar, salt, or other components unhealthy in excess. This approach allows for a realistic, guilt-free relationship with food.


We shouldn’t view food as something to control like an adversary. Prioritize understanding what nourishes your body and mind, rather than succumbing to internet food fear-mongering that can lead to restrictive and obsessive eating habits. While it’s important to be aware of what you consume for your health, don’t let it consume you. 


Finding balance in a way where you know what to eat to give you energy and wholeness while enjoying other foods not just for their maximum potential nutritional value is okay. Live your desired life without letting others shame you into it, and disregard the noise of food fears and negativity.

With Peace,

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