The Power of Words: How We Talk About Food

Nutrition FactsLast month, linguist Dan Jurafsky came out with a book called The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu. In it, he explores everything from language choices that distinguish cheap restaurant menus from more expensive ones to the kinds of vowels marketers use in naming food products (e.g. short vowels for crispy Ritz or Cheez-Its, or longer vowels for rich Jamoca or Almond Fudge). In another linguistically focused mindbender (published last year), David Chen, a behavioral economist, found that people who spoke a language like English that was “futured” (a language that includes a distinct future tense through the use of helping verbs, for example, such as “I will —”) as a whole saved less money and practiced fewer lifestyle behaviors that supported future health than societies whose languages don’t have a future tense (generally collapsing it with the present tense as German does). (PDF) It’s the kind of seemingly irrelevant detail that ultimately stuns in its demonstration of how subtle cultural and linguistic patterns really do pervade our collective thinking and communication in ways we’re wholly unaware of. As Chen himself was quoted, “Why is it that we allow subtle nudges of our language to affect our decision making?”

If details as understated as those mentioned can (apparently) hold sway over our thinking, what about the more obvious blasts of influence? Regardless of your thoughts about the above research, clearly how we talk about food affects our relationship to it.

Sure, it works on a societal level. Consider the common phrasing we’re all exposed to every day, such as the snack attack, cheat day or guilty pleasure? What about treating yourself? What about “king” size? On a branded note, what about Happy Meal or Weight Watchers? (Am I the only one who looks at this name and is bothered by the seeming identification with unrelenting vigilance?) Let alone “part of a well-balanced diet”… What phrases am I missing here?

While we may over time disown those phrases from our own vocabulary, do they ever wholly lose their influence? What lingers longer than we’d care to admit?

Simultaneously, I’m curious about how our penchant for measuring, quantifying (and thereby justifying) our food impacts our perception. Beyond the screaming labels defining “snack size” or “guilt-free” (my personal favorite), there are the charts and lists themselves – the numbers and RDA percentages parsed out in grids that should help us make the “best” decisions. While the fresh, unpackaged food generally doesn’t carry such labels, the concept, I’d argue, is part of our consciousness. On some level, it all runs together in our minds. What’s the impact of viewing food through a nutritional grid? While it’s not exactly the “nudges of language,” there’s a message.

Whether it’s the lengthy ingredient lists and nutritional charts on food packaging, never before have we had so much technical “information” about our food in the sense that our knowledge of it has become so stunningly intellectualized. We know the breakdown of calories and fat grams and vitamin percentages. What does it mean for our relationship to that food – or to food in general – when much of our understanding of it is encapsulated by technical charts (in addition to marketing label cliques)?

The irony of this intellectualization (and probably the explanation for it) is that we’ve never been so disconnected from our food.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s the farm-to-table movement in all its variations: CSAs, cow-shares, community gardens, homesteading, farm-sourced restaurants, etc. On a humorous note, I think of a Portlandia episode (the only one I believe I’ve ever watched) that took a joking stab at how much intimate detail about animals’ personal lifestyles a farm-sourced restaurant should be able to offer its diners.

Perhaps, wanting to believe our food has been coddled with unmatched care is an inevitable reaction to the standard of viewing food as engineered product easily broken down into quantifiable nutritional equations and pre-packaged portions. As idiosyncratic as it is, it’s an improvement in the big picture despite the available humor.

For our ancestors, their food was their immediate environment. They saw their leaves, fruits and tuber greens growing amid the vegetation of their everyday landscape. They knew exactly how their meat sources lived because they shared the same general territory. They observed these herds intently, passed on stories of the animals’ migrations, and even painted pictures of them on cave walls. They tracked and, on unfortunate occasion, stepped in their scat each day. Or maybe collected it for burning. There wasn’t likely much sentimentality, but there was an intimate knowing.

Even then it wasn’t about “source” specifically. Seriously, how many “sources” were there? It wasn’t a matter of choice or “grade” but proximity. There was no sense of calories, macro- or micronutrients. Is our thinking in objective measurements eventually another modern distortion like the marketing claims or mental games of treating ourselves?

What other subtle linguistic or even seemingly scientific influences might be holding us back in some unrecognized way? However much we know about what to eat, how we talk about eating itself introduces new, perhaps half-conscious, layers to the question of mindset. Knowledge, it seems, may not always trump our associations.

Thanks for reading today, everyone. What are your thoughts on how we talk about food and eating? How has your language around food changed in obvious or subtle ways since going Primal? Have a good end to the week.

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TAGS:  marketing

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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65 thoughts on “The Power of Words: How We Talk About Food”

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  1. Huge disconnect from food is understated. I think all children should experience planting, nuturing, and harvesting a garden. Even more so now given how(thankfully) technology allows us to instantly interface with the world. A recent headline stated that iPads are toy du jour for toddlers. That is cool, but one cannot insta-grow a carrot. (If you could, would you eat it?)

  2. I love this topic! The way we talk influences everything from subtle mood shifts to, as you say here, how/what we eat and subsequently how healthy we are. I think what we see today is the culmination of advertisers being good at their jobs- for most people it’s no longer about the food, but the tagline. (“Guilt-free” is the one that bugs me most)

  3. One clear example is the use of the word “natural” as if to imply that product is better because it is natural. Uranium is natural too, but I wouldn’t want to crumble it on my greek yogurt. Theoretically, you could buy “natural” candy that was made with “natural” sugar and you would still get “naturally” fat and diabetic.

    1. +1. That ‘natural’ label is one of my big pet peeves too!

      We use REAL CHEESE is another. (and there real cheese is also crap).

    1. Also, this brings up an interesting point about sharing our good fortune with others. I mentioned this in my Success Story article; it is natural for us to want to share the information we’ve gleaned with people we care about so they, too, can benefit from it. But food, particularly eating, is such a personal thing. It is part of our identities in many cases and when it comes to identification with our personas, all bets are off. Hence why politics and religion are such a careful topic of conversation. I think we underestimate how identified we are with food. This article speaks to that as well. It has cultural significance and impact. For me, personally, once I convinced my brain to consider my food as fuel and/or medicine, it became much easier to eat healthy. Then, when I get to enjoy cooking and tasting, it’s all bonus! But I shudder to think of the reaction of folks to hearing “yep, just think of your food as medicine and/or fuel and everything we go swimmingly”… . SO, now I have tried and tried different approaches to keep food in peoples’ minds as something they can still find great enjoyment in, yet garner the health benefits from. I won’t even begin to get into trying to explain and convince people of their overwhelming addiction to sugar. Marketing is effective, it’s not a new business, they know what they’re doing. If we can get people to wake up to the propagandizing, they may see it in a different light and a new conversation begins. And that is where we sit. Here. Now. It’s spreading, thanks to people like Mark and us, his “loyal army” (lol). Keep at it folks!!

      Grok on!

  4. I don’t think you need to talk about food. You just need to understand it. Corporate marketing successfully pitches junk food to people who know nothing about nutrition and don’t want to be bothered learning about it. To such people, food is food. It’s purpose is to taste good and keep their stomachs from growling. Good nutrition? They’ve never heard of it. Diabetes? Heart disease? Nah, that only happens to other people.

    Those of us who do understand the importance of healthy eating mostly stick with fresh whole foods that we cook ourselves. On the rare occasion that we buy something in a jar, we read the label. (Some convenience foods do contain good ingredients without added chemicals and preservatives, but they are in the minority and they’re expensive.) Anything not meeting with our approval goes back on the shelf. I doubt that many of us who are regulars on MDA are swayed by seductive advertising and catchy phrases.

  5. Ah this is why Coca-Cola want to put our names on their bottles- now that we’ve all become disconnected with real food, let’s really start to identify with its replacement…

  6. It’s interesting. I never really thought about the lingo beyond the obvious marketing ploys. It makes a great deal of sense though. The most effective manipulation is that which you are unaware of. I see this in the customer base where I work all the time. It’s almost a hypnotic suggestion since it bypasses most of the mental filters.

  7. Great topic!

    The thing that jumped out at me most was this sentence: “ere wasn’t likely much sentimentality, but there was an intimate knowing.” How did we become so sentimental and ritualistic about food? I’m all for having it be a pleasurable experience, but when that becomes an obsession (i.e. we can’t give up certain pleasant items when health would dictate we should), we’re missing the point. Which is, I supposed, the point of this thought provoking article.

    I have a couple of favorite marketing phrases. 1) “heart healthy,” usually applied to some whole grain item or item with some dubious whole grain percentage.

    2) From our regional grocery chain, the FYFGA label (Food You Feel Good About). This one strikes me as both misleading, since of course there are some questionable ingredients included in FYFGA labeled items, and of course, how are we supposed to feel about the huge number of items that don’t rate the special labeling, and should we even be eating them?

    Happy Thursday!

  8. Some language that really helped me when I was leaning down to compete – it required a lot of discipline, was when my trainer referred to what I was doing as change my “nutrition plan” vs. my diet. The idea of a plan for good nutrition actually made the planning pleasureable and I found that I got quite creative with flavors from herbs and spices that only contributed good things to my nutrition plan.

    Although I no longer compete I still take pleasure in making a weekly nutrition plan and seeing how creative I can be with interesting combinations of whole foods and trying new flavors.

    Language really does influence our perspective and our emotional reactions to almost everything. Very provocative post Mark. Thank you.

  9. Don’t forget how advertisers get us to remember by singing about their food, making it ours and a part of us! That’s a separate pathway in the brain and it is very powerful. I can still regurgitate the 40 year old jingles; look how sick are the lyrics:

    “Oh I wish I were an Oscar-Meyer wiener! That is what I truly want to be…”

    “Hold the pickles! Hold the lettuce! Special orders don’t upset us! All we ask is that you let us serve it your way! Have it your way!…at Burger King you can have it your way”

    “You, you’re the one…you are the only reason! You, you’re the one…we take pride in pleasing. You’re why our quality’s high/price is low….because you deserve a break today…at McDonalds, we do it all for you!”

    “I drink Dr. Pepper and I’m proud. I’m part of an original crowd. And if you look around these days, there seems to be a Dr. Pepper craze! Oh I’m a Pepper she’s a Pepper, he’s a Pepper they’re a Pepper–wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper too! Be a Pepper, drink Dr. Pepper…be yourself”

    I’m sorry I can’t give you more up to date versions but I haven’t watched a commercial in years. Thank goodness. Argh, now I’m hearing “If you want a better car go see Cal!” (and his dog Spot!) in my head. (It’s an old commercial local to Southern California)

    1. And Cal’s dog Spot was a cheetah or cougar wasn’t it? Wow, that was a blast from the past.

    2. One thing I’ve noticed about commercials recently is that jingles are history, at least in national commercials. The last one I remember hearing was a Bud Light “Real Men of Genius” (hey, I watch football, it’s kind of hard to avoid beer commercials) but even that’s been a few years.

  10. Heart Healthy.

    This is on lots of food and restaurant products. When I was deep into CW before I swallowed the Red LCHF pill, I would dutifully pick only Subway sandwiches that were ‘heart healthy’. When scarfing down that ‘lovely’ bread, pesticide laden veggies, and so wholesome ‘meat’ like stuff.

    Makes me shudder.

    Ironically through my dramatic health transformation I don’t read labels anymore. Read them all the time as a CWer. Fat lot of good that did me. Of course 95% plus of my food now doesn’t even have labels, but the few semi-processed stuff that does I only really check carbs. Like dark chocolate. I don’t calorie count either.

    1. Right! If there’s a nutrition label on it, then it’s in a box, and most of the time it’s not the best choice for your body. Primal takes care of that problem, although it presents others. For example, my slow-to-convert husband always complains if any of our food goes bad–I’m like,’s going bad because it was fresh in the first place! Pretty simple to keep boxed-up, dead “food” stable in the pantry…

    2. Yes the whole “make sure you read the label” campaign has the effect of influencing people to avoid real whole foods, because they don’t have a label! How sick is that?

      1. Don’t whole foods have labels in the US? I’m surprised because here in the UK almost everything comes wrapped in plastic with nutritional information – so you can carb count your organic broccoli just as easily as your Reese’s if you want.

  11. Food marketing terms are a huge pet peeve because people take them literally and they’re usually completely false. A lot of people genuinely think if something says healthy it’s healthy and if it says low fat it will make them less fat. Ugh.

  12. Great insights— so many societal cues influence the way we feel about ourselves and our food, and many of them go unnoticed every day!

  13. I love this topic, and I am a language nerd so I’ve been thinking about this for a while myself. To me, it seems that the Puritan/Calvinist obsession with sin has been transferred from sex to food – both linguistically and culturally. We speak of “sinful” desserts. We talk about “temptation”. We hate fat people the way we used to hate “wanton” women – in exactly the same way. The obsession with “health” is the same as the obsession with “purity” that the Calvinists used to have.

    I just eat food. My only evaluation of food is “yum” or “yuck”.

    1. I never thought about the health/purity comparison. Thank you for that. The more I think about it, the more connections I can see in it.

      Interesting, Mark reminds us about how this should not be seen as a religion.

    2. Yes. I’ve renamed my cheat days “feast days”. They only happen a few times a year, they are carefully planned and a bit ritualistic (not in an obsessive way, but in a mindful way.) I realized that I didn’t want to think of them as “naughty”, but as a delightful and rare indulgence to be celebrated. I also didn’t want my kids to think of my responsible approach to cutting loose as something bad.

      1. Ditto !! I turn 50 this week, so now I’m having a ‘feast day’

  14. I personally find it hilarious when companies put a label on a product just to capitalize on a trend….Like a package of raisins labeled ‘gluten-free’!

    My father-in-law does his best to eat right and he still drinks a big glass of orange juice every morning thinking that he is doing something really good for his health. Because, hey, it says ‘no sugar added’…

  15. There’s something else very fundamental involving language that impacts our relationship with food – the feedback we received from our parents when we were kids. Consider this for example… Johnny finishes all his dinner one evening. Mom notices this and says “Johnny, you cleaned your plate! You’re such a good eater!”. Johnny had the evidence of an empty plate in front of him, plus reinforcement from Mom, and is being told that he’s good at eating. Fast-forward 20+ years… John is fully grown, had a rough day a work, relationship issues, and feels like he’s not good at anything. At a subconscious level, however, there’s something that makes him feel really good that he knows he’s good at: eating. So what does he do when he wants to feel better???

    Too bad Mom didn’t say “Wow Johnny, you made such healthy food choices. And you left some on your plate. You were full, and you listened to your body and knew when to quit! Well done!”

  16. It is for certain that terms like guilt-free and “heart-healthy” (grains) and any similar are deceiving. I agree fully that the way we use words for everyday communication, even those like the phrases above, influence who we are and the way that we do things or react to them.

    I think one of the worst perpetrators of this is the idea that Americans always want more, want bigger (because “bigger = better” right?) and with it came Starbucks with menu options that only speak of “tall” or “grande” and finally “venti.” Oh no, wait, now we have “trenta” to round it (or US) out. Not to mention these are no in English, so it sounds a little up-class (like Dan Jurafsky talks about) and therefore “better” or “fancier” somehow. Well, who needs venti anything, let alone trenta?

    Fast food chains are of course equally horrible about this offering medium, large or super-sized meal portions. If one is the smallest of all offered, isn’t it their small? I’ve asked for small from some McDonald’s restaurants and have been told that they don’t offer it. Really?

    It was to my shock and amazement to go to a Starbucks and ask for a “short” to find they ACTUALLY give you a smaller cup. And it’s a less than two dollars!! Starbucks for under $2?? I was thrilled.

    I think the world would do well to push out, at the very least, any “over-sized” terminology (and the serving, to go with it). That would be a good first step. Especially fast-food chains-purveyors of pain, gastrointestinal disorder, and immune system dysfunction. Talk about good intentions gone wrong, with capitalism-driven interests at the helm. It’s truly the S.A.D.dest thing.

  17. Something that comes to mind for me is “Health Food Store.” As opposed to what?

    When I first switched to Primal I often referred to unhealthy foods as garbage, crap, poison, or toxic, and was very “assertive” about Primal principles with other people using these words, hence, not many takers. I’ve since stopped trying to convince so hard.

    Now my food is delicious, tasty, yummy, and amazing! It sells it better.

  18. Thank you all for the education… I now have an awareness of what is unimportant and out there that I just don’t notice… I don’t have food with labels and I don’t watch tv ads or read magazines or newspapers, or go on farcebook. I didn’t think I was missing something until I read this post… Like a previous comment.. I too use the word YUM if I ever have to describe why I have a smile and a heart of gratitude to Mark Sisson…

  19. I found this article really interesting. I’m not primal but plant based, however from a whole food prospective there are so many overlaps. The disconnect we have is so true… being mindful of out eating patterns and going back to basics is so crucial.

  20. Strangely, wording was the talk at the dinner table tonight. I asked what other 8 yr olds eat at morning snack time (mine doesn’t have any, but not necessarily for dietary reasons), because these collect-cards come with them. As far as I can understand, they are sugar snake type things coiled up to look like ‘Indiana Jones’ whip!?!’. So I am told, they are sold as ‘natural’, because the sugar is fruit juice. So the happy parents allow most of the children to chow down on them daily. Makes you wonder not just about the word, but about how people want to perceive it, and whether it means anything really, other than not being a bad word in and of itself and people are enacting their destinies as they have been advised. My kids eat quite a bit of sugar, but I think about it and sugar is sugar is sugar (unless it’s not: then it isn’t).

  21. Words convey meaning, for bad or good. Want Health? An apple a day keeps the doctor away. Marks Daily Apple. Has a nice ring to it.

  22. Great article and comments! I find the “cheat” days/meals/etc strange. The whole idea that eating or being hungry is somehow bad. When I ask my husband if he wants X vegetable, his usual comeback is “what vitamins are in it? Why is it good for me”? It’s hard for some people to see the connection between enjoyment and health. As though they cannot co-exist.

    1. Yeah, it’s a reductionist approach to food that I find very unhealthy, quite honestly – that you have “pleasure foods” that you eat for pleasure even though they are bad for you, and you have “health foods” that you eat as a duty even though they taste bad. It’s a sad way of looking at the issue – you’re either doomed to a life of ill health or a life of untasty food.

  23. Even the word “yum” has been hijacked. Watching the Kentucky Derby this spring one couldn’t escape the omnipresence of YUM Foods, the Derby sponsor. This is the megacorp that includes KFC and Pizza Hut. Their commercials trumpeted their international expansion, with shots of happy fast food workers at their outlets in various countries. Interestingly, about the same time the news media was releasing stories about how the rest of the world is catching up with the US in type 2 diabetes. YUM foods is spreading the modern disease of diabetes to the developing world. Yum!

    1. Get on board and take a piece of the cash cow. Buy some shares of YUM and use the dividend stream on real food. Although I’d wait on the shares as the chart shows a clear, negative trend channel and most likely will be flirting with its 52 week low soon. The annual dividend growth is compounding nicely, proving everyone loves The Colonel.

  24. I say “holy cow” all the time…..I think that’s why I love to eat meat??? lol

    1. That, or you haven’t realized your Hindu calling.

  25. Speaking of “weight watchers” and constant vigilance – a friend and I were just discussing the health surveys our employers give out (for those of you unfamiliar with the US health system, we generally have our health insurance provided by our employers, which means our employers have a direct incentive to worry about our medical expenses) and something my friend had noticed was that her survey’s questions on weight all assumed you’d be in some way trying to lose or maintaining constant vigilance against gaining. The multiple-choice questions literally did not have any options along the lines of “I’m not doing anything about my weight because it’s already fine.”

    Not to mention the surveys’ tendency to follow one-size-fits-all conventional-wisdom health standards – my employer won’t be releasing our health survey until November, but I’d bet money it includes plenty of praise for “heart healthy whole grains” and warns against the dangers of “artery-clogging saturated fat”.

    1. I wonder how the survey would feel about “I don’t know my weight because I never weigh, don’t own a scale, and don’t look if a doctor weighs me.”

  26. If we need to read the ingredients list or the nutritional data we probably shouldn’t eat it. As for our relationship with food, should we even have one? I’m sure ‘Grok’ didn’t….

  27. Interesting concept. Unfortunately the German languange does have a future tense formed just like the one in the English language (“Ich werde -“). This kind of discredits the competency of the author of the article.

    Grok On!

    1. He’s referencing a paper by a published Yale scholar. Here is an excerpt which I lifted from the PDF, which Mark provides in this article:

      Languages differ in whether or not they require speakers to grammatically mark future events. For example, a German speaker predicting rain can naturally do so in the present tense, saying: “Morgen regnet es” which translates to ‘It rains tomorrow’. In contrast, English would require the
      use of a future marker like ‘will’ or ‘is going to’, as in: ‘It will rain tomorrow’. In this way, English requires speakers to encode a distinction between present and future events, while German does not.

  28. Change in language around food was one of the huge revelations I had when I “took the red pill” and changed to primally inspired eating.

    The words, “I’m starving”, “I deserve this (cake, cookie, candy), cos I’ve been so good this week (with my eating)”. The words “good” and “bad” around what went into my mouth always depended on how many calories or points (depending on what diet I was on) I had consumed that day. These have all disappeared. I love it that I am no longer “starving” even though I may be hungry. And oh the freedom to eat what I want until I am full (a relearned concept) within the guidelines of what food works for me is so powerful.

    1. When I was a kid my dad would scold my brother and I for complaining that “I’m Starving!” He would say, “No, you are hungry, not starving. There are a lot of people in this world who are actually starving and we are very lucky not to be among them.”

      I never describe myself as starving. Hungry or very hungry, sure. But I am never starving.

  29. When people say “I can’t cook,”… what does that mean? I wasn’t born with a spatula in my hand.

  30. The term “real food” comes to mind. Real food is simply edible nutrition that is as close to it’s natural state as possible. The antithesis to real food would be pancake syrup emblazoned with the marketing pitch “No High Fructose Corn Syrup,” yet the first ingredient listed on the the back label is corn syrup.

  31. Thank you, Mark, et al., for this post. I had no idea he’d written a book. I took Intro to Linguistics from Professor Jurafsky at CU Boulder before he got the genius grant and went to Stanford. “Brilliant” probably falls short of describing this man. You pretty much just sold this book to me in the first sentence. Thank you!

  32. I am happy to have a small kitchen garden where we grow carrots, mangold, squash, Jerusalem artichokes and “haricots vertes”. And some non primal sweet peas. Tried sweet potatoes this year too, but the cold climate we have here in northern Europe (Finland) is not quite suitable for them. My small children are introduced to growing vegetables in a natural way. Had their own small pea row this year.

    The garden is filled with berry bushes and wild ones (raspberries, our type of blueberries, lingonberries) are in the freely accessible forrest open to everyone by the law called “every man’s right”. Mushrooms are free to pick too. But one can only move about by foot or by bike, no motor vehicles allowed. And trees belong to the land owners and may not be cut or harmed.

    A farm with grass feed Angus cattle is near by. We see how the animals live as we visit to buy meat every second Friday afternoon.

    I buy eggs from a family that has a few happy hens. Also goat cheese from their two goats. Meanwhile my kids play around with theirs, visit the horses and watch the ducks, bunnies and turkeys. All happy and living in groups of about five animals.

    I think we a are happy. My kids love berries and every July and August we use to stroll about our garden daily for half San hour eating both wild and farmed berries. The baby too in her carrying sling.

  33. Reading a label the other day I saw they listed high fructose corn syrup as the third item and then a couple items later they listed just corn syrup. I think they are doing that so that HFCS is not first on the list.

  34. “Organic” has always struck me funny. Everything else is INorganic, is it?

    “Comfort food”. I vaguely recall some research that found that the people in their study that ate “comfort food” were actually less happy later than the control group. I don’t remember if they were guilty about overindulging or what, but the oxymoronicity of “comfort food” has stuck with me.

    Some words I DO like are your “80/20 rule”. 🙂