There are roughly 80 million millennials in America. According to research by advertising agency BBDO, half of us call ourselves “foodies.” In recent years, ramen has gone from being the 15-cent package staple for college kids to a $15 bowl at Ippudo.
Millennials are more likely to shop at specialty food stores than older generations were. We’re also obsessed with everything local, organic, and GMO free, supporting the 174 percent increase in farmers markets from 2000 to 2012.
For the first time ever, teens are spending more on food than clothes. I was on the hunt to understand why millennials — or generation yum, as I call them — are so invested in what they eat.
Molly is the 30-year-old wholesale manager and menu consultant at Murray’s Cheese in New York City’s Greenwich Village. A friend had recommended I call her — they thought she would be an interesting subject for my book on the millennial generation and food.
As Molly walked me through her history with food, she bluntly remarked that the food industry is duping us. She blames the lack of connection between industrial food and the earth and our bodies for her own struggles with food and the wider state of food in the United States.
She now only eats things with the same birth, life, and deterioration timeline as humans (aka, not the Twinkie or Cool Whip tub that will not mold after sitting out for 20 years). She also readily admits that the control she once felt by limiting the amount of food she consumed has now simply shifted to choosing, very specifically, what she’ll put in her body: organic, pesticide-free, preferably local, unprocessed foods.
On the one hand, I understand Molly’s arguments — that the food system is causing this return to the basics; that paleo, raw foodist trends are the result of, well, a rotten food system. It’s so darn hard to know what you’re eating, you may as well limit your diet to a few recognizable “real” foods.
But I didn't totally buy it. Why now?
Today, being a paleo locavore is hip. Going gluten-free is easy. Avoiding soy? Not a problem. So while I'd like to think that this is really all just a benevolent and worldly minded decision about wanting whole foods — I actually think — for the vast majority of gen yummers — it's also related to emotions tied up in things entirely unrelated to what we eat.
What Molly was describing — her interest in very specific foods — and her admission of the satisfaction that comes from controlling her food intake, made me begin to wonder: Is all this restriction just an eating disorder by another name? Are we a generation of disordered eaters, in search of control?
Molly had connected the two ideas: using food to subdue our ever-growing anxieties as a generation. I began to look around for more evidence of this theory.
Unlike veganism or the Atkins diet, which exclude certain food groups, locavores are concerned with supporting local agriculture and reducing their carbon footprint by purchasing goods produced within a certain square mileage. This was Molly’s ideal — attempting to eat only foods grown as locally as possible.
The researchers hoped to determine the motivations behind locavorism. What they found, after interviewing a dozen subjects, was the running theme of “empowerment”:
For most participants, a sense of control emerged not as a result of local food, but out of the choice to be local.
Many described eating this way as "making me happy”…Interviewee #9 captured this best when he said, “I later learned about the power of food ... it’s pretty liberating to have control over what you eat.”
This one example provided evidence that what Molly was expressing — the ability to calm herself through control over her choices, even if that just meant eating food from a certain place — was not an isolated incident.
“We are seeing more and more cases of orthorexia nervosa,” Peter H.R. Green, the director of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University Medical School, explains to Michael Specter for The New Yorker, discussing the method of progressively abstaining from specific foods. “First, they come off gluten. Then corn. Then soy. Then tomatoes. Then milk. After a while, they don’t have anything left to eat — and they proselytize about it.”
It’s all about the comfort of control. Bagels are perhaps not the culprit, but the growing anxieties and depression within generation yum.
Gen yum faces numerous anxiety-provoking factors: the barrage of constant buzzes and dings that demand immediate attention; a lack of face-to-face human connection; high unemployment rates and low pay; the management of the in-person and avatar identities; and general confusion over the functioning of our ever more complicated technologically infused environments.
And yes, perhaps our sketchy food system and the plague of too many choices are also driving gen yums out-of-the-ordinary food choices.
There’s nothing shameful in longing for simplicity and control. It’s what we crave — and what, more than ever, we’re lacking. We live in a world stuffed with intricate technologies, unstable economic systems, and a plethora of choices.
Today, we choose which online store to frequent, which TV series is worth binge watching, which aggregator site will come up with the cheapest flight, on top of considerations more familiar to previous generations: which stock to invest in, which route to take to work.
This reaction is sensible for a generation in which one-fifth of us have been diagnosed with depression. Reports show that many millennials report feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, passivity, boredom, fear, isolation, and dehumanization, resulting in a loss of autonomy and community connection. (Antidepressants are the most frequently used class of medications by Americans ages 18 to 44 years old.)
We are primed to perform behaviors that will give us just a bit of autonomy and community back. Many of these new "diets" reflect common disordered eating symptoms. The difference is that these habits are out in the open — admired, even, because they run in parallel with wider areas of concern: fixing our food system.
Just like our Instagrammed lunches and trips to the farmers markets, our restrictive diets have become a new identifier. People introduce themselves by eating habits in profiles (i.e., "I'm a vegan raw foodist from Ojai, CA" or a "pescatarian environmentalist from Ontario").
Today, perhaps because of its pervasiveness and the glow of food activism, the shame in restricting one’s eating has been significantly lowered. You still don’t want to be the person who says, “I don’t eat.” But it’s perfectly acceptable to say, “I don’t eat gluten or any animal products.”
It all comes back to the drive for simplicity, connection, and control — things that are increasingly hard to come by in our urban environments in particular. To cope, we devise other systems for ourselves: We seek out authentic meals, search for USDA organic ingredients, call our friends to share a meal at home, and learn about the places our ingredients come from.
Food is our antidote to the millennial life.
This excerpt was edited for length from A Taste of Generation Yum: How a Generation's Love for Organic Fare, Celebrity Chefs and Microbrews Will Make or Break the Future of Food by Eve Turow
Photo Credit: Stocksy