Friday, October 30, 2015

Simplifying food: what popular culture can teach us about food

In the midst of abundant information about what constitutes a healthy diet, it is sometimes hard to decide what to believe and what to take serious. Nutrition labels are an incomprehensible list of ingredients. Medical experts fight about the healthiness of GMO’s (genetically modified organisms). And how do we know when an organic food label can or cannot be trusted?

These kind of food issues have infiltrated our society to such an extent that they also appear in the arts. Many food-related art projects criticize the food industry or the lack of sustainable food practices. However, some merely aim to illustrate human behaviors in relation to food, such us our perceptual biases of food size, or the excuses we use to justify unhealthy food choices. American pop artist Claes Oldenburg, for instance, created supersized soft sculptures of food objects in order to illustrate the increased availability of fast food in the 50s and 60s. Among his works are a sculpture of a giant hamburger, BLT (Bacon, Lettuce, Tomato) sandwich, and pretzels.

Floor Burger (1962) by Claus Oldenburg, source: 

Visual illustrations are another way in which artists deal with food-related issues. Such (paper) illustrations have the ability of providing information through different media and to a wider audience. Photographs or schematic representations depict information in a clearer and more simple way than written messages do (one merely needs to think about the often-used food pyramids).

A recently published example of a food-related visual illustration is Ingredients: A Visual Exploration of 75 Additives & 25 Food Products. In this book, photographer Dwight Eschliman and writer Steve Ettlinger depict 75 food additives and illustrate the ingredients present in 25 common foods. Purposefully steering clear from the additives-as-toxins discussion, they portray both natural and chemical, healthy and unhealthy additives, including beta-Carotene (a red-orange pigment found in plants and fruits) and Red 40 (the most commonly used food colorant). Furthermore, they deconstruct 25 food products by visually representing all of their raw ingredients. Red Bull, for instance, is made up of 17 different constituents. Although this representation still renders the individual constituents enigmatic (who can tell the difference between salt and Acesulfame potassium, an artificial sweetener?), it creates a clear visual “blueprint”, making the contents of our food more palpable.

Red Bull by Dwight Eschliman (2015), source:

Another book with visual food illustrations is The True Size of Food: Our absurd ways with food. Inspired by 1982’s La Bouffe by French cartoonist Claude Serre, the Dutch illustrator Marijke Timmerman depicts a few of our “absurd ways with food”. She covers a range of topics such as the way food is presented by marketers, the production and waste of food, how food affects our bodies, and our perceptions in relation to food. She starts off by showing that in a 500 meter radius of a medium-sized city, there are 208 establishments that serve food. Constant encounters with food reminders make it hard to resist (tasty) temptations and leads to overeating (Wadden, Brownell, & Foster, 2002).

Timmerman then visually depicts the nutrient content of several foods, using different colors of Lego blocks to distinguish between carbohydrates, fats and proteins. This shows how a slice of brown bread and a hamburger, which are equal in physical size, in fact, have a very different “nutritional size”. Moreover, the average person gains a pound of weight a year. Timmerman illustrates this with the use of before-and-after pictures of a few people. This leads to a series of portraits of both average-weight and overweight people, thereby relativizing the belief that everyone in the world is becoming obese.

Marijke Timmerman (2014), source:

Furthermore, Timmerman confronts us with our biased perceptions towards healthy and unhealthy foods. For instance, she illustrates the differences between an apple and a Mars bar by showing their sliced-up anatomy and a bite-by-bite representation to depict their consumption time. She makes us realize how little we actually think or know about our food, and how the choice between a healthy and unhealthy choice is not as clear-cut as we may think. An apple may contain more minerals and vitamins, but it fuels our body with three times as little energy than a Mars bar. 

                                Marijke Timmerman (2014), source:

What these visual artists show is that food constituents are not inherently good or bad. It rather depends on the quantity in which they are consumed and the function they are ascribed by an individual consumer. They do not try to prescribe dietary norms but base their illustrations more on their own ideas about food, and their experiences with food. What we can learn from these illustrations is that they may help improve the effectiveness of messages aimed at increasing public awareness about food-related issues. Public health campaigns aimed at promoting healthy eating behaviors could integrate them in their campaigns to decrease the amount of reactance experienced by viewers when they encounter health communications (Miller, Lane, Deatrick, Young, & Potts, 2007). Moreover, such illustrations would render visual health campaigns more attention-grabbing, visually pleasing and comprehensible.


Eschliman, D., & Ettlinger, S. (2015). Ingredients: A Visual Exploration of 75 Additives & 25 Food Products. New York: Regan Arts.

Miller, C. H., Lane, L. T., Deatrick, L. M., Young, A. M., & Potts, K. A. (2007). Psychological reactance and promotional health messages: The effects of controlling language, lexical concreteness, and the restoration of freedom. Human Communication Research, 33, 219-240.

Timmerman, M. (2014). The True Size of Food: About Our Absurd Ways with Food. Amsterdam: BIS Publishers.

Wadden, T. A., Brownell, K. D., & Foster, G. D. (2002). Obesity: Responding to the global epidemic. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 70, 510.

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