Just a Pretty Face: The Fallacy Behind Picture-Perfect Food

LIZ WILLIAMS (this article was first published on December 11, 2012)

Bread and Butter explores food, policy, and law. Click the logo for more of this fabulous column.

Bread and Butter explores food, policy, and law. Click the logo for more of this fabulous column.

We have a soft spot in our minds for things of beauty. Although we can expand our meaning of beauty beyond the visual, the visual is where it starts. Beauty means perfection. Beauty means joy.  Beauty means good taste.

We see the effects of this bias everywhere. We have idealized in art the beauty of the fruits and vegetables. We want to buy the most beautiful and unblemished fruits at the store. We want to see the most beautiful apples on the table. And we select the most beautiful looking fruits in natural selection, because they sell the best. We may be disappointed when we take a bite out of the beautiful mealy apple, but we are slow to change our choices. Spending a few moments on the Harry and David website or with their catalog confirms that we buy produce visually.

When we began to can foods and sell them in dry goods store and later in grocery stores, we placed a lovely evocative drawing on the labels. Still today, that picture is of the perfect version of what is supposed to be inside, like a beautiful cluster of apricots on a can of apricots. And sometimes the picture is of a more general depiction of a bucolic scene, a beautiful and idealized farm, for example, on a package of oatmeal. Neither of these scenes reliably communicates the quality of the contents of the can.

Canned pears at a wholesale club in Virginia show perfect pears on the label, Via Wikimedia Commons.

Similarly we see frozen food packages that are opaque. A bag of frozen broccoli or strawberries will sit on the shelf in the freezer section of the grocery in its opaque white bag with a printed sleeve around the middle that is an idealized photo of the “contents.” Those beautiful photos of broccoli or strawberries call to us through the glass freezer doors, fooling our eyes into thinking that we are gazing into the bags at the beautiful contents. We are buying the pictures.

This desire for visual beauty extended to our fear of contamination of the Gulf of Mexico after the BP oil spill. We wanted that floating oil that was coating the environment – despoiling it – to go away. We could SEE the damage and it was ugly and disturbing. Yes, the coating of oil was more than just ugly.  It coated birds, reduced oxygen transfer in shallow water, and affected the marsh grasses along the shore. But for tourism and the fear that pristine beaches would be made ugly, the floating oil was an  oncoming army to be repelled. That threat made us forget about the long term problem and think about the immediate and ugly one. It made the government approve the immediate use of dispersants to make that big, scary, ugly oil spill disappear. It did not have to go away. It merely had to be unseen.

Today we may be paying the price of our desire to be visually satisfied. Our desire to put something out of site so that it can be out of mind allowed us to quickly and uncritically dump dispersants into the Gulf of Mexico. An article in the journal Environmental Pollution and reported on in Science Daily suggests that the dispersants may have caused or increased damage to the environment of the Gulf.

Cleaning an oiled baby Brown Pelican chick at BP 2010 Gulf oil spill response the at Fort Jackson Bird Rehabilitation Center in Buras, Louisiana. Photo by International Bird Rescue Research Center (IBRRC), via Wikimedia Commons.

Our visual sense is integral to the decisions that we make every day. We avoid eating spoiled food by observing mold or other spoilage. We need to be able to rely on visual cues. But we cannot let visual cues overcome our reason or our other senses. Perhaps opening the can or the frozen food package could help us make a decision. Perhaps taking a bite from a not beautiful apple would be a better indicator of the way it will taste than a mere glance – granted the bowl of beautiful apples on your table will be a better decoration than a bowl of blemished apples. But when I take a bite and when I am chewing, I cannot even see the apple so I can forget what it looks like.

Yes, we must use all of our senses, but we also have to intellectually decide what is the most important. Does the way food tastes trump the way it looks?  Do we decide on the can or frozen food because of the attractiveness of the packaging? Does the way the beach looks trump the environmental damage?  If we want our frozen seafood to be edible we had better decide what is most important.




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