Our Brainwashed Bellies

The commercial goes something like this: a female college student unwraps a package sent to her from her mother, who’s on the phone, standing near a window where sunlight illuminates her smiling face. The girl’s face soon lights up too when she discovers the gift that her mother so thoughtfully sent her way: a jar of Jif peanut butter. “I love you mommy,” says the girl or maybe it’s the mom who says, “I love you.” Either way, I watched this commercial at the gym, while running on a treadmill, and I remembered it. And I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

We all know that this commercial is manipulative; it’s equating motherly love with processed peanut butter. No college-aged kid is lacking access to peanut butter–if there’s one thing college provides, it’s access to peanut butter. We’re supposed to believe that this young adult, far away from home, is suddenly thrust back into a motherly embrace by unwrapping this conventional, pedestrian item that you can find at a highway rest stop. And yet, somehow, strangely, miraculously it works. This commercial isn’t on TV for us to roll our eyes at; it’s on TV because Jif’s marketing experts have determined that by linking this factory-packaged peanut product with a college-aged daughter’s affection, women–namely, mothers–are more likely to choose Jif. In fact that’s their slogan: “Choosy Moms Choose Jif.”

But choosy moms don’t choose Jif: they’ll choose organic peanut butter or peanut butter that they grind themselves at the store. The commercial, the slogan, the whole concept is a big fat lie and yet we buy into it. Guess what kind of peanut butter I have in my kitchen cabinet right now? Yes, I fell for it too.

It got me thinking, though: how else are we manipulated in our day-to-day food choices? When you go food shopping or you read a menu at a restaurant, how much of what you buy or what you order is based on your own life experience and knowledge and how much is based on something that you’ve been taught to believe?

This isn’t just about commercials on TV: it’s about the blind absorption of food propaganda regardless of the truth behind it. Many of us take it as a given, for example, that heirloom tomatoes are better than regular tomatoes. And, if you go to the farmer’s market at the peak of summer, that’s very likely true. But now at the supermarket you’ll find pre-packaged heirloom tomatoes in a carton next to the pre-packaged cherry tomatoes. Are those heirloom tomatoes better than the cherry ones? Not necessarily.

Or look at all the words in the grocery store that are thrown at us to get us to buy a product: free-range, grass-fed, extra virgin, cold-pressed, all natural, organic, whole grain, low sodium, and so on and so forth. Can you verify any of these claims standing there at the store? Of course not. But those words trigger something within you, something beneath the surface of your consciousness, that convinces you to buy a product that you wouldn’t otherwise buy.

That same part of your brain stopped drinking Merlot when it saw “Sideways” and stopped eating sushi on Mondays when it read “Kitchen Confidential.” It’s the part of your brain that’s vulnerable to commercials like that Jif commercial that I saw at the gym. You may think that you’re an informed consumer, that you’re fully in control of the food choices that you make, but chances are many of those choices are shaped by outside forces.

So what to do? Choose better outside forces. Read up on things; investigate. Talk to experts, do your own experiments. Mostly, though, learn to trust your own instincts. If those heirloom tomatoes in their carton are looking waxy and sad, don’t buy them. If that “cold pressed” olive oil is looking a bit sketchy, buy the better looking one that’s not cold pressed. And the next time you go out to dinner, order a glass of Merlot and see what you think (unless you’re dining with Paul Giamatti).

The best way to rinse our brains of food propaganda is to fill them with authentic, hard-earned knowledge. The more you seek out yourself, the better informed you’ll be. And the next time your mom sends you a package of processed peanut butter, you’ll know enough to say, “Thank you, mom, but…umm…are you trying to kill me?” That’ll wipe the sun-lit smile clean off her face.

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