These are two signature recipes Food Network star Paula Deen makes on her weekly television programs.1 Whether these recipes are delicious or disgusting is a matter of personal taste. Less subject to dispute is the calories-laden and poor nutritional nature of the food. Unsurprisingly, Deen, the “Queen of Southern Cooking,” recently announced that she has been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes.
This expected outcome of years of artery-clogging cuisine has cooked up an unexpected fury of debate. Health advocates angrily blasted Deen for advertising unwholesome choices and unduly benefitting from her popularity in America’s kitchens. They are also quick to point out the more sinister side of the celebrity chef’s move. Deen was diagnosed with diabetes in 2008, but only disclosed her condition this year after signing an endorsement deal with Novo Nordisk, the company behind diabetes drug Victoza.
Soon, audiences will be able to catch her both on her shows and during the commercial breaks, as the new spokesperson of Novo Nordisk’s campaign, “Diabetes in a New Light.” In response, fellow chef personality Anothony Bourdain tweeted, “Thinking of getting into the leg- breaking business, so I can profitably sell crutches later.”
Deen’s poor timing did not help the fallout following her revelation, nor did her defensive answers on the Today Show. When grilled about the detrimental health affects of her dishes, she retorted, “I’m your cook, not your doctor.” Rather than changing her menus and encouraging others to make better diet choices, Deen watered down her health message. She weakly suggested that “genetics, age [stress and lifestyle]” are the main causes of diabetes, failing to note that lifestyle encompasses bad eating habits.5 Her fumbled answer only serves to emphasize her stake in show biz. She has best-selling books, product lines, restaurants, televised shows and various public appearance deals. Furthermore, she has close affiliations with product producers such as Smithfield ham and Philadelphia cream cheese.
Her recipe ingredients, which principally consist of processed meats and dairy, prominently feature the merchandise of her corporate sponsors. A transformation in her cooking style will certainly fail to please these commercial partners. So while making the switch to salads and extra virgin olive oil can trim her waistline, her bank account will undoubtedly shrink even faster.
The real meat of the argument is whether cooking channels and television chefs like Paula Deen have a responsibility to their audience’s health. Most will agree that television hosts should not deliberately mislead their audience with false information or endorse companies that misrepresent the potential harm of their products. Such actions are not only morally wrong, but violate basic corporate responsibility. Fortunately, self- interest provides a strong incentive to refrain from such viewer exploitation. Deen’s “y’alls” and bread pudding days on TV would be limited should scandal erupt regarding Victoza’s negative side effects or Smithfield’s tainted meat. Celebrities and their networks are therefore careful about what they say and do, since their careers depend largely on their reputations and consumer loyalty. Although this self-regulation fails at times, it nevertheless provides a strong check on individual and corporate greed.
That being said, the food media has no obligation to revolutionize the way people eat. Paula Deen is in her right to be as liberal as she wants with her butter, and Food Network is entitled to reward her handsomely for doing so. Likewise, viewers have the personal freedom to choose what to watch and what to eat. People can simply turn off the channel on greasy burgers and shut their mouths to excess calories. Celebrity chefs and their bosses cannot be held accountable for individuals’ health problems because they are not the ones shoving junk food down people’s throats. Health and diet fall chiefly into the category of personal responsibility—even if owning up to this truth proves difficult to swallow.
Food Network’s impact on personal health is also exaggerated. Audience appetite provides the demand driving the shows, not the other way around. Television Food Network was founded in 1993, but Deen was not on air until 1999.1,8 Obesity rates were climbing long before she first dumped chicken drumsticks into hot oil on the small screen. The growing popularity of food shows and the successful business model that brought Food Network into nearly 100 million US households only serve to reflect people’s preferences.9 Viewers evidently derive pleasure from seeing others prepare and consume meals, healthy or not. Savvy cooks like Deen who profit from this trend did not dramatically alter Americans’ diet for the worse.
Tackling obesity and health related issues require not groundbreaking leadership from famous cooks, but a ground up movement from the public. Chefs can teach people how to make better diet choices and prepare lower fat dinner options, but only if ratings show that is what people actually want to learn. There is hope that such a change is gaining momentum. Food Network hosts from Ellie Krieger to Rachael Ray are now discussing more health-conscious choices and supporting nutritional programs, especially among children. Bobby Deen, Paula Deen’s son, is even launching a new show called Not My Mama’s Meals, which will provide leaner versions of his mother’s classic Southern dishes.
Boiled down, Food Network is not supposed to be in the same pot with Jenny Craig or WebMD. Celebrity chefs like Deen are entertainers, not professional cooking instructors or physicians. And their viewers follow episodes less to learn how to bake Viking-themed wedding cakes and more for the amusement of watching their favorite TV personalities make impressively creative or hilariously disastrous creations. Deen—like fellow TV actors, talk show hosts, and financial gurus—is not paid to offer expert advice on subjects. Dietitians and health officials do that. The Butter Queen is only there to smother on the BBQ sauce, sell deep fryers, and crack jokes in her trademark Southern drawl.