Do These Brownies Make Me Look More Compassionate?

We often choose food and drinks for what they say about us.

Posted Jan 24, 2014

Sampling everything from balsamic sorbetto to sangria-flavored fudge at the Fancy Food Show last weekend in San Francisco, I discovered a trend that's partly about bodies but mainly about minds.

A startling -- gratifying, but truly startling -- number of food and drink companies support good causes. Some donate portions of their proceeds to charities. Some create their own foundations, projects and programs aiding children, workers or the environment. Some operate at standards stratospherically higher than those the law requires.

This stems partly from the Nurture Factor. Someone who makes a career out of feeding others is naturally inclined to be the caring type. But it's also about consumers. We've reached an era in which we choose food and drinks based not only on how they taste or fill us up but also on how they'll reflect on us and make us feel about ourselves.

This is an era of infinite choices. But some of us are ashamed to treat ourselves. Low self-esteem tells us we're too fat, lazy, stupid or uncool to buy a bag of caramels. Our nasty inner voices ask: What have you done to deserve hazelnuts?

Some of us don't want to destroy the earth. We know so much about endangered species, the fragile environment and agricultural misdeeds that we think eating certain things will make us look and feel like criminals.

And some of us are ashamed of our ability to afford delicacies. When we think of the poor and desperate, buying saffron soda just seems cruel.

So if Ocean's Halo donates 2 percent of its profits on seaweed snacks to organizations fighting for the health of the world's oceans; if Rhythm Superfoods supports the movement to properly label GMOs; if Navitas Naturals uses only low-flush toilets and non-VOC paints in its facility; if Lucy's gluten-free desserts has patented a SchoolSmart program to help parents find allergy-free foods for their kids; if McConnell's Fine Ice Creams partners with the Milk & Bookies literacy program and the 1% for the Planet environmental organization; if Purely Elizabeth partners with 1% for the Planet and Charity : Water; if SooFoo has a "Doing Good" page on its website detailing its partnership with the American Heart Association and offering community-service tips that consumers can try; if Numi Organic Tea has a "Communitea" page on its website outlining its support for health and education nonprofits and partnership with Community Gatepath, which helps people with disability live fuller lives; if Seattle Chocolates donates 100 percent of the profits from its Survivor Chick and Extreme Dark Chocolate bars toward organizations that fight breast cancer; if Wild Planet catches its tuna only by trolling or pole-and-line, producing virtually no by-catch; if PB Crave donates at least 2 percent of its profits on every jar to Project Peanut Butter, a nonprofit aimed at treating malnourished children; if Lundberg Family Farms created the Egg Aid program to rescue tens of thousands of wild duck eggs from its rice fields, hatch them and release the ducklings back into the wild; if Follow Your Heart makes its vegan mayonnaise in a revolutionary solar-powered facility called Earth Island; if truRoots helps Bolivian quinoa farmers through its Enray Foundation -- some of us will feel better about ourselves for choosing those brands.

And while promotions for Walkers' Duchy Originals biscuit line would in a past era have almost certainly focused almost entirely on the fact that it was founded by HRH Prince Charles, today Walkers website has a "Does Good" page outlining the recipients of the Prince's Charities Foundation, to which a portion of all Duchy Originals sales is donated. 

In this as in so much else, things have changed. I collect vintage magazines. My favorite parts of these are the advertisements, which reveal so much about the mindframes of bygone days. In the November 21, 1941 New Yorker, an ad for Forbidden Fruit liqueur declares: "The fine art of fine living is evidenced by this Aristocrat of American Liqueurs." An ad for Crosse & Blackwell's marmalade calls it "a breakfast brightener with a pedigree," and depicts a rich gentleman stowing some in his safe. An ad for Harvey's Bristol Cream depicts a uniformed butler bearing a tray.

While "buy me and look rich" advertisements still exist, this is clearly no longer the most compelling mien, even where gourmet foods are concerned. Consumers are now clearly presumed to be more conscientious, community-minded and self-conscious than were their forebears whom ads tempted with scepters, palaces and crowns.

Supporting companies that support good causes connects us with those causes. Buying their products is buying our membership in the greater good. Cynics would call it a mere marketing ploy, but isn't whatever makes us hate ourselves less a win-win?