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The formula for catastrophe: the negative impact of popular cooking shows on the environment.


Entire sweet dish carelessly discarded into the garbage on the popular cooking competition, The Great British Baking Show. Heaps of uncooked chicken arranged in a striking display on the show Iron Chef. Frequent incidents of gas stoves and food catching fire on Chopped. If the content we view on television influences our goals or our perception of what is considered typical, cooking shows are in need of a transformation towards sustainability.

As climate specialists suggest reducing meat consumption and minimizing waste in order to combat climate change, cooking shows on reality TV continue to feature excessive amounts of meat, gas stoves, and uneaten food. This contradiction is especially jarring when we acknowledge that the production of food is responsible for a significant portion of greenhouse gas emissions, which are on the rise amidst ongoing climate disasters.

Furthermore, consider the statistic that approximately 33% of American adults aged 18-64 regularly tune in to reality television. This further emphasizes the underrepresentation of environmentally-friendly actions on cooking shows, highlighting a significant missed chance for promoting climate responsibility.

According to Cyle Zezo, a former executive at CW and a producer for shows like Whose Line Is It Anyway?, the news media has improved in their coverage of climate change, but the entertainment industry lags behind. Zezo believes that television holds a significant amount of influence and should have a sense of accountability. By not accurately portraying the current state of the world, it could be seen as a form of denial.

What is the environmental impact of a cooking show? There are two perspectives to consider. The first is the production’s direct impact, while the second is the show’s influence on culture and society.

On-set issues

Chef Priyanka Naik, a winner on the Food Network and frequent guest on the Today Show and the Kelly Clarkson Show, acknowledges that there will always be food waste shown on TV, even if viewers do not see it directly. This is often due to the dramatic presentation of raw chicken or fish on the tables during Iron Chef.

There are several factors contributing to this phenomenon. Some television shows intentionally purchase an excessive amount of ingredients, such as 15 bunches of basil for a recipe that only calls for one, as a precaution in case of any mishaps. In other cases, like the show Iron Chef, surplus ingredients are purely for display purposes to give the impression of a well-stocked kitchen or to create visually appealing scenes for TV, even though they may not all be used. Additionally, some shows incorporate waste into their concept, as was the case in a show Naik participated in (which never made it to air) where food was shot out of cannons at the chefs.

In cooking competitions, judges usually sample only small portions of each dish because they may need to taste as many as 12 dishes per day. Shows like Five Star Chef and The Great British Baking Show also have challenges that test contestants’ ability to prepare large amounts of food. Leftover food from these shows is often given to the production crew, but due to hygiene protocols, this is not always possible if a judge or cook has already tasted the food or if it has been left out for too long during filming. According to Naik, these precautions have become even more important during the Covid pandemic.

illustration of a sign saying ‘america’s carbon kitchen: extreme food waste challenge’

Certain television programs do contribute their extra ingredients. The show Guy’s Grocery Games on the Food Network claims to donate nearly expired food from its full-scale grocery store set to food banks once a week, and any leftover scraps are given to a nearby farm for animal feed. However, according to Zezo, the production team is often constrained by time and other pressures, making it difficult to incorporate these practices into their work processes.

Jennifer Sandoval, from Earth Angel, a company that assists Hollywood productions like America’s Test Kitchen: The Next Generation in promoting sustainability, stated that while food waste is important to consider, the type of energy used on set has the biggest impact. This energy is often produced by external generators that run on fossil fuels, contributing significantly to a production’s emissions. Additionally, the flights taken by cast and crew to reach filming locations also contribute to emissions.

Sandoval has a strong dedication to promoting eco-friendly sets, but she believes that the content displayed on screen is even more crucial. According to her, this has a greater potential for impacting mainstream behavior. By featuring environmentally conscious chefs on the show, significant changes can be made.

Sustainability messaging

According to Sarah Lazarovic, who leads communications at the non-profit organization Rewiring America, gas stoves are frequently seen on popular shows such as Top Chef and Beat Bobby Flay. However, in order to protect the climate and human health, the perception of gas stoves as a standard must be changed. Lazarovic and her team have been actively promoting the transition to electric stoves for homes and buildings, as gas stoves release harmful chemicals that can lead to conditions like asthma. Electric stoves are a healthier option for both people and the planet.

Lazarovic pointed out that using gas stoves during filming is problematic, and she suggested that promoting or romanticizing gas appliances to the public may have a greater negative impact over time.

She stated that individuals interpret indirect signals and internalize the information displayed on the screen.

There is limited research that directly connects TV viewing habits to behaviors in the kitchen, but one study suggests that what we watch can influence our habits regarding food waste. Other evidence suggests that TV has had an impact on various behaviors, such as drunk driving and marriage equality. The Rare Entertainment Lab, dedicated to using behavioral insights to promote environmental awareness in Hollywood, believes that there will be even more evidence of TV’s influence on different behaviors in the future.

According to Natalia Paine, a food specialist at Rare, more than half of the viewers of cooking shows have made a purchase based on what they saw on the show. This suggests that the content on screen is already influencing their actions at home.

The gas industry is acknowledging the influence of indirect signals and has made significant investments in hiring TV chefs and social media influencers to counter the increasing criticism of gas. These individuals promote the supposed advantages of cooking with gas on popular shows such as My Kitchen Rules. This is particularly important as more evidence emerges that gas appliances can release harmful chemicals into the environment and affect both human health and the climate, even when they are not in use.

two people cooking

According to Paine, from the Rare Entertainment Lab, the onscreen messaging is crucial and may even surpass the importance of what occurs behind the scenes. Ideally, both should occur simultaneously; while composting on set is better than wasting food, composting and showcasing the effort to audiences is even more effective.

According to Ellis Watamanuk, senior director of the Entertainment Lab, cooking shows should promote a climate-friendly behavior of reducing beef consumption. Despite being a popular ingredient on shows like Iron Chef and Chopped, beef has a significant environmental impact. This does not necessarily mean completely cutting out beef, but rather using it less often – perhaps once a month instead of daily.

The process of change is currently taking place.

Fortunately, there is evidence to suggest that changes are occurring, at least within certain sectors of the industry. When Naik initially began auditioning for cooking shows in 2013, she faced rejection due to being a vegetarian (she is now vegan). “I was consistently turned down by networks because of this, as if they didn’t view me as a legitimate chef or the network wasn’t ready for a vegetarian chef,” she explained. However, currently, Naik is a frequent presence on TV – and she is often sought after for her expertise in sustainability, which enables her to offer advice on preparing meals without meat or utilizing leftovers and food scraps.

Zezo, who has been working in TV for over a decade, has seen a shift too. “The feeling in the industry has evolved over the past couple of years in a really big way,” he said. “It’s not anywhere where it needs to be, but it’s more open now.” Zezo himself has been working on Recipe for Disaster, a CW cooking show that debuted this summer and features a plant-based cooking challenge and at least one wisecrack about the climate crisis.

A spokesperson stated via email that a USC study, set to be released in the fall, discovered 3,500 instances of climate-related terms, particularly “vegan” and “vegetarian”, in unscripted television shows (also known as “reality” shows) from August 2022 to February 2023. Additionally, a few cooking shows such as Netflix’s Best Leftovers Ever!, FYI’s series on food waste Scraps: Parts Unseen, HBO Max’s docuseries Zero Waste Chef, and the Food Network’s 2012 special The Big Waste provide insight into potential formats for sustainable cooking programs.

One of the most important discussions happening currently is about the responsibility of television and film to use their significant cultural influence for the betterment of the planet. This has led to the creation of various events, resources, non-profit organizations, and awards focused on assisting the industry in recognizing their potential to promote more responsible climate practices.

Watamanuk emphasized the significance of utilizing the influential industry to promote behavioral changes and address food systems. They believe that without addressing the diets of Americans and the global population, a positive future for the climate is not possible.

Source: theguardian.com