How do we market and communicate the authenticity of food to the consumer through its visual presentation?

In an era of food conglomerates, round-the-clock marketing, over-hyped restaurants and the miracles of modern technology, what constitutes culinary authenticity? With so many players in the food presentation chain, from suppliers of the products to those who style, photograph, represent and sell the food, each player brings to the party a different idea of what authenticity means.

This paper addresses the ‘visual authenticity’ of food, meaning its origins, how it is processed and prepared, and the link between what the eye sees and what the mind (and stomach) conclude about its taste. It is discussed from the perspective of a food stylist who is the author of the first and only book on food styling, and who is the middleman in the food supply chain whose job is to understand the multiple realities that define the authenticity of food and the ways that authenticity can be communicated visually.

Why is visual authenticity important? Because we as visual communicators are responsible for creating ‘appetite appeal,’ which involves the five senses thereby seducing the public into buying a product or trying a recipe by means of tempting photos. We are charged with creating visual fantasies around a particular food or product. And in order to do this effectively and well, we need to understand not only the characteristics of the food or product we’re presenting, but also the perceptions and expectations of the consumer to whom it’s being targeted, and what is authentic to them. Authenticity, after all, much like beauty, is all in the eye of the beholder.

Creating “visual authenticity” is truly a team effort. Consider the variety of players involved in understanding the consumer’s perspective and then interpreting it to create a tempting visual. For any given assignment, there typically is the food editor, the corporate styling manager (if a large corporation is involved,) the marketing and advertising departments and the ad agency, as well as the food stylist and food photographer. Each brings a different viewpoint of what constitutes visual authenticity and how best to create the right mood, attitude and setting to appeal to a food’s or product’s target consumer.

Advertisers typically take more of a “hard sell” approach than magazine editorials do. In both cases, however, the goals are the same—to sell a product. Let’s look first at how advertising approaches “visual authenticity,” and then contrast it with the editorial approach taken by magazines.

Authenticity and Advertising

A striking case of achieving ‘visual authenticity’ at all costs is illustrated by the efforts involved in a Special Advertising Section appearing recently in Bon Appetit which featured a well-known pasta and pasta sauce. While the public may perceive little ‘real authenticity’ in a pasta sauce from a jar, the client’s objective was to convey a sense of a traditional, homemade Italian product. ‘It was our job to create this illusion of authenticity,’ St. John Frizell, Promotion Copy Director of Bon Appetit, told me. In order to do so, the team knew that “The setting for the food is very important. We wanted to make it look like it was being served in someone’s home.’

Maryellen Mooney, Creative Marketing Director of Bon Appetit, says, ‘What we had to do from a visual concept in what appears to be very simple food shots was painstaking. It was a step by step process, like putting another piece of asparagus here, putting a second string of pasta on the fork, moving a fleck of sauce from that piece of pasta, moving the tip of the asparagus over and putting a bit of sauce on it, then putting it behind the spaghetti. It was a mosaic puzzle for us.’ In addition to striving for an appetizing, authentically Italian look, the editors also strove for truth in representation. ‘We had to be sure you could see in the greatest detail what would tempt the consumer without being unrealistic about the serving portion the consumer would get in that jar.’

After a long and painstaking photography session, the editing was arduous as well. ‘We spent five weeks on re-touching and moving things around digitally,’ Mooney adds, ‘all the while continuing to support the client’s idea visually, constantly trying to reinforce their concept of authenticity.’

There are many devices used to promote a product as authentic. As food stylists, we often put products in environments with flavor cues to support what the client is trying to portray as authentic. An example was a recent advertising photo shoot in which two identical plastic 24-ounce cups of iced coffee were placed side by side to be photographed. In order to ‘cue’ the fact that one was blueberry and the other coconut-flavored (flavorings did not change the color of the drinks,) a few blueberries and chunks of coconut were placed next to each cup differentiate and emphasize the individual flavors.

‘The relationship between the setting and the environment is very important for creating an authentic look to our product,’ says Neil Martin, Art Director and Designer for Hill Holiday, the ad agency for Dunkin Donuts. ‘Photography also plays a huge part in enhancing products, particularly through special lighting techniques.’

The issue of food stylists’ using artificial food or ingredients in their work has been a big controversy over the years. The trend today is to use only genuine ingredients. Martin discusses this issue. ‘Using real and natural ingredients always helps to make the product look more authentic. This is important because today’s consumer is sophisticated. People know when something is fake. Trying to trick them is the quickest way to destroy a sense of authenticity.’

Ethical and Legal Issues

In the business of advertising and food packaging, it is critical for manufacturers to remain within legal and ethical bounds with respect to representing portion size, quality, and overall attributes of a product. How does a large corporation maximize the sense of authenticity and culinary appeal of its product, while at the same time maintaining truth in advertising?

I posed this question to Cindy Lund, Food Styling Manager, General Mills and Betty Crocker. ‘From our viewpoint we feel it is our ultimate responsibility to truthfully represent our products,’ Cindy stressed. ‘For example, we are legally and ethically obligated to depict the actual color, the true consistency, and the accurate ratio of particles to broth in our soups.’

‘I have been with General Mills for 20 years and we have established guidelines. Everyone knows what they are and relies on us to interpret them and make sure we all follow them.”

Therein lies the challenge to us as food stylists. We must respect and reflect our clients’ ethical and legal responsibilities, calling upon our artistry and innovativeness to accentuate the appeal of products while in no way misrepresenting the product by changing its color, adding fresh ingredients that aren’t actually part of the product, or altering any aspect of it.

On occasion some marketing research projects came through and we made recommendations… to add an herb or something to give it a little bit of interesting color. In particular I am thinking about a microwave product that may not brown so you have to look at other ways to create a certain appetite appeal so maybe the sauciness and the herb might create a little more interest. Sometimes they do go back and revise the produce or reformulate it to add a little bit more appetite appeal to it.’

In our area of food styling, we veterans know the industry better then a lot of the new young marketers. We have the experience, we know what our competitors are doing, and we have a passion about food and what represents appetite appeal. We look at our products and know what the consumer is going to see. It is all a matter of best judgment.

The marketing department relies on our expertise and do listen to us, they might not always like it but they do tend to listen to us and what we have to say.’

Authenticity in Magazines

Magazines also have products to sell—the magazine itself, as well as its recipes. While an editor may use more of a “soft sell” approach than advertising often does, nonetheless editorial features also employ various devices to promote a product’s authenticity. Frequently photos are added to enhance a story.

John Willoughby, Executive Editor of Gourmet Magazine, thinks there are two schools of thought with respect to food photography in magazines.

‘The question is, Do you want to show them what it really looks like, or do you what to show them the best possible way it can look? Which one is more authentic depends on your point of view.” He points out that magazines take different approaches depending whom they’re appealing to.

‘If you take something and cook it and just put it on a plate without much styling and propping, it will probably look more like it will when someone cooks it at home, so that is an authentic version of what it will look like.” Having said that, he adds that he doesn’t think that is what people want. ‘They want it to look the best it can possibly look, with the right plate, the right lighting and props and all the things that go into styling and photography. And people do respond better to that. People aren’t fooled—they don’t think it’s actually going to look like that when they make it, but this is the best and ideal way this dish can look. This is an ideal version of this recipe. It gives them something to aspire to.’

Romulo Yanas, staff photographer at Gourmet, shared Willoughby’s views about editorial and visual authenticity. Yanas uses certain techniques he feels are important for creating an authentic look when photographing food. Like Martin, who shoots for advertising, Yanas thinks lighting is an extremely important part of this process, particularly the use of strobe versus natural light to enhance food.

He finds an increasing number of photographers are using daylight because they feel it is closer to what we see, hence more authentic. But he adds that sometimes shooting in daylight does not bring out the best in certain foods and products. Under certain circumstances strobe lights elicit a better effect and result. He considers the strobe a legitimate tool, and feels that just because daylight is ‘the real thing,’ it doesn’t necessarily translate into making food appear more authentic. He told me, ‘The idea of shooting in daylight is very romantic and very wonderful, but you have to give the subject whichever treatment brings out the qualities you want to get across in that particular plate of food and recipe. Sometimes it is not always a great picture, but one that will sell that recipe by making the person looking at it want to make that recipe.’

Yanas continues, ‘Communicating visual authenticity is sometimes a little bit of trickery. If you want to bring an authentic look to a photograph, one of the ways I have always used has been letting a crumb fall on the plate or shooting that smudge on the spoon. It gives a feeling that someone has been here. It brings a human, relaxed element into the photo without showing a hand or a real person. It is a little bit of a tease, but it conveys something is happening beyond a dish being placed in front of the camera.’

A very different point of view was put forth by Chris Kimbell, Founder and Editor of Cooks Illustrated. Chris doesn’t think anybody in the food world is tying to create authenticity. ‘I think it’s just the opposite. Nobody is trying to sell you on authenticity. They are trying to sell you on a lifestyle, and are trying to create a fantasy. Authenticity has nothing to do with ninety-eight percent of what is going on in the editorial world. They are selling you a concept. This culture does not appreciate or honor authenticity in almost any sense, especially as it relates to food.’

He continues, ‘We at Cooks Illustrated don’t take advertising so we can be honest about what works. We create recipes that people can rely on. Our whole gig is saying that most food really sucks, so let’s start with bad food. We made these six brownie recipes and they are all bad. Now let’s figure out why they are bad and how to make a pretty good one. We are not going to lie about what it takes or how long it takes—we’ll be pretty straightforward about it.’

Dara Goldstein, Editor, Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture takes a more skeptical approach to visual authenticity. She is not convinced that we can claim anything to be truly authentic at heart, but feels rather that authenticity comes from what the food preparer puts into it. ‘For example, take an old family recipe that was made a certain way in the 19th century. If someone is making it now in the 21st century it still can be an authentic recipe even if the polenta is not ground by hand and even if the ingredients are not put together and cooked in exactly the same way as they were when using the 19th century technology. So I have some trouble with the idea that for something to be authentic it has to be done exactly the same way as it has been done in the past. Authenticity is an idea that can incorporate new methods or modern ingredients as long as the impetus behind it is genuine.’

She adds that immigrants prove this point. ‘There has been so much movement around the world that while immigrants are adapting to the newer ingredients that they find in the place they come to, their preparation is just as authentic–they are doing it the way they know best.’

At times Goldstein has used very graphic images to create controversial visual authenticity in her magazine. I refer to one in particular, a cover called The Tomato Eater, which is very tight shot of a man with a mustache and dirt under his nails. The shot is so close, that at first glance the viewer is not quite sure what he or she is looking at. Goldstein observes, ‘Now, this to me is as authentic as you can get. I mean, here is a guy in the fields with dirty hands and so if you are confronted with something that is very real it makes some people uncomfortable.’


Anne Mendelson, culinary historian and author of the book Stand Facing the Stove, puts it well when she says, “Visual presentation can lie as much as it can tell the truth. When you talk about authenticity you are implicitly allowing that there is inauthenticity. What is authentic? The camera does not tell the truth on its own—it is how it is used.”

So what can we conclude? Some would contend that visual authenticity is an illusion created by people in the business of selling something, achieved by manipulating light, perspective, and photographic technique. But there’s also the illusion that the viewer or consumer himself imposes—the belief that a doughnut, some pasta sauce straight from the jar, or a can of soup on the grocer’s shelf can be just as authentic and credible as a family recipe created from scratch in one’s own home. It does seem, in the end, that visual authenticity truly is in the eye of the beholder.