Vegan restaurants have long made substitutions for meat and dairy: Mock “burgers” and “bacon” are menu staples for people who eat plant-based diets for moral or health reasons. But we now live in an age where fruits and vegetables are masqueraded as bread and pasta in the name of dieting. Eating more produce is a fantastic goal, but do we need recipes that make us lie to ourselves in order to accomplish this?
Consider the boomlet of watermelon “pizza” recipes. To be fair, no other term could quickly describe watermelon that’s cut into slabs and sliced like a pie, then slathered with yogurt or cream cheese and sprinkled with berries. Why make it at all? Isn’t sliced watermelon good enough? Why must we pretend it’s in any way related to a hot, cheesy triangle of fat and carbs?
Food bloggers and the Instagram economy certainly perpetuate the notion that entertaining can and should be be photo-worthy; fruit salad simply doesn’t hack it. Since online editors know that some foods, like watermelon and sweet potatoes, play especially well with audiences, these fake junk foods could be little more than an elaborate traffic or engagement ploy. Sweet potatoes are clicky content, plus their deep-orange hue makes them more visually appealing than, say, turnips. (Fake “sushi” recipes, on the other hand, appear to be reverse engineered with bloggers using bananas and zucchini to re-create them.)
Perhaps people are just tired of eating their roasted cauliflower or sautéed zucchini, so they have cauliflower “rice” or zucchini “noodles” for a change. These kinds of recipes can help with the food waste problem, too: I have made many a kale chip when I knew I wouldn’t use up the bunch before it went bad, and CSA members often wonder what the hell to do with all that squash.
Of course, it’s possible that people making sweet-potato “toast” have celiac disease and hate gluten-free bread. But I suspect that lots of people shoving tuber slices into their toasters are avoiding gluten because they believe it’s somehow bad for them and nixing it will help them lose weight. One recipe roundup even proclaimed that sweet-potato toast would not only make your social-media followers jealous, but also make you forget about bread forever.
Herein lies a problem. Disguising what some might consider to be boring, healthy foods (vegetables) as other, more enticing ones (bread), plays into the idea that certain foods are “bad” or forbidden and need healthy swaps in order to be consumed. This is troubling both for people trying to slim down and those with disordered eating patterns like orthorexia. And why would sharing a photo of non-toast toast make people jealous — are they supposed to be envious that you’re pretending to eat bread? A salad cake is still a salad, after all.
You shouldn’t need to rebrand produce as pizza, sushi, or cake in order to want to eat it — nor should wanting to eat more healthy foods preclude you from enjoying actual pizza, sushi, or cake. Dieting does not work in the long run for the vast majority of people, so it’s probably a good idea to learn how to eat some pepperoni slices every once in awhile and not hate yourself for it. It does not mean you have failed and that your diet restarts tomorrow. You are not terrible for indulging in office cake, but you also need to eat vegetables — preferably not in cake form.