Can We Really Trust Celebrity Chefs?

Paula Deen – Is Her Health Our Business?

The food community is exploding this week over the news that Paula Deen, the host of numerous Food Network shows over the last decade, had been diagnosed with diabetes.

Since her previously undisclosed diagnosis three years ago, she has continued to host shows like Paula’s Home Cooking, showing us how to make Southern food, and all the grease and goodness that comes with it.

Supporters and critics are fighting the word war on what we’re to make of this news:

  • Defenders argue that Paula’s health is none of our business, and Paula herself advocates “moderation” as the solution.
  • Critics say that a public figure in the food arena should have no health secrets, and that her ethics and financial motives are sketchy at best, calling her a hypocrite and a sell-out.

Paula’s thoughts on “moderation” sound more like a punt of the difficult questions being put to her rather than something thoughtful and actionable.

Endorsements and Responsibilities

Adding fuel to the fire, Deen’s new relationship with the drug maker Novo Nordisk is raising a lot of eyebrows and calls for answers about how exactly she stands to make money from this announcement.

While analogies are less than perfect, consider one of mine. As an architect, suppose I really like the benefits of using Chinese drywall, since it’s cheaper and offers the same performance as regular drywall. Now suppose that I become sick and my home deteriorates as a result of using this drywall myself, as many homes did in Florida and other states in the last few years.

The link between Chinese drywall and problems is public information, but instead of acknowledging it on my TV show, I continue to promote its benefits, even as my own house falls apart. You might say that as a conscientious consumer, you should have done your own research and known better. You might also say that, as a professional, I should not have recommended a product I knew to be harmful, and I would say you would be right.

Consider another analogy that may be closer to home, considering society’s views on smoking. Let’s say that the Travel Channel had a show about cigars, with the host traveling the world looking for and smoking the best cigars he could find. What would happen if we suddenly found out that the host was diagnosed with mouth or lung cancer more than a year ago and was dying? Would you continue to watch the show? Would you continue smoking cigars? Buying his books?

I’m all for personal responsibility, but we can’t be everything to everyone. We rely on the expertise of others to guide us in making certain decisions, like how to prepare our food and what drywall to use. As a celebrity chef, Paula is a role model to people everywhere who are just looking for something to put on their table. Whether she likes it or not, people emulate her. She also stands to make money from the way she has branded herself, which is as a “Southern” chef.

Thoughts on Celebrity Chef Endorsements

What message does her deliberate withdrawal of food-related information from her followers speak about who she is, what she believes in, and how we should eat? Does she truly believe in what she does or was she hiding her illness just to continue profiting from the shows that made her famous?

I leave you with the question that started this all–can we really trust celebrity chefs to give us the best information and their honest opinions?

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