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June 6, 2023
Have We Finally Hit Peak Wellness Food?

A novelist digs into the kelp- and cacao-boosted movement that inspired her work. 

I can’t stop looking at the photo of the Schisandra Beauty Ball. The snack, which appears in Amanda Chantal Bacon’s The Moon Juice Manual: Adaptogenic Recipes for Natural Stress Relief, looks like a contemporary sculpture that just sold at Art Basel for $100,000. The Beauty Balls—which contain dried apples and cherries, raw sesame butter, hemp hearts, and schisandra (also known as “five-flavor berry,” which is widely used in traditional Chinese medicine)—are, according to the recipe’s headnotes, for your “beauty health,” and though the Ball itself looks kind of like an owl pellet, it has been photographed atop a tiny golden pedestal, atop a golden plate, atop an unvarnished concrete slab. No part of me wants to eat it; I only want to admire it.

The first rule of wellness food is: it shouldn’t look like food. You might recognize some elements of the food as food, but there should be plausible deniability—they could just as easily be not-food. Those zucchini ribbons could be part of a floral arrangement. The raw cacao might be mulch; the kelp appears freshly plucked from a reef. It’s key to avoid any association with consumption. These dishes can and should be savored, as one might savor the feeling of a spring breeze across the skin.

The first rule of wellness food is: it shouldn’t look like food.

“Wellness” is a concept so nebulous that it’s important to define the term. The type of wellness rabbit hole I dove into while writing my novel, The Glow, was the kind that catered to very wealthy, very thin white women—women with the means to afford health of all kinds, including beauty. I’d argue that extreme wellness food had its first viral moment in 2015, when Elle published Bacon’s bananas food diary.

As the founder of Moon Juice, the LA-based “adaptogenic beauty and well-being” company that sells supplements, snacks, and skincare for holistic health, her diet was appropriately complicated. It featured plenty of “deeply mineralizing” sea vegetables, cordyceps, and raw cacao as an “indulgence.” (There were no actual bananas involved, as, in a 2016 piece in the same magazine, Bacon later revealed that she instead makes her smoothies with frozen avocado to cut down on sugar.) The internet erupted with hot takes—the headline of Jia Tolentino’s Jezebel piece about it read “I Have Never Heard Of, Much Less Eaten, Any of the Foods in This Juice Lady’s Food Diary”—generating plenty of free publicity for Moon Juice and, later, its transfixing eponymous cookbook.

But in the years since Bacon’s food diary caused such fervor, even the most extreme wellness practices have permeated our cultural consciousness with the help of Instagram and Gwyneth Paltrow. Because wellness food is inextricably linked to your skin’s appearance, you can now buy powdered Moon Juice supplements like Magnesi-Om™ powder and the much-hyped (and mocked) Sex Dust® at Sephora. Sea moss, a vitamin-rich red algae with myriad purported health benefits, from skin soothing to gut regulation, has trickled down from a popular smoothie add-on with the Erewhon set—including Kim Kardashian and Hailey Bieber—to the shelves of those “health food bodegas” that stock Lärabars and four brands of kombucha alongside their Diet Coke and tortilla chips. Once-esoteric wellness foods are not quite mainstream, but they are widely available for anyone who cares to look.

Where I live, in Richmond, Virginia, sea moss is available not only at the local crunchy grocery store but also at Walmart—priced at just under $19 for eight ounces. These foods no longer indicate wealthy kookiness, they just indicate wealth—bee pollen is the edible gold leaf of our time. 

“It’s Soylent for girls,” my friend observed when I showed her my research, and it does seem natural that the feminization of meal optimization would mean—instead of the complete removal of effort (ready to drink!)—a hilarious amount of extra work. “Now that you are in the swing of making your own Well Milk every week,” The Moon Juice Cookbook advises, “you undoubtedly have a supply of dehydrated nut pulps in your pantry,” which you can use to make “delicious doughs” for things like homemade Chocolate Chaga Donuts with “sprinkles” made from “activated” (read: sprouted) quinoa, beet and turmeric juice, and coconut nectar.

My experience of wellness food is that the more it attempts to transform its ingredients, the worse the final product tastes. A big salad or a green smoothie free from gluten and dairy and refined sugar tastes normal, maybe delicious. A brownie made of cacao and Medjool dates tastes like Medjool dates, but sandier and more bitter. 

Of course, the labor of making perfectly fine foods taste worse can also be outsourced, with companies like Sakara Life, which touts meals “backed by cutting-edge nutrition science and traditional healing wisdom to give your body what it needs to thrive.” The offerings at Sakara include “The Metabolism Reset,” “The Gut Health Reboot,” and, ominously, “The Bridal Program,” priced at $1,610, $2,275, and $1,680 respectively. Sakara’s Instagram captions mention flavor in passing, if at all: delicious as a parenthetical. White beans are described as “grounding” and “satiating.” A Black Garlic BBQ Burger is “radiance revealing.”

The photos on Sakara’s Instagram page are beautiful—edible flowers that put the Trader Joe’s bouquet on my counter to shame, granola bar wrappers I’d love to repurpose as wallpaper in my hallway—but they don’t make me hungry. They just make me wish my house was nicer. 

The labor of making perfectly fine foods taste worse can also be outsourced.

Ostensibly, “clean eating” means eating whole, unprocessed foods in order to avoid all manner of “toxins,” specific and not. The more time I spent deep in the world of wellness food Instagram, though, the more “clean” started to feel like the “clean lines” of, say, a $25,000 ecru couch. There’s no sense of deprivation here—no “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels”—instead, there’s a feeling of both indulgence and virtue. As with a minimalist house, too-muchness, whether too many objects or too many processed ingredients, isn’t just tacky but somehow immoral. It’s nutritional stealth wealth.

Pursuing optimal wellness, whether as a billionaire trying to age himself backward or a glowy-skinned dust influencer forever calibrating her microbiome, is a lonely business, so it makes sense that wellness eating is, at its core, a solitary experience. Increasingly, there’s a nominal community to be found in goop’s expanding universe of summits and cruises. But if each ingredient must be tailored to the specific energetic needs of the individual, can anyone who is fully committed to their own wellness journey really share a meal?

Writing about a woman attempting to monetize someone else’s true belief in the power of a diet free of nightshades, I leaned into the absurdity of esoteric food descriptions. My characters ate cashew-zucchini bisque with kelp croutons, and kelp rolls filled with bee pollen, and kelp broth with mushroom dust, and alkalized almonds, and they drank alkalized mushroom water, and alkalized turmeric water, and ice water only as a special treat. Mostly, though, I leaned into the idea of food as both medicine and vibe, and the solitude of eating so well.

Jessie Gaynor

Jessie Gaynor is the author of The Glow. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The New Yorker, WSJ Magazine, and elsewhere. She is a senior editor at Literary Hub and she has an MFA in poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was a Rona Jaffe fellow. She lives in Richmond, Virginia with her family.