What’s the science behind food porn?
Food is all dressed up on social media.
The advent of social media, and particularly Instagram, has fundamentally changed our relationship with food. The growing popularity of taking photos of our food and sharing them online shows no signs of abating in the near future. It is the celebrity chefs of the late 1970s who started this trend when they decided their food should look as beautiful as it tasted. Nowadays, food preparation and display has become a veritable feast for the eyes.
Your brain is your body’s most bloodthirsty organ, using around 25% of total blood flow (or energy) – despite the fact that it accounts for only 2% of body mass. Given that our brains have evolved to find food, it should perhaps come as little surprise to discover that some of the largest increases in cerebral blood flow occur when a hungry brain is exposed to images of desirable foods. Within little more than the blink of an eye, our brains make a judgment call about how much we like the foods we see and how nutritious they might be. And so you might be starting to get the idea behind gastroporn.
2. Apicius, the first-century Roman gourmand and author, is credited with the aphorism: “The first taste is always with the eyes.” Nowadays, the visual appearance of a dish is just as important as, if not more important than, the taste/flavour itself. We are bombarded by food images, from adverts through to social media and TV cookery shows. Unfortunately, though, the foods that tend to look best (or rather, that our brains are most attracted to) are generally not the healthiest. Quite the reverse, in fact.
3. We may all face being led into less healthy food behaviours by the highly desirable images of foods that increasingly surround us. In 2015, just as in the year before, food was the second most searched-for category on the internet (after pornography). The blame, if any, doesn’t reside solely with the marketers, food companies and chefs; a growing number of us are actively seeking out images of food – “digital foraging”, if you will. How long, I wonder, before food takes the top slot?
4. People have been preparing beautifullooking foods for feasts and celebrations for centuries. However, for anything other than an extravagant feast, the likelihood is that meals in the past would have been served without any real concern for how they looked. That they tasted good, or even just that they provided some sustenance, was all that mattered. This was true even of famous French chefs, as highlighted by the following quote from Sebastian Lepinoy, executive chef at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon: “French presentation was virtually non-existent. If you ordered a coq au vin at a restaurant, it would be served just as if you had made it at home.”
5. Everything changed, though, when east met west in the French kitchens of the 1960s. It was this meeting of culinary minds that led to nouvelle cuisine, and with it, gastroporn – a term that dates to a review in 1977 of Paul Bocuse’s French Cookery. The name stuck. These days, more and more chefs are becoming concerned (obsessed, even) by how their food photographs. As one restaurant consultant put it: “I’m sure some restaurants are preparing food now that is going to look good on Instagram.” 6. Some have been struggling with how to deal with the trend for diners sharing meals on social media. Much publicised responses include everything from limiting diners’ opportunities to photograph the food during the meal through to banning photography inside the restaurant. It would, however, seem as though the chefs have now, mostly, embraced the trend, acknowledging that it is all part of “the experience”.
There is a sense in which the visual appeal of the meal has become an end in itself.
A MARKETING GOAL
7. There is a sense in which the visual appeal of the meal has become an end in itself. Researchers and food companies have begun to establish which tricks and techniques work best in terms of increasing the eye-appeal of a dish, including, for instance, showing food, especially protein, in motion (even if it is just implied motion) to attract the viewer’s attention and convey freshness.
8. I came across an example recently in a London tube station. There were video advertising screens along the wall as I ascended the escalator. All I could see, out of the corner of my eye, was a steaming slice of lasagne being lifted slowly from a dish, dripping with hot melted cheese, on screen after screen. As the marketers know only too well, such “protein in motion” shots are attentiongrabbing; our eyes (or rather our brains) find them almost irresistible.
9. Marks & Spencer has acquired something of a reputation for food porn with its highly stylised and gorgeously presented advertising. Look closely and you will find plenty of protein in motion (both implied and real). Its most famous ad, from 2005, was for a chocolate pudding with an extravagant melting centre. Sales skyrocketed by around 3,500%.
10. In M&S’s 2014 campaign, all of the food was shown in motion. Food in motion also looks more desirable, in part because it is perceived to be fresher. Studies by food psy- chology researcher Brian Wansink and his colleagues at Cornell University show that we rate a picture of a glass of orange juice as significantly more appealing when juice can be seen being poured into the glass than when the image is of a glass that has already been filled.
11. One of the strangest trends relating to food porn that I have come across in recent years is called mukbang. A growing number of South Koreans are using their mobile phones and laptops to watch other people consuming and talking about eating food online. Millions of viewers engage in this voyeuristic habit, which first appeared back in 2011. Interestingly, the stars are not top chefs, TV personalities or restaurateurs but rather regular “online eaters”. One can think of this as yet another example of food in motion; it’s just that the person interacting with the food happens to be more visible than in many examples of dynamic food advertising in the west, where all you see is the food moving. 12. Marketers, at least the smarter ones, know only too well that we will rate what we see in food advertisements more highly if it’s easier to mentally simulate the act of eating that which we see. Imagine a packet of soup with a bowl of soup on the front of the packaging. Adding a spoon approaching the bowl from the right will result in people being around 15% more willing to buy the product than if the spoon approaches from the left. That’s because most of us are right-handed, and so we normally see ourselves holding a spoon in our right hand.
13. In the coming years, gastrophysicists will continue to examine the crucial part the foods we are exposed to visually play in eating behaviours. There seems little chance that the impact of sight will decline any time soon, especially given how much time we spend gazing at screens.
“The Jenga” at the Sno-Crave Tea House in San Francisco. The dessert is shown in motion here.
Banzz is one of South Korea’s most popular “mukbang” YouTubers.