What’s the sci­ence be­hind food porn?

Food is all dressed up on so­cial me­dia.

Vocable (All English) - - Édito Sommaire - CHARLES SPENCE

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.


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.

(Ja­son Henry/ The New York Times)

“The Jenga” at the Sno-Crave Tea House in San Fran­cisco. The dessert is shown in mo­tion here.

(Banzz - www.youtube.com/user/eodyd188)

Banzz is one of South Korea’s most pop­u­lar “mukbang” YouTu­bers.

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