Life outside our living rooms has been in short supply since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, so it’s no surprise that people have increasingly turned to producing and consuming social media posts that focus on food. With limited access to our favourite restaurants, cafés or fast-food joints, social media has become a safe way for people to get their culinary fix.
But what is it about videos of food that engage users and generates the most likes, comments and shares?
Our recent investigation, published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, focused on the nutritional makeup of dishes depicted on social media. We examined the recipes and ingredients for hundreds of Facebook videos from Buzzfeed’s Tasty profile and found that caloric density can positively influence social media engagement.
Interestingly, not all nutrients are created equal when it comes to engagement. Rather, the ones that people can readily see, like saturated fats, may be more responsible.
#FoodPorn: Eating With Your Eyes
Not surprisingly, people are also spending more time on social media since the start of the pandemic. Taken together, the pervasive use of social media has also changed how people are exposed to food.
Given the ubiquity of food media online, understanding the specific characteristics that shape engagement is of critical importance to several groups: content producers looking to tailor media towards viewer preferences; advertisers seeking to increase marketing impact; and health advocates interested in helping consumers make better eating choices.
Nutrition and Social Media Engagement
Humans are hard-wired to seek foods with characteristics that the brain instinctively recognizes as valuable. Seeing calorie-dense foods like those high in fat content (like burgers, pizza and cookies) typically precedes pleasurable consumption, so it is natural that humans visually attend to food.
Finding and eating calorie-dense foods typically makes people feel good, releasing dopamine and stimulating pleasure centres of the brain. This suggests that nutritional content can be broadly gauged by a dish’s appearance and that simple exposure to calorie-dense meals can make people feel good.
When it comes to influencing online behaviours, the link between feeling good and digital engagement is well documented. Positive content is more likely to go viral and social media content that makes consumers feel good increases the likelihood of being liked, commented upon and shared. Taken together, visual exposure to food media that looks calorie-dense — as opposed to calorie-light — should drive social media engagement.
More Fat = More Engagement?
Our research examined the recipes and ingredients for hundreds of Facebook videos from Buzzfeed’s Tasty using a text-processing algorithm. We found that caloric density can positively influence social media engagement. Several follow-up experiments suggest that positive affect, the extent to which we feel good after visual exposure to calorie-dense foods, helps explain the connection.
Interestingly, it seems that not all nutrients are created equal when it comes to engagement. Rather, the ones that people can readily see, like saturated fats, may be more responsible.
Our findings align with a particular approach to food photography, where adding an artificial sheen with WD-40 can make food look more plump, moist and juicy.
These findings raise an interesting question: Is it possible to make healthier foods, like vegetables, more appealing by applying visual characteristics associated with fattier foods by, for example, coating them with a sheen?
Identifying these visual characteristics of nutrients can better inform strategies to increase engagement with more health-conscious food media content.