Life outside of our living rooms has been scarce since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, so it’s no surprise that people have increasingly turned to the production and consumption of social media-focused posts. on food. With limited access to our favorite restaurants, cafes or fast food outlets, social media has become a safe way for people to find their culinary solution.
But what about the food videos that engage users and generate the most likes, comments, and shares?
Our recent survey, published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, focused on the nutritional composition of dishes portrayed on social media. We looked at the recipes and ingredients from hundreds of Facebook videos from Buzzfeed’s Tasty profile and found that calorie density can positively influence social media engagement.
Interestingly, not all nutrients are created equal when it comes to engagement. On the contrary, those that people can easily see, such as saturated fat, may be more responsible.
The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally altered our relationship with food: what we eat, where we eat, why we eat as we are, and even when we eat.
Not surprisingly, people have also been spending more time on social media since the start of the pandemic. Taken together, the widespread use of social media has also changed the way people are exposed to food.
With over 400 million posts tagged #food and 250 million tagged #foodporn on Instagram at the time of this article’s publication, social media users are inundated with visual displays of food.
Perhaps most notably, Buzzfeed’s Tasty has grown to become the world’s largest digital food network, garnering over 100 million Facebook followers and over one billion views per month.
Given the ubiquity of online food media, understanding the specific characteristics that shape engagement is of critical importance to several groups: content producers who seek to tailor media to viewer preferences; advertisers seeking to increase their marketing impact; and health advocates interested in helping consumers make better food choices.
Humans are hardwired to look for foods with characteristics that the brain instinctively recognizes as valuable. Seeing high-calorie foods like high-fat ones (like burgers, pizza, and cookies) usually precedes pleasurable consumption, so it’s only natural for humans to visually attend to food.
Finding and eating high calorie foods generally makes people feel good, releasing dopamine and stimulating the brain’s pleasure centers. This suggests that nutritional content can be largely measured by the appearance of a dish, and that simple exposure to high-calorie meals can help people feel good.
When it comes to influencing online behaviors, the link between wellness 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 on and shared. Taken together, visual exposure to food media that appears high in calories – as opposed to light in calories – should boost social media engagement.
Our research examined the recipes and ingredients of hundreds of Buzzfeed’s Tasty Facebook videos using a word processing algorithm. We have found that calorie 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 high-calorie foods, helps explain the link.
Interestingly, it seems that not all nutrients are created equal when it comes to engagement. On the contrary, those that people can easily see, such as saturated fat, may be more responsible.
Saturated fats are prevalent in butter, cheese, meats, and oils, and are known to give foods their juicy, chewy, and creamy sensory experiences.
Our results align with a particular approach to food photography, where adding an artificial glow with WD-40 can make food plump, moist and juicy.
These results raise an interesting question: is it possible to make healthier foods, like vegetables, more appealing by applying visual characteristics associated with higher-fat foods, for example by coating them with a shine?
Identifying these visual characteristics of nutrients can better inform strategies to increase engagement with more health-friendly food content.
But why is social media engagement important?
Social media platforms use ranking algorithms to prioritize and boost content that drives more engagement. Just posting content online doesn’t mean it will be viewed. Rather, it is the engagement with the content that amplifies the reach and serves the content to a wider audience. While content that contains unhealthy or high-calorie foods is more likely to generate interest, it is also more likely to reach more people.
Overall, our research offers a first glimpse of how the nutritional makeup of food media influences social media engagement. As consumer concern for digital food media continues to grow, particularly during times of pandemic lockdown, it is critical to understand the factors that increase engagement with this content, with implications for public health.
Not only does nutrition influence what people eat, but this research suggests that it can also shape social dynamics in terms of what people share with others, ultimately influencing and normalizing what others eat.
The next time you like, comment, or share a cooking video on social media, think about what you find so appealing about food.
Ethan Pancer is Associate Professor of Marketing at Saint Mary’s University and Matthew Philp is Assistant Professor of Marketing at Ryerson University.
The article was originally published on “The Conversation”.