A steadily growing foodie culture, paired with perpetual access to social media, has given new life to amateur food photography. Everyone is snapping and sharing photos of meals they're eating or about to eat or take out, from cheesy pasta bakes to chocolate-y extravaganzas. On Instagram, search #foodporn and you'll find more than 18 million results, and on Pinterest, millions more. And though the tasty-looking photos might seem to foster foodie culture, the photo inundation is adversely impacting consumers.
A 2013 study revealed that looking at crave-worthy photos weakens satisfaction once actually dining. In the study, as reported in September's Journal of Consumer Psychology, one group of participants was exposed to salty food images, and a second group was shown sweets. Afterward, both groups snacked on peanuts. Those who had viewed salty food photos reported significantly less enjoyment. Researchers from Brigham Young University and the University of Minnesota credit this to sensory overload. The longer a person is exposed to one flavor, the less satisfying the treat becomes.
"Looking at images of food activates similar regions in the brain that are used in perception," explains Brigham Young professor Ryan Elder, a coauthor of the study. "So when I'm seeing something salty, my mind automatically imagines that experience." Elder says that simulated consumption leads to decreased satiety, and navigating through pages of food photos has a similar end result.
As an example, says the professor, "I went to a restaurant, and I'm taking and looking at a bunch of pictures of my food prior to eating. . . . I'm likely to not enjoy it as much as I would have, had I not looked at images at all."
By feeding their interest, foodies wind up dampening their dining experience. Even so, mouthwatering images continue to saturate popular media. "People love to see really, really good food," says Branden Lewis, chef and culinary arts instructor at Johnson & Wales University, "but I don't think that's a new thing." Lewis recalls his mother's Good Housekeeping publications and the Jell-O molds that caught her eye. The difference today, he says, is "the availability of photos that can be taken and shared."
The popular mantra, "pics or it didn't happen," might be applied here. A dish is only relevant if publicized en masse. "Students are much more active in taking pictures with their phones," says Jessica Habalou, assistant director of food and wine experiential programs at Boston University. She's noticed a marked increase even in the last few years. "It does demonstrate how fixated we are on the visual of a plate."
Most users, however, are not professional, or even accomplished, photographers, which often results in less-than-appetizing photos. To keep dishes appealing, Lewis advises Johnson & Wales students to be mindful of balance, from flavor to color to shape. For the novice Instagrammer, he suggests "natural light, no flash – ever. And [secondly,] on occasion, mix up the point of view," like extreme close-ups and off-centered shots.
Elder, the Brigham Young professor, is beginning to explore why consumers feel compelled to share each bite they take. "Showing your food . . . is showing a little bit about your personality and who you are as an individual," he says.
But as Habalou points out, even if the image is beautifully composed or earns hundreds of "likes" on a social media site, photographing your food ultimately damages the dining experience. "While you wind up your camera and choose your filter," she says, "your plate's getting cold."
Jessica Teich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.