You Eat What You Google: America’s Appetite Meets the Internet
By: Helene Dick
Bacon just had a bad week. The World Health Organization’s announcement likening bacon to cigarettes on the list of cancer troublemakers was met with widespread dismay and a full-blown media frenzy. After all, bacon is the Internet’s darling. In recent years, bacon mania has inspired everything from bacon-infused dark chocolate to bacon cologne. Trends ranging from a revival in artisanal butchery to protein-friendly paleo diets have further fueled bacon’s popularity. But last week, the bacon bandwagon hit a speed bump.
Nowadays, this type of phenomenon is normal. America likes to talk about food a lot, and food attitudes are evolving at lightning speed. Remember that millisecond when Greek yogurt or Sriracha or coconut water was a curious novelty, then suddenly it was everywhere? Now Taco Bell is running commercials for Sriracha “quesaritos” and even Yoplait’s got a Greek yogurt.
I like food. I really like working in food. Food plays at the intersection of cultural desire and human necessity. It touches everybody.
My first job ever was an under-the-table gig pulling up weeds at an organic farm, my second was pouring coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts. In college I heated up frozen pizzas and poured beers. Now that I work in marketing for food brands, I often refer back to my experiences on the front lines of foodservice to navigate America’s ever-complicating food culture.
And boy, is it getting complicated out there.
- For the first time since the government started measuring it more than 40 years ago, Americans are finally consuming less calories. Soda consumption alone has taken a 25 percent hit since the late 1990s. According to the USDA, our per capita consumption of caloric sweeteners is down from its peak in 1999 of 153.2 pounds per person to 131.1 pounds in 2014. Still not great, but it’s a work in progress.
- The natural foods aisle is taking over the grocery store. Organic brands aren’t mom and pop shops anymore — they’re billion dollar enterprises, appearing on shelves at Walmart and local gas stations. Food giants ranging from ConAgra to General Mills to Coca Cola are engaged in a natural foods arms-race, gobbling up upstart brands like Annie’s Homegrown and Honest Tea. A YouTube video on how to pronounce quinoa has been viewed over a million times.
- The American palate is diversifying, getting spicier and more adventurous. Fusion cuisine and fast casual concepts like Chipotle and Qdoba have enjoyed massive success. In dollar sales, salsa surpassed ketchup in popularity in the early 2000s. A closer look at the condiments market is even more telling: soy sauce sits right behind ketchup in market value, and the growth in demand for hot sauce is outpacing them all.
- Grocery shoppers are avoiding frozen food, causing serious trauma to freezer-meal mainstays like LeanCusine and Healthy Choice. Frozen pizza alone has taken a 5% hit. On the other side of the spectrum, names like Blue Apron and Plated have grown the digitally-driven fresh meal kit industry into a 5 billion dollar business.
[FIG 1: Magazine covers] These shifts are decades in the making — thanks to changes in demographics, technology and an obesity crisis that has dominated national conversation since Supersize Me hit movie theaters more than a decade ago. But now that the norms are changing, the change is on steroids.
It would appear that health is the biggest game changer in how we eat… which is kind of true but not really the whole truth. At the risk of oversimplifying, we have become more invested in what we eat and how we eat it. Especially for younger generations, food is now a source of identity and experience that is sought after and curated and later Instagram’d: what we choose to munch on has become a point of vanity. [FIG 2: Bloomberg graph] We blog about being paleo, or we Snapchat our burger from In’n’Out, Whataburger or Shake Shack. Americans are asking more questions, expecting more, trying more than ever before, and decisions are being made on a digital battleground.
The internet has empowered us all to be more demanding about food. We’re no longer limited to what the grocery store stocks or what our recipe books recommend or what our familiar neighborhood restaurants serve. We order groceries online, google new recipes for free, and discover new restaurants on Yelp. Subcultures of food are congealing: bringing together people like organic Moms or gluten-free devotees, but also people who just really love SURGE soda or Lucky Charms marshmallows. There’s even communities for people who actually would prefer to spend less time eating and more time on other things.
This is exciting! (For me, at least.) There are so many touchpoints to the digital food experience a brand can tap into, shape and rebuild: Meal planning, writing grocery lists, even mapping a route to the grocery store can all happen on a phone.
Urbanites can opt for an online grocery service and do it all from behind a computer.
Millennials read recipes off of screens and admire each other’s dinner creations on Instagram. [FIG 3: Instagram food hashtag volume]
Novice cooks seek out help on YouTube, generating 419 million views of how-to cooking content in 2014 alone.
Dinner hosts hold parties to playlists they found through digital music services.
Dieters record their calorie intake on apps.
Seamless power users order lunch and dinner from the office without closing their email.
Regular restaurants-goers look up menus in advance online.
Customers complain about bad food experiences on Twitter, and write their praises (or 8 stanzas of poetry) in Amazon reviews.
Every one of these interactions is an opportunity. The implication for food brands is clear: with the right strategy online, you can seriously affect your bottom line. It’s a big, wild, digitally-powered world of food out here.
Caption: Magazine covers of the early and late 2000s played a role in shaping the national food conversation.
Caption: According to Bloomberg, millennials are driving an increase in spending on restaurants. Younger generations are more likely to perceive dining out as a social event and a chance to connect.
A sampling of tagged food conversation on Instagram.
Source: Iconosquare, November 2015