Food is seen everywhere on social media today and the food culture is booming. Why do millennials love sharing their food experiences and how are they influencing eating trends?
By Leyla Rose
There is a coffee shop in the centre of Leeds called Distinto. It doesn’t particularly blow you away with its decor, but it’s got a great atmosphere. At the counter, there is a selection of cakes — carrot, chocolate, blueberry — as well as baguettes, paninis and a variety of pastries. On the top floor by the window are tables and sofas. One of these tables is occupied by two young women who have ordered pastries, cake and some prettily presented lattes. They seem to be holding a photo shoot and look very intent on arranging the plates aesthetically. One asks her friend to hold her fork and angle it as if she was about to dig it into her slice of cake. They spend a good seven minutes taking differently angled photos of the carefully laid out table — overhead shots, close-ups of the food and diagonal shots for that extra garnish of creativity.
This is a real live behind-the-scenes of the food posts we see on our Instagram feed. One of the most interesting observations is that apart from a few fleeting looks of amusement no one seems to bat an eyelid. Has taking photos of food become normalised?
Foodies and food porn
It is easy for anyone to become a self-proclaimed foodie — someone who loves food and is always on the lookout for new places to eat and the latest food trends. Food is no longer just a means of survival, but has somehow morphed into a culture of its own. It seems as if food is taking over digital media. On photo sharing sites such as Instagram and Pinterest, television and YouTube channels like Food Network and SORTEDfood, and mobile apps and sites like Tastemade — the list goes on and on.
Anyone with a smartphone can take a photo of their food, or access social media, or watch cooking shows. But have you ever noticed that it’s usually millennials — those born between roughly 1980 and 2000 — who are raving about the new food truck opening or the latest superfood trend — chia pudding anyone?
When it comes down to it, foodies fetishise food. The over the top, magnificent visual presentation of dishes on digital platforms defines food porn. But how did this fetishisation come about? #foodporn is one of the most popular hashtags on Twitter and Instagram, currently with 117,530,033 posts on Instagram. Believe it or not, the term was already floating around before social media even existed. Back in 1984 Rosalind Coward, an author and journalist, invented the term ‘food pornography’ in her book Female Desire. She says: “That we should aspire to produce perfectly finished and presented food is a symbol of a willing and enjoyable participation in servicing others. Food pornography [pictures] are always beautifully lit, often touched up.” Coward talks about how images of food can stimulate feelings of physical pleasure and longing, similar to the way in which pornography stimulates sexual urges.
It’s worth mentioning that the styling and presentation of food takes precedence over taste on digital media, showing off food temptingly, like fashion photography showing off clothing in the most attractive way. The intention is to capture that perfect shot which stimulates the viewers’ salivary glands.
Rhianna Bowe is a food and lifestyle blogger in Leeds. As she is a 23-year-old millennial blogger, it goes without saying that she’s very familiar with social media and the topic of food porn. “In terms of food porn becoming popular,” she says, “I think that’s just a case of people enjoying food, therefore enjoying photos of it. And I know most people would rather see a foodporn type photo because it’s aesthetically pleasing, than a blurry home cooked stew that just looks like mush! It comes down to people being so visual.”
Marks & Spencer has geared its advertising campaign to food porn. Part of its iconic ad from 2005 shows a chocolate pudding being cut open to reveal melting chocolate oozing out, with a very seductive female voice-over describing it in detail. Following this ad being aired, sales of the pudding shot up by 3,500%.
When the term food porn started to be used, ‘porn’ emphasised how harmful the (typically unhealthy) food was to humans, implicitly comparing it to sexual pornography. Food porn was linked to guilty pleasures and high calorie and fat content indulgences such as dripping chocolate fondue, juicy burgers with thick, melting cheese, and milkshakes topped with stacks of whipped cream, marshmallows and wafers.
More recently, the definition of food porn has changed and can refer to any food displayed in an aesthetically pleasing way, regardless of how many calories it contains. There are more and more #foodporn photos out there featuring 50 shades of green salads, colourful fruit and veg smoothies and breakfast bowls with a sprinkling of oats, nuts, seeds and raw coconut flakes. Who are the people sharing these photos? Millennials certainly account for a large proportion of them.
More about millennials and their eating habits
Millennials are also known as Generation Y and if you’ve not heard yet, they don’t generally tend to have a good reputation. In an article for Time Magazine titled Millennials: The Me Me Me Generation, Joel Stine writes: “What millennials are most famous for besides narcissism is its effect: entitlement… they’re cocky about their place in the world”. If you’re a millennial, please don’t take offence just yet. You have also been associated with resourcefulness, open-mindedness, adaptability and a great passion for social responsibility and environmental awareness.
Okay, so millennials may come across as narcissists. Yes, they may not care as much about politics as older generations. But there is one thing that millennials are especially passionate about. This tech-savvy generation sees food not just as a source of nutrition, but as a form of self-expression and entertainment.
What exactly is the relationship between millennials and food? How do they react to food? To understand this, we have to take a look at their eating preferences. For the purpose of this article, a survey of millennials and their attitudes and behaviour towards food was conducted, which showed some interesting results.
First off, millennials enjoy using communal tables in fast casual restaurants, food courts and other informal surroundings. Bonus points if the venue offers a wide mix of culinary choices inspired by global cuisine. Undoubtedly, millennials are connected to the max. To say that they are well-rehearsed in socialising with communities online would be an understatement. But here’s something that might baffle you: they even look at eating as a highly wired activity. Their social nature means they like to be consistently entertained, and they use social media and technology in food related ways. From placing food orders online and using mobile phones, laptops and tablets to download PDF menus, to subscribing to virtual food networks for recipe ideas, it’s clear to see just how simple it is to be connected in a food-centric way.
The results also show that Generation Y have an adventurous attitude towards food. When it comes down to it, creativity is the key. They long for the ultimate eating experience which will challenge their taste buds. This means rich flavours and adventurous textures. They savour nonstandard food forms, dishes customised with exotic twists and gastronomy from around the world, with fresh and spicy flavours being the most popular.
Recent research carried out by the market insights firm Maru/Matchbox into millennials’ food preferences has shown that this generation is very keen on organic food and want to know what they are putting into their bodies. They are also enthusiastic about premium products. This is defined as goods which cost at least 20% more than the average price for the category. They found that 61% of millennials expect what they are eating to be GMO free, compared to 46% of those aged 50+.
Millennials not only expect premium, but — and this may come as a surprise — they are prepared to fork out a little extra for it. They feel as if they are being more responsible about their health when they’re buying natural, organic food and believe they’re getting more health value for their money. 68% of millennials have agreed they would spend more on organic foods, compared to only 34% of people aged 50+, according to the Maru/Matchbox research.
Why are millennials obsessed with food?
Blame the economy
Why exactly are millennials devoting so much of their time and energy to food? Some might argue that they have grown up in the wrong economic climate and it seems like only a few things can be relied on. Food is one of them. It is tangible, it is a survival need, but at the same time it is something that they have guaranteed access to. Where they are not guaranteed to own a car or a house, food is one of the finer things in life that they can afford, and authenticity and control are key factors which drive them towards it. The ability to make their own choices about food or the food culture they belong to gives millennials the sense of power that they feel they lack in other parts of their lives.
Food writer and entrepreneur Nadra Shah agrees. She says: “I think the millennial generation have come of age in a world where it feels like their choices have been robbed and there is an inauthentic climate filled with imbalance and inequality. Food is something to grab hold of. It has created a wealth of opportunity. Their peers on social media have become successful. Suddenly there is something to aspire to.”
Is it enough, though, to blame an economic climate for being the driving force behind food obsession? Lyndon Gee, a food futurist whose clients include Cadbury and Nestlé, doesn’t think that blaming the economy is in itself a valid reason. “Political climates are constantly changing and it is no better or worse than it always has been and probably always will be,” he says. He adds: “Many [millennials] live with parents or can only afford a small/shared flat so cannot entertain friends at home. They lack cooking skills as their parents were brought up with ready meals. Living at home also means they have good disposable income. There is also pressure to choose food brands they identify with. Food can be seen as an extension of your personality; you are what you eat or at least what you are seen to be eating.”
Could narcissism be a reason?
The first contact we have with food, before we even taste it, is visual. So sometimes looks really can be everything. Good looking food is very seductive and if it looks good, we’re naturally going to want to eat it. If you aren’t guilty of this act yourself, you might be wondering why on earth people are even taking photos of their food in general, let alone going to such lengths to shoot from various angles, reorganising the food on the plate and then proceeding to add edits and filters.
It’s almost impossible to have never been in a café, restaurant or coffee bar without seeing a young person whip out their phone and take a photo of their food and drink. It’s way past the point where people are embarrassed by this. They don’t look around sheepishly to see if anyone is giving them dirty looks. In fact, it’s becoming a common sight to see people stand up and lean across the table in order to get that perfect bird’s eye view. In all honesty, there isn’t just one answer as to why people indulge in this act. Go up to each person you see taking a photo of their food and their answers will vary. But there is one theme that runs through all the reasons: recognition and community.
Perhaps the narcissistic nature of millennials has something to do with it. Taking photos of meals in restaurants or those cooked at home highlights their food obsession. They are suckers for approval from others. They love to be complimented and love getting admiration from others. Stephanie Pappas, a Live Science Contributor, talks about a recent study by Case Western Reserve University in Ohio about narcissism: “Millennials do view themselves as a bit more narcissistic than generations before them,” she writes. People often use food shots on social media to say something about themselves and how they want to be perceived.
Bowe is in full agreement, and says: “I feel like it’s part of human nature to essentially brag when you’re doing something nice or feel like you’ve achieved something and social media heightens that a lot — the competition that comes with being a human.”
It’s no different for Emma Lundie, a food entrepreneur and founder of The Food Gatherer. “Cooking from scratch can also be very rewarding and can bring about a real sense of achievement which you may instinctively want to share with others,” she says.
Food has always played a huge part in cultures worldwide. But as humans have become more civilised and science more advanced, it has become less about simply the cultivation and consuming of food and more about the quality, taste and status that food represents. “It’s about your personal brand, look at me I can afford to eat in these Michelin star restaurants. Look how sophisticated I am eating these unusual foods,” says Gee.
As eating habits change, especially in first world countries, the lines are blurred between eating to live and living to eat. It’s almost impossible to escape exposure to advertising, the media and social situations where food is included. It’s everywhere. It’s inevitable.
Social psychologist Dr Maxine Woolhouse explains: “Perhaps what has changed is that, with mass media and of course the advent of social media, people have instant access to the latest fads and fashions in food. However, the extent to which people can follow these trends, if they wish to do so, is constrained by things such as time, money, individual circumstances etc.”
This kind of exposure to food causes people to spend more of their time and money on it. This is one of the reasons why a change is happening in developed countries, as what people eat becomes more of a status symbol, showing how much money we have and the kind of food we choose to eat. “I do think food is still a marker of status and social class. What we eat, how we eat, where we eat and so forth is bound up with class identities as well as gender and cultural identities,” says Dr Woolhouse.
As Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the 19th-century French lawyer, politician and gastronome, once said in his book The Physiology of Taste: “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.” Food has always been a sign of status, and it couldn’t be truer today.
Do people take photos of their organic kale to show that they can afford to buy organic veg? Do people take photos of their morning fruit juices to show how healthy they are? Do people take photos of the pie they just baked to show how much of a MasterChef they are? All these reasons are valid. Lundie emphasises this point: “Your food posts tell your audience where you shop, the kind of food you eat and the restaurants you go to. It’s all part of this self-promoting, narcissistic culture.”
Essentially, anyone can be narcissistic and this type of behaviour isn’t specific to millennials. “The only reason that it’s been attached to the millennial generation is because they are the generation that, for the most part, have capitalised from social media platforms, especially Instagram,” says Shah. She questions the true reason behind it: “Is it narcissism or is it because the economy and market has meant that innovation and entrepreneurism has had to become a priority, so self-promotion is the purest form of marketing?”
Shah raises a valid point. But do social media, narcissism and the economy all influence each other? In today’s economy, self-promotion may be the purest form of marketing. But is this because of the narcissistic millennials, who hold the largest influence on social media? And aren’t they narcissistic because of social media? Maybe social media has become the perfect platform to display this narcissism and food has become the ideal subject.
It’s a community thing …
Another reason for sharing meals online is actually the opposite of narcissism. The reason lies at the other end of the spectrum and is more about ‘us’ than ‘me’. Community.
When you think about the fundamentals of human society and bonds within communities, you might think of blood or religion. But what about food? From the beginning of time, eating has been a community event, a bonding experience, a shared comfort. In The Table Comes First, the New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik points out that civilisation is “mostly the story of how seeds, meats, and ways to cook them travel from place to place.” But it’s more than this. It’s more than just consuming food. It’s a way in which humans’ natural instincts as social animals are exercised.
We’ve all been there. Your order is brought to your table and it looks like a work of art, or you’ve cooked something that you proudly think looks restaurant-worthy. Naturally, those feelings aren’t containable and you want other people to see what you see. But you’re either alone or in the company of a small group. So, you take a picture to show more people, anyone willing to take a look. Some may say a part of the entire experience is lost the moment a camera is taken out. The intimacy of the occasion can easily disappear using a camera or a smartphone to capture a photograph. For others, the sharing is a positive factor in the whole food experience.
… including the evolution of food …
While the act of Instagramming food is becoming widely accepted, it is also highlighting how the importance of food has changed. Food evolved into something more than just fuel a long, long time ago. In an essay on tweeting about our meals, journalist Jared Keller writes: “Food has accompanied virtually every communal ceremony since the dawn of civilisation, from the Sabbath to the solstice, the communion to the wake. Before the Industrial Revolution, subsistence drove and defined the evolution of social relations… Eating together is a cultural universal. Eventually, the cafés, restaurants and salons of the Enlightenment helped develop a ‘republic of eating’ where strong conversation and drink became the cornerstones of modernity.” This established the act of eating as a strong social tie.
With the dinner table as the main place for families and friends to get together, these days the internet is taking over as an extension of the table. And as a dinner table needs to be covered with food, does it not follow that the internet too should follow suit?
It may come as a surprise that Instagram is in fact only one of the most recent online platforms for our food obsession. The very first internet communities for foodies were established a few years before the birth of sites such as Open Diary, LiveJournal and Blogger. July 1997 saw the launch of Chowhound, an online forum where people could trade information about where to find good food. According to Saveur magazine, one of Chowhound’s very first entries was a request for a recommendation, saying: “I am travelling to Gettysburg from NYC (the GW Bridge) on July 4th, early AM. Is there any outstanding roadside breakfast on that route that’s open 4th of July? Or any great greasy spoon in or around Harrisburg or Gettysburg?”
Social networks grew rapidly and became a hub for food talk. Sites such as WordPress gave people who didn’t have any great computer experience the opportunity to publish online. Subsequently, this created a situation where people could create and share as well as simply consuming. From the very start, food was a major topic on these sites.
Fast track to modern times. Like millennials, the internet is very social by nature, providing a launch pad for the current phenomenon of sharing food online. Early sites such as Chowhound were empty pages just begging to be filled with anything food related. Over the years the situation has escalated. Research by Statista shows that in 2016 there were an estimated 2.34 billion social media users worldwide and this number is expected to increase to 2.95 billion by 2020. People spent an average of 118 minutes per day on social networking sites.
… and with technology playing its part
But delving deeper, the reason that these social network sites are expanding is us, the users. The need to connect and build relationships with one another and to share fragments of our lives is what feeds them. In 2012, Karen Rosenberg wrote in The New York Times: “The photograph itself, even an artily manipulated one, has become so cheap and ubiquitous that it’s no longer of much value. But the experience of sharing it is, and that’s what Facebook is in the business of encouraging us to do… it’s no coincidence that still lifes of food are among the most-shared photos on Instagram, along with babies, puppies and sunsets.”
The current culture we live in doesn’t always allow us to fully experience and indulge in food as much as we’d like to, as the hustle and bustle of daily life forces us to reduce meal times to eat on the go. However, food is one of the few things that we have in common: everybody eats, everybody has their favourite foods. In this day and age, the gap is narrowing between our real-life mealtimes and our communal online life.
Technology has allowed us to find new ways of maintaining the social aspect of eating. Shah emphasises how food as a communal centrepiece is still happening today: “There is also a sharing culture that has allowed people from different countries and cultures to interact and find common ground. Like music and art, food is a common language. The saying ‘Let’s Break Bread Together’ still rings true today.”
People enjoy sharing what they eat. If this is not possible in a physical way, then taking a photo and sharing it on social media is the most obvious option. Besides, people like to look at photos of food and what other people are creating. If there wasn’t an audience, how would there be a show?
Bowe talks about why she shares photos of food on her blog. “I love food and I love photography,” she says. “I think there’s a real community feel, especially within the food blogging and food social media area. Food, at the end of the day, is what humans need to survive. I think it’s only natural to share that with the people you feel a connection with. It brings people together both online and offline!” With 8,829 followers on Instagram and 13,600 on Twitter, Bowe is certainly connecting with a wide audience.
Posting to social media is merely a modern way of sharing something which has meaning and value for us. For a lot of people, this means a meal which is comforting, memorable or delicious looking.
Luluk Mulahella is your average millennial. She’s tech-savvy, she’s in the loop about new trends and she’s all about food. “I only take photos of food if I think it looks good or if it’s something you don’t normally see when you order,” she says. “I may also add a tag of the location of the restaurant as it can be a reference for others who may want to try it.” But it’s not just when she’s eating out that she feels moved to take photos. She also likes to share online what she cooks herself. “Others can view it as something they can also cook and I could tell them about the ingredients and steps to make it,” she explains. “I think it’s more the sense of sharing, if I enjoyed something I’d want other people to also have the chance of enjoying it.”
How is the food mood changing?
How will this social media phenomenon change the way people eat and view food in the future?
The right ingredients for a food obsession can be found in technology. Social media enables us to explore international flavours, different diets and producers from our local environment. On the other hand, technology encourages the narcissism of millennials. But then again, why wouldn’t they tweet about a new café selling tacos made from locally sourced grass-fed beef?
Technology might indeed have negative effects, but Generation Y’s passion for food can inspire change and development. Little by little, they are becoming more conscious of what they are eating. Where are these carrots from? How was this chicken raised? Who grew the strawberries in that smoothie? Mulahella certainly cares about what she puts into her body. She says: “I’m definitely aware of the quality of produce I buy. I think it’s important to know how your food was produced or where it was grown because being conscious of what you’re eating is good for your health, the environment and local producers.” Supermarkets such as Waitrose and Tesco are selling more organic food, in line with what millennials are demanding. Their presence obviously has an impact.
The internet is filled with photos of healthy foods and people working out, all attached to the hashtag #cleaneating, which is about eating more natural, whole foods and eliminating those which are processed. But recently, there’s been a backlash against clean eating, as there is no scientific proof behind it. This trend is shown to have negative effects on physical and mental health, as people can become deprived of nutrients and develop an unhealthy mindset towards anything which isn’t raw or natural.
In a recent article for The Guardian, Rhiannon Lambert, a registered associate nutritionist in London, says: “[‘Clean eaters’] develop particular habits, or won’t eat food when walking, because they think that food can only be processed when they’re sitting down. All this interferes with general life and becomes an obsession.”
Dr Woolhouse also feels strongly about where these emerging ideas could lead. “I would like to see more of an emphasis on eating for pleasure, taste and enjoyment rather than health,” she says. “This is because I think ‘healthy eating’ is often just a thinly disguised way of promoting dieting and weight loss. Often healthy is equated with low calorie. This sets up a problematic relationship with food — culturally, we tend to regard foods as either good or bad, something which I don’t think is very helpful or desirable.”
Millennials could well be influenced by the media exposing the truth about clean eating. Perhaps this backlash will turn around clean eating and the future will see a more balanced way of looking at food.
“I think the importance of food in relation to positive well-being will increase and that’s a good thing,” Shah emphasises. “People are learning that food can impact hugely on how you feel both mentally and physically. I believe there will be a saturation point with the clean eating movement,” she says.
Millennials’ influence on eating habits
If millennials indeed have an effect on food trends, they surely need to be aware of the responsibility they are taking on. Bowe believes that they are capable of changing things in the food industry, explaining: “I think because millennials have been brought up with memories before internet but simultaneously were raised with the internet becoming a thing in their formative years, the internet is almost a part of us. We’re both influential and influenced in every trend, rather than it just being food. And because food is such a popular topic at the moment, it’s only natural for it to lead on from that.”
It’s true that Facebook statuses about lunch and Instagrammed bowls may still be found amusing, but for people separated from those they are close to, this may be the nearest thing they have to a shared dining table. The internet’s foodie influence maintains the sociability that comes with mealtimes.
It’s all about togetherness
A combination of being tech-savvy, approval-seeking, community-minded and relating easily to food is the perfect recipe for millennials sharing their food photos. This generation has grown up in the world of digital technology and communication, which has helped to shape their identity and account for their social attitudes. Their presence on social media feeds their narcissism and what’s a more perfect place to seek the approval of others than the internet?
It could certainly be said that there are limits to the digital sharing of food. Let’s be honest, Instagrammed food introduced by the millennials will never replace the actual experience of a meal. A photograph of a dish isn’t the same as eating it together. It isn’t as real as sitting round a dinner table with friends and having a meal with them. You can’t eat a photo. The aromas and atmosphere of preparing and eating a meal, together with the banter and chit-chat that happens at the dinner table — these are the spices our internet curry lacks. But the habits and values of sharing and consuming can also be expressed digitally in this new era. Our online lives and our offline lives are not as different as you may think: they influence each other. Our everyday lives can be captured and relived en masse.
But look deeper. Look past the pretty plates, the artfully scattered garnishing, the clever placing of utensils, the narcissistic intentions. What it all boils down to is the simple act of eating together. Food is fundamentally social, best consumed with our loved ones, and these days even sharing a table or space with a stranger is seen as more enjoyable than eating alone. Inviting someone to share a meal is an important part of our social life, whether virtually or in reality.