Visualizing the rhythm of food searches

One of the striking things about working with Google Trends data is the insight it gives us into search as a daily utility. When it comes to healthcare, schools, music, or travel, how we search reflects what’s going on in our lives. And how we search for food is particularly revealing.

Food searches can tell us about traditions, culture, immigration and fashion. With data going back to 2004, we can see how those foodie fads have changed over time. This is where the Rhythm of Food comes in.

This interactive data explorer is built by acclaimed designer Moritz Stefaner and his team at Truth & Beauty, using Google Trends data. It’s also the second in the Google News Lab’s series of visual experiments, with the first being a project with Alberto Cairo and the world’s best designers to develop innovative newsroom interactive visualisations.

Here are some of the things you can learn on the site:

How does it work?

A key part of these data visualisations is that they find a new way to show data. And, in order to investigate seasonal patterns in food searches, the design team developed a new type of radial “year clock” chart to reveal seasonal food trends for individual vegetables, fruit, confectioneries, dishes, and drinks.

Each segment of the chart indicates the search interest in one of the weeks of the past 12 years, with its distance from the center showing the relative search interest, and the color indicating the year. This allows the user to spot rhythms that repeat on a yearly basis (such as natural season, peaks at holidays, etc.) as well as seeing year-over-year trends (such as the rise of avocado or the collapse of interest in energy drinks).

How did we get here?

How did Moritz choose such a distinctive design? Initially, as part of the initial data exploration, he plotted the data as area, or line charts. Immediately you can see the strong repeating patterns.

Stefaner says: “So I became curious”. He then made these overlaid line charts, where each year has a line of its own, and which repeat every twelve months.

He then proceeded to code the custom radial version “which you don’t get in standard software libraries”.

The aim of the News Lab data visualisation project is to provide not only inspiration but examples too. This is a living dynamic project — right now, the site comprises 195 topics and presents 130,048 individual data points — and we will be adding more over time.

Says Stefaner:

“Looking at shifting interest towards individual ingredients, dishes, and recipes over the years has been fascinating. More than 12 years of weekly Google Trends data supplied us with a rich dataset to explore food trend over the years. But the most interesting revelations happened when we looked at the seasonal rhythm of food in our radial charts. We immediately saw how each vegetable, fruit, dish or drink had its own signature seasonality pattern — some are tied to natural seasons, some to special holidays, some are popular all year long.”

Simon Rogers is data editor at the Google News Lab and is also director of the Data Journalism Awards.