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People are more drawn to social media content featuring fatty foods

Life outside our living rooms has been scarce since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, so it’s no surprise that people are increasingly turning to the production and consumption of social media posts focused on the food. With limited access to our favorite restaurants, cafes or fast food outlets, social media has become a safe way for people to get their food fix.

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 the dishes represented on social networks. We looked at the recipes and ingredients in 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.

Eat with your eyes

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. Overall, the ubiquitous 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 monthly views.

Given the pervasiveness 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 looking to increase marketing impact; and health advocates interested in helping consumers make better food choices.

Nutrition and social media engagement

Humans are programmed 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 be visually interested in food.

Finding and eating high calorie foods generally makes people feel good, releases dopamine, and stimulates the pleasure centers of the brain. This suggests that nutritional content can be broadly assessed by the appearance of a dish, and that simple exposure to high calorie meals can make people feel good.

We are committed to finding calorie-dense foods that are more appealing.
(Shutterstock)

When it comes to influencing online behavior, 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. Overall, visual exposure to food media that appears high in calories – as opposed to low in calories – should boost engagement on social media.

More fat = more 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 engagement on social media. Several tracking experiments suggest that positive affect, the extent to which we feel good after visual exposure to high-calorie foods, helps explain the connection.

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 findings raise an interesting question: is it possible to make healthier foods, like vegetables, more appealing by applying the visual characteristics associated with higher fat foods, such as coating them with a shine?

Identifying these visual characteristics of nutrients may better inform strategies for increasing engagement with more health-conscious food media content.

Salad sorted by color
Social media engagement habits can be leveraged to promote healthy eating.
(Anna Pelzer / Unsplash), CC BY

Importance of amplification

But why is social media engagement important?

Social media platforms use ranking algorithms to prioritize and drive content that gets 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 featuring unhealthy or high-calorie foods is more likely to drive engagement, it’s more likely to reach more people as well.

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 pandemic lockdowns, it is crucial 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 may 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 it is about the food that you find so appealing.



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