While some find ‘foodstagramming’ utterly infuriating, thousands more can’t wait to see what’s on your plate. Stylist investigates this divisive trend
Think about your last scroll through Instagram. Amid pouty selfies and tanned toes dangling off the end of sunbeds, there’s something else you were guaranteed to have seen: a burger. A burger so artfully styled, filtered and preened that rather than a slab of meat in a bun, by the time it hit your feed it resembled something that could adorn the walls of a gallery.
Somewhere along the line, food became art and foodstagramming – uploading photos of everything on our plates from homemade vegan falafel to Michelin-starred seafood – became one of the most ubiquitous social media trends.
But while some people love scrolling through food pictures, for others the trend is as rageinducing as hotdog legs. Last year New York magazine branded avocado on toast the ‘most annoying food on Instagram’ and for many, the sight of a paragraph of hashtags including #foodgasm, #nom and #foodporn is enough for a click of the unfollow button.
“Like most things on social media, food posts are divisive,” says food psychologist Christy Fergusson. “People may hate it because they’re not interested or because it makes people feel bad about themselves and what they’re eating.”
And it’s true: when you see humble brags about a #treat that involves a few nibs of raw cacao, you’re unlikely to congratulate yourself on that half-empty bag of Haribo on your desk. And certain hashtags can make you feel ostracised – #brunch is one of the most popular food hashtags on Instagram because it’s synonymous with a certain culture, but if you’re not spending your Sunday morning laughing over Bloody Marys at a hip east London restaurant, seeing ‘everyone else’ doing that is likely to create negative emotions. “There is a tendency to think, ‘Why aren’t I making that? Why aren’t I eating that?” says Fergusson. “And that leads on to, ‘My life is so rubbish’, which makes us feel irritated by the whole thing.”
However much it irritates us there’s no escaping the popularity of the trend. In the UK, there are an average of 674 tweets an hour tagged with #foodporn and while Facebook is the most popular place for women to post foodie pictures, there are also 51 million #foodporn pictures on Instagram, 57 billion food pins on Pinterest and around two million food blogs. There are even foods-pecific social media channels such as Burpple, FoodSpotting and SnapDish; in South Korea, the trend ‘muk-bang’ sees people making up to £6,000 a month eating for an audience on a webcam. Even 39% of Brits admit to arranging their plate of food with the intention of sharing it online. This is no longer just for professionals: we all want a very literal piece of the cake.
“It’s the most simple dishes that are the most popular,” says Ella Woodward, whose blog Deliciously Ella led to the publication of the fastest selling debut cookbook ever. “I guess people look at them and think, ‘Yeah I could do that’.”
Nathalie Nahai, psychologist and author of Webs Of Influence: The Psychology Of Online, Persuasion explains that when we use social media to connect with people, food is an obvious go-to. “One thing that brings people together is ritual and historically that’s been around food,” says Nahai. “Food is so intimate and it’s something we usually do with people we’re close to.” So when we post food pics online, we are opening up and sharing something about ourselves.
Thanks to globalisation, we are constantly seeking out new recipes and foodstuffs. Once a trend like foodstagramming begins, a phenomenon called social proof takes over and from there its popularity is guaranteed. “Social proof is the idea that if enough people take a particular action – wearing a certain item of clothing, for example – we are more likely to emulate that behaviour,” says Nahai, who has carried out research on why we post food photos on social media.
There are also practical elements to posting pictures of our food. Can’t remember the name of that great ceviche place in Miami? It’s right there in your feed. Healthy food photography can even function as an ‘accountability’ device – the 2015 equivalent of telling workmates you’ve given up chocolate so you’re shamed into avoiding their homemade brownies. “Humans need to have our achievements recognised,” says Nahai. “When people create something they’re excited by or proud of, they want a pat on the head. They share it so other people validate them.”
Food blogger and author of Get The Glow Madeleine Shaw believes what we’re seeing is natural for a generation obsessed with food: “People say to me, ‘Me and my girlfriends don’t talk about what shoes we’ve bought any more, it’s about what cheesecakes we’ve made.’” Fergusson agrees that there’s a way of shaping our online selves. “We attach a lot to these pictures. We use porridge to show we’re in control and burgers to show our rebellious side. Like everything on social media, it’s not a true reflection of who we are but a showreel of things we identify with.”
And as popular instagrammers have demonstrated, that showreel goes way beyond the food itself. Shabby chic tables, yoga on the beach… When we’re coveting their food, we’re also coveting their way of life, which may explain the recent boom in healthy eating. “There’s definitely an idea that if you make that food, you’ll have that lifestyle,” says Fergusson. And who doesn’t want to be the instagrammer doing a downward dog in the sun?
According to research done as part of #restaurantweek, more than half of UK Twitter users log on when they’re in a restaurant and, of those, 37% have posted a picture of their meal. But while many chefs love their creations being shared, others are less keen. High-end chefs such as David Chang at Michelin-starred Ko in New York have banned diners taking photos of food and The Fat Duck has a no-flash policy. “I try to be mindful of my surroundings, and not interrupt the dining experience for others” says Joann Pai of food blog Slice Of Pai.
The trend has affected the restaurant industry in other ways too. Pop-up eatery The Picture House allowed diners to ‘pay’ for food by posting pictures and foodstagramming has been credited by many for the rise in solo dining – how alone can we really feel when there are 100 likes on the photo of our ramen? But when we’re not dining alone, differing attitudes to food photography can cause issues.
“People get frustrated with others putting everything online,” says Nahai. “They think, ‘Why can’t I just have a real experience?’”
A 2013 study in the Journal of Consumer Psychology suggests that focusing on images of food could actually make our eating experiences less satisfying. It’s no surprise: the same dopamine release happens in our brain when we look at food as occurs when we eat it, so by the time we come to consume our own burger, an element of satiation has already kicked in.
Dr Valerie Taylor, chief of psychiatry at Women’s College Hospital at the University of Toronto, who works with people with food issues, says #foodporn is as addictive as its namesake. She also warns of replacing people with food. “If you’re eating alone just so your photography isn’t interrupted, that indicates your relationship with food is unusual,” she says. “The problem comes when food isn’t the side dish to social interaction, it is the social interaction.”
But while it’s right to heed the warnings, for most this is just the 2015 version of something that has been happening for a long time. “Food has always made great art,” says Pai. “Artists like Cézanne saw beauty in the simplicity of a bowl of fruit. A beautiful shot of a latte makes you think of sitting in a coffee shop, watching the world go by. Like great art, a beautiful picture of food takes you places.”
Food is officially on trend and just like the outfits we wear, we’re tasking it with representing us. “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are,” said 18th-century French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. The phrase has never been more apt.
How to snap your supper
The most celebrated food photographers give us their top tips for creating the perfect foodie post...
“Colour is really important and I love anything that looks vibrant,” says Ella Woodward of Deliciously Ella. “Those pictures get more likes too – anything that’s a rainbow is always popular.”
Stand up to shoot
“Phones can’t really deal with taking photos at angles so it’s overhead or straight on, but food looks its most amazing from directly above,” says Izy Hossack of blog Top With Cinnamon.
Tell a story
“A little bit of background is nice – maybe there was spinach in the soup so you could scatter some spinach leaves around,” says food blogger Madeleine Shaw. “Or try a glass of water, a magazine, something you’d see on your dining room table... make the setting look homely and people can imagine you tucking into the food.”
“I don’t use filters but I like having a border on my photos so I always use the Valencia filter to get the border then take the filter off,” says Woodward. “For me it’s all about natural light, that makes all the difference.”
Rummage through the bins (really)
“You see a lot of granite stoneware, marble or old wood used as surfaces in food photography,” says Hossack. “I keep my eyes open for pieces of wood being thrown away in skips or try old pie tins to serve food in because they have really nice texture. It’s fun to experiment.”
If in doubt, post cake
“Cakes are always popular,” says Hossack. “Any big cake. Everyone goes crazy for cake!”