We Eat What We Are (but only if we instagram it first)
I have a confession to make – one that I fear will oust me from a lot of foodie circles and might cast me in a pretty negative light amongst savvy food entrepreneurs.
I don’t like using social media.
As a food educator, this is almost a criminal offence. Food and social media have become symbiotic activities for the majority of people under 50. Food is the second most Instagrammed thing (after selfies), and the focus of most lifestyle blogs. The nation appears to have an insatiable appetite for #foodporn which is something to capitalize on if you’re starting up a food related business. And yet, I can’t bring myself to engage with it as I ‘should’.
Rather than use it myself, I find I'm more intrigued by how (and why) other people engage with it.
While governmental bodies and international non-profits struggle to change food behaviour to mitigate problems such as excessive food waste and rising dietary related illness, one social media platform in particular is actively, and quite radically, changing Western food culture, proving that mass-behavioural-change is eminently doable. Pausing for photos before each course has become a ubiquitous and acceptable part of mealtimes, and sight has become the primary sense for judging the value of our food. Restaurants and cafes are planning menus and customer experience around how well it will translate to Instagram, because this – before the flavour of the food - will translate more readily into increased custom.
So, what does this all mean? Is there anything wrong with wanting to document and share what we’re eating?
Ostensibly, not at all, asides from the potential extinction of ugly/delicious foods (there is often a strong correlation between the two).
But like any behaviour that becomes a fact of life, it’s important to be conscious of its origins. While it may become normal to take extra time in the morning to ‘design’ and capture our breakfast, it doesn’t necessarily mean this is healthy and/or indicative that we value what we're eating. It potentially says a lot more about the image we want to project of ourselves. We wouldn't, after-all, think to photograph our slightly charred, heavily buttered and hastily smeared marmite-toast.
The important thing is first to ask what kind of relationship we want with our food, or what kind of relationship we wish our children to have with what they eat. With its accessibility, cost effectiveness and ubiquity, social media has huge influence on how and what we learn. This could be immensely positive, connecting us with the wider food world and informing us about our diet. With more of the farming community being online, we can now see where our food is grown and by whom. We can be inspired and instructed by chefs posting videos of their latest creations. We can experience food cultures from around the world and expand our openness to new flavours and ingredients.
But not all virtual consumption nourishes us. We all know how effective social media are at enabling us to project the identity and lifestyle we most desire, even if we don’t actually have it. Food is undoubtedly one of the most effective tools for doing this. Could the #foodporn we consume online be just that? – all aesthetics and no substance, and giving us unrealistic expectations about the real act of eating? If so, what impact will that have on future food cultures?
To me this is one of the most fascinating and important areas of food education at the moment, and thankfully more and more food researchers are contributing interesting insight into this study. Helping people explore this topic is one of my favorites, and I’ll be running a workshop doing just that, on 12th May.
In the meantime, I will continue to hover in-between being fascinated by, and deeply suspicious of, social media, until someone can convince me otherwise.