Is social media changing the way we eat?
Janice Rodrigues delves into the world of Insta-gratification and online food obsession
A few years ago, The Spectator ran a cartoon that summed it all up: a harried-looking waiter asking a dining couple if everything was okay - since they hadn't photographed their food. Food photos are usually not clicked these days for the joy of photography; they are clicked "for sharing" - on social media. Almost everyone with a smartphone - and who doesn't have a smartphone? - has become a food-for-sharing stylist. Or an online food hunter.
Welcome to the world of social media changing our eating - and dietary - patterns. We've all reached for our phones at some point instead of racking our brains to choose a restaurant. Or seen friends, family, and random strangers in hipster cafés and expensive eateries spend more time snapping a dish instead of enjoying it. As we get more and more social media-dependent, it's time for some food for thought.
Eating with our eyes - more than ever
We all know those who just can't get enough of clicking - and posting - pictures of food. In 2013, an Australian survey conducted by CommBank Signals found that 54 per cent of 18-24 year olds have taken photos of their food while eating out, while 39 per cent have posted them online (and we're sure the number has only increased since then). But with the rising popularity of visual social media platforms, youngsters have gradually shifted to visiting restaurants just to get that perfect click.
"I think we eat with our eyes more than anything else, and social media represents that," says Aneesha Rai, the UAE-based food blogger behind Om Nom Nirvana. "Food presentation is important, and it's something people value. A picture does speak a thousand words, and many people don't even bother reading the captions in some cases. Because of this, some places are spending more time on presentation rather than flavour, and there are cases when huge desserts are ordered just for the sake of pictures."
Visuals are indeed important, according to Rohin Thampi, regional director of (restaurant search service) Zomato Middle East. People tend to upload six times more pictures of food on Zomato than reviews. "Today, people choose where they want to eat based on how 'Insta-worthy' the food at a particular outlet is," he says. "Zomato's top search trends are for bakeries and fine dining restaurants - two of the most popular establishments for food photographs, we believe."
An interesting example of the 'click first, eat later' phenomenon would have to be the rising popularity of eye-catching dishes, such as freakshakes. Having originated in Australia, freakshakes are gigantic milkshakes brimming with cakes, candy, cookies, popcorn, and basically anything else that you can wrap your mind around. Several restaurants in the UAE have followed the popular trend, creating desserts so opulent a single glance will be able to give you a sugar high.
"When freakshakes were first introduced, it took over the Internet in no time," says Emiliano Bernasconi, culinary director of JAS Hospitality and head chef at Fume, a restaurant constantly re-innovating and introducing new scrumptious-looking dishes.
"We realised they were a perfect fit for Fume's identity and decided to create our very own versions in various flavours and name them 'monster shakes'."
And the monster shakes are here to stay. The chef is the first to admit they've been a hit with bloggers and other social media-savvy youth, with three out of every five youngsters stopping to take a picture before digging in. Moreover, many guests also request a video of the 'making of the shake' for their online accounts.
"In the digitalised world, hype is often created by the social media buzz and we've had several instances where guests walk into the restaurant with an image of our dish on their smartphones!" says Bernasconi, who also adds that "you first eat with your eyes". "Plating and food presentation play a crucial part in a dining experience, if not as much as the flavour of the food. The presentation can improve the 'likeability' as well as the appetite of a diner."
Let social media find the right restaurant
According to Zomato's Thampi, the UAE boasts over 17,000 restaurants - of which 8,100 are in Dubai alone - which means users here have such an overwhelming number of options that they want to research and understand the ambience, menu, and price points of a restaurant before trying it out. "Eating out is not just about getting a pizza or a particular cuisine anymore. It has evolved into something more thoughtful."
Consumers are spoilt for choice, so it's only too natural to dive into the online world when trying to pick a restaurant. Zomato, for instance, is the 20th most used website in the UAE, with 1.6 million users per month. "Most people in the UAE are Internet-savvy, which is why they browse Zomato, Instagram or Google prior to visiting," says UAE-based food blogger Naomi D'souza, of naomidsouza.com, whose fan following on Instagram is a whopping 53.7K.
So, can having a great online reputation actually lure more customers to a restaurant? Well, social media can and is being used to whet one's appetite, rather literally. Most restaurants and retail chains have already cottoned on to the trend of giving customers a visual preview of what they can expect, through platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and it's all too common to find restaurants collaborating with food bloggers and influencers to get the word out there.
"If there's something that looks wonderful in pictures, people will most likely visit it within a week," points out Naomi. "Additionally, what may be popular this week may not be popular next week. The popularity of the dish can lead people to try things, thus affecting the way they eat."
So, social media can get people curious enough to take a nibble. But does that mean having a good online reputation always correlates to good food? Well, according to Thampi, the answer is yes. "People will never keep talking about a product unless it is consistently great," he says, referring specially to Zomato's user ratings. "Similarly, people won't keep rating a restaurant well if the quality of the food offered is not good."
Naomi, however, advises consumers to keep an open mind. "Everyone has a unique palate and a different say based on their own experience. Several times, a restaurant is rated below 3.5, and I still happened to love the food. Palates and experiences differ from person to person, so don't completely trust ratings or reviews by bloggers and influencers."
MEET THE FOODIES: (From left to right) Aneesha Rai, Sally Prosser and Naomi DSouza talk online trends
The Health Factor
Food blogger Sally Prosser of My Custard Pie has been in the UAE's culinary scene for a while, having started six years ago when 'there were only a handful of food bloggers'. To say that it has blown up since then is quite the understatement, she says.
While Sally is undoubtedly a heavy social media consumer, getting food inspiration and recipes alike from the online world, she does have concerns about people choosing to order dishes just because they've seen it on Instagram.
"There does seem to be a whole diet or trend that eschews eating in moderation," she explains, referring to the fact that many people today order more food than they want or need, simply to get snaps. "Healthy ways of eating are not very fashionable anymore. Diets are fashionable and people today want miracle fixes.
"I think this has led to the demonisation of some foods and a sort of reverence of others. Earlier, ice cream was a treat. Now, it's worshipped. I think a freakshake is an example of this because it is monstrous in every sense."
But if people are ordering foods that are easy on the eyes - dishes loaded with cheese, or desserts dripping in chocolate, for example - and aren't able to finish them, this leads to another problem - food wastage. "I've personally seen people buy a huge sundae, take a million pictures of it, have a spoonful and then walk off," says Aneesha. "That kind of food wastage disturbs me. At an Instagram event held in the UAE earlier this year, I saw that a number of bloggers had thrown confetti on the food for decorative purposes, and it made me really upset. I do love Instagram, but I think there should be limitations when it comes to food wastage."
In the end, it's all about moderation. However good a picture may look, don't forget to take into account the calorie intake. Fume chef Bernasconi admits that their monster shakes are ideally meant for sharing, so next time you want to get drool-worthy snaps, without packing in the pounds, simply bring along a friend and dig in.
It's not all bad
Like the Internet, social media has both pros and cons. While there are many online accounts promoting dishes that are better for our tongues than our tummies, there are always those pushing for a healthier way of life. "Some of the messages we get on social media are so beneficial," says Sally. "I follow a lot of UAE-based people on Instagram who are committed to keeping fit and staying healthy and their messages are positive and empowering. They promote diet and exercise, and they definitely influence me."
The growing number of healthy food bloggers has led to more people trying out new healthful foods. Every year brings with it new favourite superfoods, with chia seeds, quinoa and acai berries taking Instagram by storm over the last few years. "A lot of people are trying to be vegetarians or go gluten-free," adds Sally. "I don't know how much social media has influenced that decision, but I think it is connected to how popular the trend has become online. More people have started looking after their bodies and watching what they eat.
"Online pictures of avocado and apple roses have suddenly become famous, and I think this is all part of a healthier trend," Sally sums up. "People are eating more vegetables by cutting them into different shapes. At least, I hope they're eating them!"
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