From Instagram to TV ads, what’s the science behind food porn?

What does the bombardment of food imagery do to our brains and bodies? The gastrophysicist who has worked with Heston Blumenthal explains all

Your brain is your bodys most blood-thirsty organ, employing around 25% of total blood flowing( or energy) despite the fact that it accounts for only 2% of body mass. Given that our brains have evolved to find food, it is appropriate to perhaps come as little surprise to discover that some of the largest increases in cerebral blood flowing occur when a hungry brain is exposed to images of desirable foods. Adding delicious food fragrance builds this consequence even more pronounced. Within little more than the blink of an eye, our brains make a judgment call about how much we like the foods we see and how nutritious they might be. And so you might be starting to get the idea behind gastroporn.

No doubt we have all heard our stomachs rumbling when we contemplate a tasty dinner. Viewing food porn can induce salivation , not to mention the release of digestive juices as the intestine prepares for what is about to come. Simply reading about delicious foodcan have much the same effects. In words of the brains response to images of palatable or highly desirable foods( food porn, in other words ), research demonstrates widespread activation of a host of brain areas, including the taste and reward areas. The magnitude of this increase in neural activity , not to mention the enhanced connectivity between brain areas, typically depends on how hungry the spectator is, whether they are dieting( ie, whether they are a restraint eater or not) and whether they are obese.( The latter, for instance, tend to show a more pronounced brain response to food images even when full .)

Food and the mind illustration

Apicius, the first-century Roman gourmand and writer, is credited with the maxim: The first taste is always with the eyes. Nowadays, the visual appearance of a dish is just as important as, if not more important than, the taste/ flavour itself. We are bombarded by food images, from adverts through to social media and TV cookery indicates. Unfortunately, though, the foods that tend to look best( or rather, that our brains are most attracted to) are generally not the healthiest. Quite the reverse, in fact.

We may all face being led into less healthy food behaviours by the highly desirable images of foods that increasingly surround us. In 2015, just as in the year before, food was the second most searched-for category on the internet( after pornography ). The blame, if any, doesnt reside solely with the marketers, food companies and cooks; a growing number of us are actively trying out images of food digital foraging, if you will. How long, I wonder, before food takes the top slot?

People have been preparing beautiful-looking foods for feasts and galas for centuries. However, for anything other than an extravagant feast, the likelihood is that meals in the past would have been served without any real fear for how they looked. That they savoured good, or even just that they some sustenance, was all that mattered. This was true even of famous French chefs, as highlighted by the following quote from Sebastian Lepinoy, executive cook at LAtelier de Joel Robuchon, describing the state of affairs before the emergence of nouvelle cuisine: French presentation was virtually non-existent. If you ordered a coq au vin at a restaurant, it would be served just as if “youve had” attained it at home. The dishes were what they were. Presentation was very basic.

Everything changed, though, when east satisfied west in the French kitchens of the 1960 s. It was this meeting of culinary intellects that led to nouvelle cuisine, and with it, gastroporn a term that dates to a review in 1977 of Paul Bocuses French Cookery . The name stuck.

These days, more and more chefs are becoming concerned( obsessed, even) by how their food photograph. And not only for the pictures that will adorn the pages of their next cookbook. As one eatery consultant set it: Im sure some restaurants are preparing food now that is going to look good on Instagram.

Some have been struggling with how to deal with the trend for diners sharing snacks on social media. Much publicised responses include everything from restriction diners opportunities to photograph the food during the meal through to banning photography inside the restaurant. It would, however, seem as though the cooks have now, mostly, embraced the trend, acknowledging that it is all part of the experience. As Alain Ducasse, at Londons three-Michelin-starred Dorchester Hotel says: Cuisine is a feast for the eyes, and I understand that our guests wish to share these instants of emotion through social media.

There is a sense in which the visual appeal of the snack has become an end in itself. Researchers and food companies have begun to establish which tricks and techniques work best in terms of increasing the eye-appeal of a dish, including, for example, proving food, especially protein, in motion( even if it is just connoted motion) to attract the viewers attention and convey freshness.

What do you get if you indicate protein( eg, oozing egg yolk) in motion? Answer: yolk-porn. I came across an example lately in a London tube station. There were video advertising screens along the wall as I ascended the escalator. All I could see, out of the corner of my eye, was a steaming slice of lasagne being lifted slowly from a dish, dripping with hot melted cheese, on screen after screen. As the marketers know only too well, such protein in motion shoots are attention-grabbing; our eyes( or rather our brains) find them virtually irresistible. Images of food( or more specifically, energy-dense foods) capture our visual awareness, as does anything that moves. Protein in motion is hence precisely the various kinds of energetic food stimulus that our brains have evolved to see, way and concentrate on visually.

Marks& Spencer has acquired something of a reputation for food porn with its highly stylised and gorgeously presented ad. Look closely and you will find plenty of protein in motion( both implied and real ). Its most well known ad, from 2005, was for a chocolate dessert with an extravagant melting centre. A sultry voiceover “re coming out” with the now much parodied line: This is not just chocolate pudding, this is a Marks& Spencer chocolate pudding. Sales skyrocketed by around 3,500%. In M& Ss 2014 campaign, all of the food was shown in motion. In fact, one of the most widely commented on images was of a scotch egg being sliced in half, with the yolk oozing out.

Food in motion also appears more desirable, in part because it is perceived to be fresher. Surveys by food psychology researcher Brian Wansink and his colleagues at Cornell University show that we rate a picture of a glass of orange juice as significantly more appealing when juice can be seen being poured into the glass than when the image is of a glass that they have been filled. Both are static images but one connotes motion. That is enough to increase its appeal.( For those of you at home, who may not be able to guarantee that your food moves, another strategy is simply to leave the leaves and/ or stems on fruit and vegetables, to help cue freshness .)

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Marks and Spencer chocolate pudding advert, 2005.

One of the strangest tendencies relating to food porn that I have come across in recent years is called mukbang . A growing number of South Koreans are use their mobile phones and laptops to watch other people devouring and talking about eating food online .~ ATAGEND Millions of viewers engage in this voyeuristic habit, which first seemed back in 2011. Interestingly, the stars are not top chefs, TV personalities or restaurateurs but rather regular( albeit generally photogenic) online eaters. One can think of this as yet another example of food in motion; its simply that the person interacting with the food happens to be more visible than in many examples of dynamic food advertising in the west, where all you see is the food moving. I also get the sense, though, that some people who eat alone are tuning in for a dosage of mukbang at mealtimes to get some virtual company.

It would be interesting to see whether those who eat while tuning in devour more than they would were they truly feeing alone( ie, without any virtual dinner guests ). One might also wonder if mukbang is as distracting as regular television, which has been shown to dramatically increase the amount eaten. If so, one might expect that the viewers immediate intake of food will increase and that the amount of day that passes before they get hungry again ought to be reduced.

Food imagery is most visually appealing when the viewers brain determines it easy to simulate the purposes of the act of eating, for example, when the food is seen from a first-person view. This is rated more highly than viewing food from a third-person view( as is typically the suit with mukbang ).

Grills
Illustration: Pete Guest

Marketers, at least the smarter ones, know only too well that we will rate what we are presented in food ads more highly if its easier to mentally simulate the act of eating that which we consider. Imagine a packet of soup with a bowl of soup on the front of the packaging. Adding a spoonful approaching the bowl from the right will result in people being around 15% more willing to buy the product than if the spoon approaches from the left. Thats because the majority of members of us are right-handed, and so we normally watch ourselves holding a spoon in our helping hand. Simply depicting what looks like a right-handed people spoon approaching the soup induces it easier for our brains to imagine eating. Now, for all those lefties out there saying, What about me? it may not be too long before the food ads on your mobile device might be reversed to indicate the left-handed perspective. The idea is that this will assist maximise the adverts appeal( assuming, that is, that your technology can figure out your handedness implicitly ).

How fretted should we be by the rise of food porn? Why shouldnt people pander their desire to opinion all those delectable gastroporn images. Surely “were not receiving” harm done? After all, food images dont contain any calories, do they? Well, it turns out that there are a number of problems that I think we should be concerned about 😛 TAGEND

1 Food porn increases hunger
One thing that we know for certain is that viewing images of desirable foods provokes appetite. For instance, in one analyze, simply watching a seven-minute restaurant review proving pancakes, waffles, hamburgers, eggs, etc led to increased starvation ratings not only in participants who hadnt eaten for a while but also in those who had just polished off a meal.

2 Food porn promotes unhealthy food
Many of the recipes that top cooks build on television indicates are unbelievably calorific or unhealthy. Those who have systematically analysed Tv cooks recipes find that they tend to be much higher in fat, saturated fat and sodium than is recommended by the World Health Organisations nutritional guidelines. This is not only a problem for those working viewers who go on to attain these foods.( Although astonishingly few people actually do this: according to a 2015 survey of 2,000 foodies, fewer than half had ever cooked even one of the dishes that they had assured prepared on food presents .) Rather, the bigger fear here is that the foods we insure being built, and the food portions we consider being served on TV, may define implicit norms for what we consider it appropriate to eat at home or in a restaurant.


3 The more food porn you view, the higher your body mass index( BMI)
While the link is merely correlational , not causal, the fact that people who watch more food TV have a higher BMI might still cause you to raise your eyebrows. They might, of course, be watching more television generally , not just food programmes after all, the term couch potato has been around for longer than the term food porn. The key question, though, from the gastrophysics perspective, is whether the individuals who watch more food television have a higher BMI than those who view an equivalent sum of non-food Tv. That would certainly seem likely, given all the evidence showing that food advertising biases subsequent intake, especially in kids.

4 Food porn drains mental resources
Whenever we view images of food on the side of product packaging, in cookery books, TV presents or social media our brains cant help but engage in a spot of embodied mental simulation. That is, they simulate what it would be like to eat the food. At some level, it is almost as if our brains cant distinguish between images of food and real dinners. We therefore need to expend some mental resources, silly though it may sound, to defy all of these virtual temptations. So what happens when we are subsequently faced with an actual food choice? Imagine yourself watching a Tv cookery present and then arriving at a develop station; the smell of coffee wafting through the air leads you by the nose into buying a cup. At the counter, you ensure the sugary snack bar and fruit laid out in front of you. Should you go for a bar of chocolate, or pick a healthy banana instead? In one laboratory analyse, participants who had been shown appealing food images tended to make worse food selections afterwards than those who had been exposed to a smaller number of food images. All of this increased exposure to desirable food images results in involuntary embodied mental simulations. Our brains imagine what it would be like to ingest the foods we see, even if those foods are only on the Tv or our telephones, and we then have to try to resist the temptation to eat. One recent examine, conducted in three snack shops in train stations, examined whether people could be nudged towards healthier food choices simply by moving the fruit closer to the till than the snacks the reverse usually being the suit. The nudge ran in the sense that people were indeed more likely to buy fruit or a muesli bar. Unfortunately, they continued to purchase crisp, cookies and chocolate as well. In other words, an intervention that had been designed to cut intake resulted in people consuming more calories.

Food and the intellect illustration

Our brains have evolved to find sources of nutrition in food-scarce surroundings. Regrettably, we are surrounded by more images of energy-dense, high-fat foods than ever before. While there is an increasing desire to opinion images of food , not to mention take pictures of it, and more is now known about what aspects of these images attract us, we should, I suppose, be concerned about just what outcomes such exposure is having on us all. I am increasingly concerned that all this digital grazing of images of unhealthy energy-dense foods may be encouraging us to eat more than we realise and nudging us all towards unhealthier food behaviours.

Describing desirable images of food as gastroporn, or food porn, is undoubtedly pejorative. However, I am convinced that the link with actual porn is more appropriate than we believe. So perhaps we really should be thinking about moving those food publications exploding with images of highly calorific and unhealthy food up on to the newsagents top shelf? Or avoiding cookery presents from being aired on Tv before the watershed? While such suggestions are, of course, a little tongue in cheek, there is a very serious issue here. The detonation of mobile technologies means that we are all being exposed to more images of food than ever before, presented with foods that have been designed to look good, or photograph well, more than for their taste or balanced nutritional content.

Max Ehrlichs 1971 book The Edict , is set in a future where the strictly calorie-rationed populace can go to the movies to ensure a Foodie: What they ensure was almost unbearable, both in its ache and rapture. Mouths dropped half open, saliva drooling at their corners. People licked their lips, staring at the screen lasciviously, their eyes glazed, as though undergoing some kind of deep sex experience. The man in the film had finished his carve and now he held a thick slice of beef pinioned on his fork As his mouth engulfed it, the mouths of the entire audience opened and closed in symbiotic unison with “the mens” on the screen What the audience ensure now was not simple greed. It was pornographic. Close-ups of mouths were proven, teeth grinding, juice dribbling down chins.

I dont want to leave on a pessimistic note. In the coming years, gastrophysicists will continue to examine the crucial part the foods we are exposed to visually play in feeing behaviour. There seems little chance that the impact of sight will decline any time soon, especially given how much hour we expend gazing at screens. My hope is that by understanding more about the importance of sight to our perception of, and behaviour around, food and drink we will be in a better position to optimise our food experiences in the future.

Extracted from Gastrophysics: the New Science of Eating( Viking, 14.99 ). To order a transcript for 12.74, going to see bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p& p over 10, online orders merely; phone orders min p& p of 1.99

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