Has Instagram changed the way we eat?

Saints of Mokha has a large Instagram following.

By Conor de Smith

Apicius, the first-century Roman gourmand and author, is credited with the aphorism: “The first taste is always with the eyes.”

In fact, some of the largest increases in cerebral blood flow occur when a hungry brain is exposed to images of desirable foods. This might go some way in explaining why the phenomenon of ‘foodporn’ has changed the world’s eating habits over the last decade.  

The British public are sharing images of food more than ever before with a huge amount of this food-centric media revolving around the photography uploaded on social media platforms such as Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram. More than 130,000 pictures of food are shared on Instagram every day in the UK and one-in-five Britons have admit to sharing photos online once a month.

Ever since its launch in 2010, food has been a great provider of content on Instagram. The immensely popular social media site, which boasts 600 million monthly active users, specialises in photosharing and around 208 million posts have been tagged on the app with the “food” hashtag since it was founded.

The introduction of mobile phones with in-built cameras have made sharing pictures of our food easier than ever. Taking a photo of an aesthetically appealing ‘freakshake’ or ‘raindrop cake’ has become customary when dining out, but is this changing the way the public consume food?

Breakfast, for example, has shifted from unphotogenic cereal or jam on toast to the bright hues of avocado toast – there are nearly 750,000 #avocadotoast hashtagged photos on Instagram –  and trendy smoothie bowls. Some meals are now social media magnets and some cafes or restaurants aim to hone on this ‘free advertising’.

In Leicester, there are dozens of independent establishments that utilise social media in order to draw in customers. Some, such as the Toast Inn, have become self aware and have called a fruity Prosecco drink infused with candyfloss ‘I want that drink I saw on Instagram’. Sex sells and ‘food porn’ is no different. In 2005, for example, M&S’ sales skyrocketed by 3,500% when the supermarket launched an advert showing a chocolate pudding with an extravagant melting centre.

The younger generation are the main culprits with 18 to 24-year-olds five times more likely to share photos of their food online than the over 55s. According to research by Zizzi, 18-35-year-olds spend five whole days a year browsing food images on Instagram, and 30 per cent would avoid a restaurant if their Instagram presence was weak.

This consumer behaviour is literally changing the way some restaurants, cafes and eateries approach their business. Omar Sacranie, owner of a Leicester coffee shop called Saints of Mokha, believes he runs his store differently because of social media.

“A lot of the launches we do are on Instagram,” says the 20-year-old. “When I look at people of an older age and how they construct a business, it is very different to how I do things. They will launch products in-store, everything is in-store for them, while I like to launch things online. I find it more efficient and easier to do things online.”

The store opened in the summer of 2016 and has proven to be a huge hit on Instagram. In March 2018, there were 50 geotagged posts of the store or its products. The majority are aerial views of wonderfully designed coffees and cakes, while others focus on the wooden interior which is made entirely of recycled pallets from factories.

Mr Sacranie is very aware of the power of photographs. Above the counter, there are dozens of polaroids of customers that staff have found eccentric or interesting with messages underneath. These are rarely placed on Instagram but they add a personal touch to the cafe. “I would cover the whole shop with these pictures,” he says but was adamant that he has never sold a product due to its ‘Instagramability’.

“I don’t think people put photos first. I have considered making something because it looks good on Instagram, but it is not the main crux of the decision. I’ve not thought ‘this is picturesque, I’m going to sell it’ if it doesn’t taste good, if it’s not efficient, if it’s not popular, if it’s not a familiar taste – there’s a lot more that goes into a dish for me.”

Leicester Food posts photos of establishments such as Cake Club & Doughnotts.

Some are very aware of this amplified word of mouth and restaurants such as Media Noche in San Francisco designed their restaurant to be perfect for Instagram, from the floor pattern to the lighting. Some chefs have labelled this strategy, putting this much focus on style, dangerous. It is a risk many are taking due to the impact these social influencers harbour.

In Leicestershire, the Instagram account ‘LeicesterFood’ is unrivaled when it comes to followers and influence. Going public in 2016, the account now has near 7,000 followers by offering high-definition photographs of the city’s most popular food trends. Its hashtag, which users can place below their photos to get featured, has been used over 10,000.

Pia Chauhan, 26, runs the account as a hobby and makes no financial gains from the account, but does get invited to the opening of some restaurants in return for some coveted online exposure. Instagram is difficult the monetise for influencers without seeking brand deals so why has it proven so popular?

“It is very easy to use,” said Miss Chauhan. “It’s very visual and attractive. Also, people seem to be more active on Instagram compared to other social media – especially the younger generation. For me it’s a hobby, I enjoy it and I can pass time. I also get invited to new restaurant openings and food events to eat for free.”

It appears traditional newspaper and magazine restaurant reviews are losing their influence over millennials in favour of online round-ups, social networks and influencers. One anonymous publicist, however, says influencers can become a burden for top establishments. They say these social media stars have demanded not only the complimentary meals, plus-one’s, and a free buffet of every dish on a restaurant’s menu. The publicist added, “I get emails: ‘I have 114.3K followers. Here’s where I’d like to go.’ Miss Chauhan believes that befriending influencers can be vital to the success of local businesses.

“It’s free advertising for them and they can connect with other local businesses,” she says. They can showcase their food and target them to the Leicester population very easily and with minimal effort.”

The fear for long-serving food creators is that ‘minimal effort’ might start to creep into the food industry due to Instagram but, for now, ‘Instagrammable’ dishes are here to stay in a big way.

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  1. […] Conor de Smith visits Saints of Mocha, the popular Leicester café that took Instagram by storm with its mouth-watering food pictures, and finds out if Instagram has changed the way we eat. […]

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