A constant stream of food images makes us want less – not more – food

Much of today’s new fangled food culture orbits a system of shares, likes and retweets. The emphasis of sharing food experiences through social media is, of course, the photos (still no smell-o-vision). The beauty is you can visually sample the world’s breakfasts, lunches and dinners on a less-than-inspiring lunch hour, get a sense of what to expect from a new restaurant or understand a foreign delicacy beyond a quick browse on Wikipedia.

There are, however, limitations with this all-you-can eat pixel buffet. Professors at Brigham Young University in the States have recently uncovered evidence about food photos that could dampen your appetite for snapping and sharing your supper. They say digital consumption of food can make it less enjoyable to eat that dish, calling it “sensory boredom”. One of the co-authors, Ryan Elder, says: “In a way, you’re becoming tired of that taste without even eating the food.”

To discover this phenomenon, Elder and co-author Jeff Larson studied the reactions of 232 people when viewing food photos, which was followed by eating. Half were shown sweet foods, the other salty. This was followed by eating peanuts and rating how appetising they were. Those who’d looked at pictures of salty foods found the peanuts less appetising than those who’d been drooling over cakes and biscuits. Why? Because the subjects had already satiated on the specific sensory experience of saltiness, apparently.

Is this study then a blow to restaurants and a blessing for the over eater? Could perpetual posting of food photos by marketers and restaurants really be driving away custom? Perhaps once-hungry customers are recoiling at yet another cross-sectioned burger to the point that they’ve given up on checking out the hype themselves. Maybe restaurants shouldn’t be persuing likes and follows for fear of turning us off nouveau Indian and instead onto good old English fare.

‘Consuming’ in this way isn’t limited to turning you off eating. It also means you’re less likely to be surprised by what you find when you try something new. You’ve seen it a hundred times in your news feed, pin boards and timeline; imagined just how it might taste by depending on the hash tags used to describe it. But when it finally comes to eating it, BYU’s theory quite possibly comes into play – it can never quite meet expectations as when you were taking in bytes.

The construction of food culture on the web can put the expectant food lover in their place, quite likely to be let down given an overexposure to cyber hype. But the theory can work on a more optimistic level too. The researchers suggested that studying photos of food you have a weakness for could help curb the craving, though they do say you need to look at a lot of photos to get that satisfied effect.

The web is doing brilliant things for food for obvious reasons, but perhaps that idea of too much of a good thing translates to this world too. The beauty of food is to be celebrated, and photography is certainly the way to do that. So perhaps spare a thought for your fellow food-loving friends the next time you go to upload – you could well be having the opposite intended effect.

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