Instagram has been discriminatory with certain foods, particularly colorfully saturated snacks. Users can choose to follow channels like @foodys and @foodporndaily1 to get their dose of saturated, sinful bites that might look too good to be true. Despite these irresistible-looking treats, a subgroup of food lovers has become increasingly dissatisfied with the quality and taste of these items. A glittery, pink and purple Starbucks drink labeled the “Unicorn Frappuccino” went viral on Instagram during its limited period in April of 2017. Despite the drink’s aesthetic appeal, Chris Riotta, a reviewer at Newsweek wrote, “To be clear, this is the worst drink I have ever purchased in my life.” In 2014, New York Times food critic Pete Wells coined the term “camera cuisine,” referring to expensive restaurants drawing customers from their picturesque dishes. Wells noted that the rise in plating aesthetics appeared to be intrinsically connected with a decline in taste, finding that camera cuisine’s “purest form…is both exquisitely photogenic and peculiarly bland and lifeless.”
On the other end of the spectrum, healthy eating has made a huge wave in the online social media community. According to The Guardian, chia seeds, grains, cactus water and more all emerged as top food trends of 2016. Interestingly, social media has also helped eaters be accountable for their diets. Interviewees who kept track of what they ate for a University of Washington research paper found that Instagram helped them stick to their own tracking and healthy eating goals, made them more honest about their eating habits and allowed followers to show support.
Restaurants recognizing the potential nascent advertising benefits of Instagram have gone to great lengths to keep up with the social buzz. The owner of Grind, a London café-bar chain, has spent the last five years trying to make his entire company more “Instagrammable” and as culture savvy as possible. In 2016, Grind replaced every table in the company with white marble to improve customers’ Instagram pictures.
Restaurant tactics appear to run the gamut in order to please their photography-oriented customers, and there is evidence of their financial success. The one-day Square Shake campaign by Sonic increased their follower base by 11,000 users. Starbucks, a marketing giant on Instagram, has averages over 200,000 likes on each post according to a study conducted by JMIR Public Health and Surveillance. With the release of the Unicorn Frappuccino, global same-store sales increased by three percent for the second quarter.
Other businesses, however, dislike the idea of catering to Instagramming millennials. James Lowe, head chef and owner of Lyle’s in London has noted that this photogenic food culture has led to chefs “cooking for pictures”–putting a dish together without concern for taste and focusing exclusively on aesthetic. Japanese deli Auradaz in Leamington Spa has banned diners from using their mobile phones in his restaurant, citing that eating is a social experience and not one to be saturated with social media.
The rise in Instagramming food altered business strategy has changed consumer behavior. The Waitrose survey states that nearly 40 percent of consumers worry more about presentation compared to five years ago. According to research by Zizzi, the average 18-35-year-old spends five whole days a year browsing food images on Instagram, and 30 percent would avoid a restaurant if their Instagram presence was weak.
In the future, restaurants can expect to see a spike in millennials willing to expand their palate and try more adventurous foods. With the rise of both sugary foods and healthy eats, polarization in diets among the millennial population may be on the horizon. Restaurants who do not take advantage of the growing social media platform may risk a decline in younger customers. Meanwhile, hearty foods with less visual appeal could disappear depending on whether epicures and food critics grow in number. Instagram has undoubtedly revolutionized the types of food we eat, the restaurants and vendors who sell them and food culture as a whole.