How to Use Instagram to Track “Food Deserts”

Instagram foodThe “food selfie”—the practice of taking a social media picture of something you are about to eat—is an often mocked tradition of the Internet age. However, for some scientists it means that websites like Instagram can serve as thriving databases of eating habits, allowing researchers to track eating habits in areas that have been dubbed “food deserts”.

A food desert is any geographic region with limited access to food that is affordable and/or healthy. In the U.S., food deserts are characterized by diets higher in fat, salt, and sugar, along with limited options for grocery shopping. By using geo-tagging, researchers can get a visual look at what people in food desert communities are eating and compare it to what those in non-desert areas eat.

The biggest difference is in fruits and vegetables. Non-food desert areas mention fruits and vegetables in 48% of their Instagram food posts, while desert areas mention them in only 33%. Heavier foods like pies, beef, sausage, hamburgers, hot dogs, bacon, potatoes, and barbeque also feature more strongly in food desert communities. Somewhat oddly, the picture database shows that the caloric intake between food desert and non-desert communities to be roughly the same, even if the fat, salt, and sugar consumption is higher in deserts.

There are, of course, natural limitations to this kind of study, which the authors readily admit. All an Instagram photo can establish is that someone took a picture of a food item and there is no way to tell if the meal was eaten by the person who took the photo, how much of it was eaten, or how representative it is of their normal diet. There is also a natural inability to include any residents of the area who do not post food pictures online, which severely restricts how representative the findings can be.

What the researchers hope to do with their data, however, is develop a means to track and identify developing food deserts across the country. The current rates of obesity and related ailments (like diabetes) in the U.S. means more focus is being placed on proper nutrition. Identifying food deserts allows health officials to locate areas that lack sufficient access to nutritious food and devise strategies to help that community. Although other means of finding food deserts exist, the development of an accurate, social media-based model would offer a faster and more efficient way of spotting shifts in trends.

Source for Today’s Article:
Dockrill, P., “Here’s What Your Instagram Food Pics Reveal about What You’re Eating,” ScienceAlert web site, February 29, 2016;