Why food porn on Instagram and TikTok makes us happy: it triggers the same pleasure receptors in our brains as food on our plates

foodporn, TikTok, Instagram, pho

When Winny Hayes joined TikTok, she thought the social video app was mostly for lip-synching and dance trends.

She wasn’t yet privy to its world of food content: creamy vodka pasta, mouthwatering birria quesatacos and anything and everything dropped into an air fryer.

“I was like, ‘This is amazing’,” Hayes recalls. “And now the majority of people that I follow are food content creators: barbecue, pizza, I actually follow someone who only makes bagels. That’s amazing. I’m addicted to them.”

Food content and the internet go hand in hand, and online users can’t get enough. We live in the era of “phone eats first” – that is, capturing images of your food before taking a bite, and the hashtag #foodporn has more than 267 million posts on Instagram. Why are we so addicted to videos of food?

foodporn, TikTok, Instagram, pho

Winny Hayes regularly uploads short videos online for her 1.1 million followers on TikTok. Photo: Twitter/@WinnyHayes

Hayes, who lives in Atlanta, in the US state of Georgia and has 1.1 million TikTok followers, is known for making vibrant, creative meals for her family, composed in short how-to videos that help viewers brainstorm their own meal ideas.

“Adopt me, please” comments flood the page – and that’s the other side of online food content: though much of it serves as inspiration for home-cooked meals, there’s also an aspirational element. “Food porn”, as it’s commonly referred to, can also go viral not because we want to know how to make it, but because we just want to eat it.

foodporn, TikTok, Instagram, pho

Hayes food shopping in a TikTok video. Photo: Twitter/@WinnyHayes

foodporn, TikTok, Instagram, pho

Hayes is known for making vibrant, creative meals for her family. Photo: Twitter / @WinnyHayes

“It’s pleasurable. It feels good to look at pictures of food,” says Rachel Herz, a Brown University and Boston College faculty member with a PhD in neuroscience. She’s the author of Why You Eat What You Eat, which explores the sensory, psychological and social factors that go into our experiences with food.

“It makes us instantly – happy is a bit of a loaded word – but it does in a very loose way make us feel happy, because it’s literally making a neurological effect to trigger feelings of reward and pleasure,” she says.

Simply looking at photos or watching videos of food triggers the same activation of dopamine and other chemicals in our brain as seeing food in person does, Herz notes. And it isn’t by accident that the phenomenon was dubbed “food porn”. Being drawn to delicious-looking food is driven by our biology, specifically a region in the brain called the nucleus accumbens involved with pleasure and reward.

foodporn, TikTok, Instagram, pho

Rachel Herz is a Brown University and Boston College faculty member with a PhD in neuroscience. Photo: Brown University

foodporn, TikTok, Instagram, pho

The cover of Herz’s book.

“Food is one of the two greatest pleasures of being alive – the other being sex – and we actually have to eat multiple times a day to stay alive,” Herz says.

The bottom line: our brain tells us that looking at food feels good, so we continue to seek more of the images we know can do the trick.

At a certain point, food porn can become stale, Hayes says. She prefers the dynamic nature of YouTube videos over stills on Instagram, but she doesn’t always have the time to watch a 15-minute cooking video. Enter TikTok – food content that allowed for eye-catching, informative videos that were more easily digestible, but still satisfying.

foodporn, TikTok, Instagram, pho

Most people that Hayes follows are food content creators that make videos like her own Pancake Strawberry Shortcakes clip. Photo: Twitter/@WinnyHayes

Over the past few years, viral food porn has done more than trigger a psychological response or just make us really wish we had a cheeseburger or a big bowl of pho right now.

Through the coronavirus pandemic quarantine and beyond, it has become a gateway for reluctant home chefs to try cooking and an invitation to learn about cultures from around the world one might not otherwise be introduced to, whether they plan on cooking the dish in question or ordering it at a restaurant.

“At the end of the day, what brings us together is food,” Hayes says. “What the internet has done is open our eyes to different types of food that we don’t normally eat, or we don’t normally know how to make. These content creators make it so accessible.”

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