Are you addicted to food porn?

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How often do you see pictures or advertisements of food on the web, or buy a product based solely on the packaging? These are just two examples of the rapid increase in the presence of food marketing around us, but all have one thing in common – they are primarily visual. Out of all our senses, arguably the one that contributes most to our perception of food is sight. As humans evolved, we constantly had to forage for food, and we capitalized on our vision to “look” for food that was safe, nutritious and calorie-dense. This evolutionary related urge to look at tasty food has been named “visual hunger” by researchers.

We still exhibit this behaviour today. Many people have the habit of taking photos of visually appealing food before consumption, and some restaurants ban this so that customers can focus more on the real food rather than the virtual photo. Likewise, companies leverage on improving editing software to package processed food with high quality pictures that make their products look much more appetizing while concealing the less appetizing actual product beneath the packaging. This strategy works surprisingly well. This glamourized visual representation of food has been referred to as “food porn”, and recent research has drawn attention to its potential to be related to obesity.

We don’t need to constantly forage for food in the outdoors anymore. Instead, we have become super consumers navigating our way through the aisles of a supermarket and the online store catalogue. Instead of us going to the food, the food industry is constantly searching for ways to make the food come to us. This widespread availability makes us overexposed to unrealistic images that the industry uses to stimulate our visual hunger, and when we rely too much on vision to make important choices of what to eat, we may fall prey to purchasing processed food because those are the ones which are often marketed using unrealistic images. An excess of consuming too much processed food, especially those high in fat and sugar, can cause obesity.

Images of these potentially unhealthy choices have been shown to stimulate neural, physiological and behavioural responses. It has been shown that the human brain directs its limited attentional resources toward the processing of high fat food. Exposure to images of desirable foods can trigger efforts at self-restraint to resist the temptation of indulgence, but a study examining the areas of greater activation in the brain show that overweight people may anticipate more reward from food intake than healthy people. In one study, sight and smell of appetizing food lead to a 24% increase in whole brain metabolism, as well as a quickening of heart rate in anticipation of the food to come.

On the positive side, the growing research on how vision affects our hunger can help to initiate a movement to reduce unnecessary food intake and therefore help to fight obesity. One of the modern technologies to help spurn this movement is “augmented satiety”, whereby a real object is modified in real-time with virtual elements which will affect our satiety perception. For example, in the Cyber Interface Lab in Tokyo, researchers have devised the world’s first gustatory display called the “Meta Cookie”, which changes the perceived taste of a cookie by changing the visual and olfactory information the consumer perceives in real time, without changing the actual chemical substances in the cookie. Food held in the hand can also be scaled to look larger before consuming, thereby reducing our overall intake because we perceive that we are eating greater quantities. However, this technology is still in its nascent stages, so being more aware of the effects of visual hunger is our best tool against its harms for now.

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