Why we’re eating with our eyes more than ever

As unicorn cakes and rainbow croissants flood our social media feeds, food writer Katy Salter asks if our obsession with ‘like’-generating novelty foods is warping our idea of what’s actually good to eat.

Why we’re eating with our eyes more than ever

Picture the perfect croissant. Is it (A) golden, flaky and buttery? Or (B) average tasting but rainbow coloured? I’d hope you’d say it’s A. But for an increasing number of social media influencers, it’s B. The novelty foods trend is growing fast. If you use Instagram, Facebook or Pinterest, you’ve probably seen these Emperor’s New Foods (ENFs) – think rainbow croissants, unicorn iced coffees and monstrous freakshakes.

Image from @what_ahmedabad_eats via Instagram.


What do they have in common? They’re all style-over-substance fads and they bug the hell out of me. Remember when coffee was brown? Now lattes are made from charcoal, dragon fruit and matcha – in attention-grabbing shades of black, pink and green. Mashed avocado on toast, so recently the darling of social media, no longer cuts the mustard. Now you have to craft an avocado rose. This isn’t a trend for anyone with a life: try telling your boss you’re late for work because you were whittling your breakfast.

On the surface, ENFs are harmless fun. When the news seems unremittingly bleak, who can blame grown adults for queuing up for a unicorn frappuccino? If arranging granola in ruler-straight lines on a smoothie bowl makes people happy, perhaps we should leave them to it. And yet… there’s something soulless about these trends. What happens to our food culture when we value style over substance?

Think of the chefs cooking their hearts out and serving up incredible but non-photogenic dishes to a half-empty room. Meanwhile, dozens queue up for ice cream perched on a candyfloss cloud, purely for the photo opportunity.

We should spend our money on the best tasting dinner, not the best looking. But if current trends are any indication, in 10 years brown food and dimly lit restaurants will be extinct. Even places that are social media hits today may be gone tomorrow, when the influencers move on to the next hotspot. Public relations experts tell me a vital part of a new restaurant launch is the attention-grabbing hero dish everyone whips out their phone for. Marketing dictates menus now, as well as restaurant design. Ever wondered why you see so many marble tables? It’s because they make a great photo backdrop.

''What happens to our food culture when we value style over substance?''

ENFs fall into two opposing camps. There are the clean-eating fads such as smoothie bowls or those ruddy avocado roses. At the other extreme there are giant cheeseburgers and the freakshakes topped with brownies, doughnuts and waffles. No one should consume one of these. Ever.

If we obsess over ‘clean’ foods because they’re pretty or get excited by artery-furring ones because their OTT naughtiness generates thousands of Insta-likes, it’s hard to have a healthy relationship with food.

What happens when the young folk know how to make smoothie bowls but not stew? What happens to brown food like casseroles, soups and curries; to wonky vegetables or forgotten cuts of meat championed by chefs like Fergus Henderson? Our obsession with novelty foods could have unintended consequences for our food culture, which has come so far over the past decade.

By all means keep taking pictures of your lunch (I know I will). But in the race to snap the latest It Dish, let’s not forget the joys of unphotogenic home cooking and a balanced diet. 

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