THE FOOD ISSUE

Why you’re secretly addicted to food porn

By Claire Lower

Originally coined by feminist critic Rosalind Coward in her 1984 book Female Desire, “food pornography” is the phrase used to describe the glamorized, ultra-edited, and perfectly styled representations of food we are bombarded with on a regular basis. You know—the ones met with “tag your porn, woman!” on Tumblr, derided on Instagram, and drooled over on Pinterest.

These beautifully lit and touched-up images of food are now ubiquitous and, thanks to the Internet, in endless supply. This is only one of the many ways in which food pornography and “actual” pornography are similar. Though the term is understood to be fairly tongue-in-cheek, one has to wonder if the title is really deserved. Can you get addicted to cake frosting tutorials?

People have been looking at photos of naked people a lot longer than they’ve been looking at pictures of cupcakes, but as with pornography, excess and decadence are driving forces in the world of food porn. Food porn stars like Domestic Goddess Nigella Lawson indulge in the sensual side of food entertainment, never letting you forget that food can be just as pleasurable as sex.

The images that are intended to excite and entice are rarely those that fill a nutritional need. Broccoli and rice just don’t make for drool-worthy Instagram shots are made. Food as fuel will never make it to the front page of r/foodporn on Reddit for the same reasons that “hand holding” isn’t a category on YouPorn: Neither is a source of supernormal stimuli, the scientific basis of why we respond to food porn the way we do.

A supernormal stimulus is “an exaggerated version of a stimulus to which there is an existing response tendency, or any stimulus that elicits a response more strongly than the stimulus for which it evolved.” Dutch ethologist and father of supernormal stimuli Nikolaas Tinbergen found that by creating exaggerated examples of naturally occurring stimuli, he could manipulate the behavior of various animals. This comic explains it in beautiful detail, but one of his experiments included constructing unrealistically large and colorful eggs to test the preferences of brooding birds. The birds selected the artificial specimens over their own, less colorful and smaller eggs because, evolutionarily speaking, a larger egg meant a greater chance of healthy offspring.

The strange similarities between actual pornography and what some people have jokingly dubbed “food porn” are perhaps more linked than people realize.

Animals are unlikely to encounter supernormal stimuli unless it is provided by the humans that study them, but humans are in the unique position of using such stimuli for their own entertainment and gain. In the case of pornographic movies and magazines, tools such as Photoshop, expert lighting, and (sometimes) surgical alterations can be used create erotic entertainment that features unrealistic expectations of what sexual partners look and act like. In porn, the screams are louder, the sex organs are usually bigger, and everyday scenarios such as pizza delivery are rife with an unrealistic amount of sexual tension.

These exaggerated stimuli do their job, allowing porn to be used as a tool for arousal, but—unlike animals—the human viewer has the capacity to be aware that the pornorgraphy they are viewing is an unrealistic and enhanced version of an average sexual experience.

In terms of setting unrealistic expectations, food porn and pornography of a sexual nature are fairly comparable, and they might have similar—though not identical—effects on your brain. One of the main concerns with pornography has to do with the release of dopamine. According to Dr. Norman Doidge, author of The Brain That Changes Itself, dopamine gives us “the thrill that goes with accomplishment.” He writes, “It also consolidates the connections between neurons in the brain that helped us accomplish that goal. As well, dopamine is secreted at moments of sexual excitement and novelty. Porn scenes, filled with novel sexual ‘partners,’ fire the reward centre. The images get reinforced, altering the user’s sexual tastes.”

Over time, one can develop a tolerance and seek out stranger or more intense porn, and an addiction may form. Though images of enticing food won’t cause a surge of dopamine in most people, a brain imaging study at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory found that binge eaters’ dopamine levels spiked at the sight and smell of food. While these findings don’t offer any conclusions in regards to food porn on a wide scale, it is interesting that, like sexual images for pornography addicts, images of food can lead to a spike in dopamine for those who struggle with disordered eating.

Dopamine aside, it doesn’t take a scientific study to know that food porn is stimulating. If Pornburger doesn’t make you want a burger, nothing will. Similarly, it’s damn near impossible to watch Chopped without a snack. Unfortunately, the release you crave after watching food porn is not quite so easy to obtain. Satisfying a nonsexual appetite requires more than your hand—maybe some cooking or, at the very least, a trip to Taco Bell.

Food porn, like pornography, is all about visual stimulation.

But just as porn becomes unappealing the moment that “release” has been attained, food porn ceases to have an effect on one’s appetite once a meal is consumed. According to researchers at the University of British Columbia, insulin is responsible for food porn’s lack of appeal to the full and satiated.

According to the senior author of the study, Stephanie Borgland, insulin (that hormone secreted by the pancreas after a meal to help regulate glucose in the blood stream) “dulls the synapses” in the ventral tegmental area of the brain, which is “which is responsible for reward-seeking behavior.” This “decreases our interest in seeking out food, which in turn causes us to pay less attention to food-related cues.” This could explain why I’m all about my “Yum” Pinterest board right before lunch time.

Some viewers are more aware of the physical and psychological drivers behind our love of pretty pictures of food (or people) than others. Being aware of supernormal stimuli and knowing how dopamine affects the brain may not be enough to keep it from affecting your inclinations.

Like the bodies of porn stars, both food and representations of food can be enhanced and manipulated to be more stimulating than their natural counterparts. Science and technology have given us the capability to make food taste better than ever before by adding unnatural amounts of fat, salt, and sugar. It’s ridiculous for someone to claim that junk food doesn’t taste good. Of course, it does. It was engineered to taste good. On a smaller scale, this would be like claiming an apple tastes better than an apple pie. Apples are great and all, but they don’t have a buttery crust or sweet, sticky filling. While most grown humans logically understand that an apple is better for you than a slice (or two) of pie, there is no denying that pie is the more stimulating option.

Food porn, like pornography, is all about visual stimulation. Food is posed, painted, injected with fillers (chicken legs are made plumper with mashed potatoes), and masterfully lit for maximum appeal. Sometimes, the food you think you are seeing is something else entirely. For illustration, we need look only to the radical differences between promotional photos and the real thing when it comes to fast food. Like a 15-year-old boy whose only view of naked women has been online, we may be less aware of the artifice and may become distraught when real-life food doesn’t live up to the fantasy of food porn.

This was apparent when Martha Stewart—whose magazine is quite well known for its air of effortless perfection—shared some photos of some fancy food she was enjoying. The photos appeared to be taken on a camera phone in very poorly lit places and the results were—to put in mildly—not very attractive. The subsequent uproar was intense, and maybe a little undeserved. Though some of the photos were truly terrible, anyone who has ever Instagrammed a meal could see that this was a case of terrible restaurant lighting plus camera phone flash, two things which one is taught to avoid in Food Photography 101. Though no one should be surprised to find that Martha herself does not take the photos for her magazine and website, people were quite surprised to find that the reality of what Martha eats to be so far removed from the exaggerated representation of what Martha eats that we are so used to seeing in her cookbooks.

The images that are intended to excite and entice are rarely those that fill a nutritional need.

Had we been sitting with Martha in that poorly lit dining room, enjoying a wedge salad with her decidedly unphotogenic homemade Russian dressing, I doubt we would have complained about the look of it. But because Martha Stewart is Martha Stewart, and her name is so firmly associated with perfectly photographed images of unattainably beautiful food, the offending photos seem impossibly ugly. If the same photos had been tweeted by my grandmother, I would chalk the whole thing up to social media unsaviness. (Then I would block her on Twitter, for her own good.) But “unsavvy” is the last adjective most of us would use to describe Stewart, and as someone who has been supplying the nation with (classy) food porn since the ’80s, it’s quite a shock to see the unedited reality of the sloppy mess that is Russian dressing raw and unedited.

The strange similarities between actual pornography and what some people have jokingly dubbed “food porn” are perhaps more linked than people realize. In an era where perfect images and unrealistic expectations dominate many avenues of life—fashion modeling, food photography, pornography—maybe it’s time to talk more frankly about the physiology of the “porn response.”

Photos via Damgood AVLien/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0) and Agustín Nieto/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed