In the age of visual excesses, technology is creating an appeal for both nostalgia and futurism that is causing many social media users to document their lives online. Digital media platforms such as the social network Instagram accelerate and extend social trends at a pace that leaves markets and minds moving. Along with the popularity of proven gastronomy both in practice and in studies, digital representations of food combine the different categories that compose it to create an omnipresent theme across social media in Wester cultures.

With a growing variety of culinary programs ranging from recipes to videos to blogging to the emergence of professional photography, we can uncover an insatiable social appetite for food-related topics that can contribute to the success and popularity of these digital pictures. Created in 2010, the Instagram online photo sharing platform has launched smartphone users into a new paradigm of media sharing, reaching 700 million users in April 2017. The visual nature of Instagram allows users to share quality images. Restaurants, individuals, create an unlimited range of food-based content, producing a spiral of social and economic implications.

By taking into account the semiotic principles and concepts of contemporary food studies, we will explore together some of the current cultural impacts of the virtual community symbolically saturated with Instagram. We will analyze the trends, identify the typical users and try to deepen the latent meaning and symbolic power of these culinary images both on an individual and societal scale. Food-related pictures on Instagram reinforce and potentially challenge some socio-economic norms. These culinary posts then function as a digital self-representation, a simulation of social belonging.

Culinary photography in self-authentication’s service 

The desire to document experiences is certainly not limited to acts of consumption. We can notice that there is a certain desire to capture the culinary moments (from the fat fast food dripping cheese to the gastronomic plate). The need to take a picture is so strong that a meal seems to be hard to appreciate in all its breadth if the added comfort of knowing that later, the enticing anticipation of “the first bite” can be experienced by a follower and collect “I like” friends or strangers. This trend has prompted a growing number of restaurants to ban the photographer of dishes in their establishments. 

This desire goes far beyond a simple desire to share experiences, but involves a complex process of creating meaning and self-definition. As Roland Barthes writes, “the essence of photography is to ratify what it represents” and thus to confirm something or the presence of someone. From a phenomenological point of view, the power of authentication goes beyond the power of representation. Indeed, thanks to the use of filters or the delayed publication, the user can handle infinitely details more distant from the original content. As Barthes says in his essay “Towards a Psychology of Contemporary Food Consumption”, food itself is a language and a form of communication or rather a “food grammar” asserting that “communication always implies a system of meaning. “. In this way, each Instagram message gives users considerable meaning.

Although some culinary photographs only seek to present an image, a recipe, food photography on instagram is a production of signs by the induction of meaning. On instagram, this process of creating meaning creates the feeling of being an insider, which allows inclusion in a familiar experience. The instagramers seek to have and to prove “authentic” experiences. Part of the intention to take the picture is to prove, although without necessarily knowing it, the participation in the system of signs that creates tendencies while perpetuating the image of self that the instagrammer tries to represent numerically.

Although this phenomenon connects people from all over the world and strengthens new social bonds, it paradoxically pushes the culinary world towards a visual space beyond the act of eating. While the semiotic analysis of Peirce implies a gradual rapprochement of the specificity resulting from additional layers of meaning, this quest for authentic representation, examined through the prism of the semiotic representation process, creates an almost ironic distance between Instagram users and the culinary experiences they experience and try to preserve or even legitimize.

Instagram participants can then seek to have an “image” rather than the real object itself whether it’s cupcake, smoothie or ice cream … Once the desired object is obtained, the main objective of the instagrammer becomes digital and is no longer part of literature consumption. The goal is to prove one’s belonging to a certain group and to integrate it. One only has to see the places selling products with high added value “instagrammable” which are taken by storm. Who, sincerely, would line up for hours for an unhappy colorful cupcake? Nobody ! As Jacob Silverman says, photographic evidence in social network is used to prove and share enviable experiences. 

Identity and visual belonging

The presentation of foods on instagram reflect an important aspect of the identity to which the instagrammer wants to be linked. Daniel Miller, an anthropologist at University College London, studied a wide range of instagram users aged 16 to 18. He noted the presence of several conscious effort schemes with which they undertook not only to capture the image, but also to organize the food so that it appears in its best light. He identifies three categories of “food image”. These include images of personally made dishes (such as cakes, salads), pictures of dishes made by someone else (such as a bakery showcase or a dish ordered at the restaurant) and finally what Miller designates as the “images intended to demonstrate the profession represented by taking a good image of an element that would otherwise not have caused any particular aesthetic appreciation” “.

The set of images was searched with the hashtag #lemon and allow to illustrate the three photographic categories described by Miller. These three images, rather than simply representing simple content, also speak of the identity of the photographer himself. The macaroons not only promote the person’s pastry skills, but also send an important message about the “luxury of time” the person has at their disposal. Indeed, this implies that the instagramer has the income and time to make, decorate and share the cakes. The second image of pastry suggests a higher income for dinner at the restaurant and involves an association with cultivated or exotic tastes. Finally, lemons show an art applied to the fruit in question. We can notice a particular attention to the composition, the contrast and the color.

Aside from aspects of social media that are intended and used as a means of connection and communication, social networks also function as an advertising platform for the Self. Like image alignment on other products, social media drives branding through content consistency, image style, use of hashtags, and a whole set of images and other details signaling adherence and differentiation to certain groups or ideologies. Although the content of each photo seems personal, the public nature of the content is inherent from the digital communities to which they contribute.

All of this results in Simona Stano, researcher in food and communication, calling the intersubjectivity of food in which an individual “seeks legitimacy through comparison and sharing”. The amalgam of cultural factors influencing the culinary world makes food one of the central spaces for the expression of identity.

Instagram users use a certain niche market and demographic to collect tastes and followers that can serve as status symbols. Can this be motivated by the hope of creating a group large enough to become an “influencer,” for example, with potential social and economic benefits, unless it is only to reinforce one’s own sense of identity ?

Just as a luxury restaurant can not publish the image of a home-made dish made of easy-to-obtain simple ingredients, as this would send the wrong message, individuals also “score” in the same way. A busy and active parent who is passionate about affordable, efficient cooking will not post photos of extravagant dishes, but will focus on simple, economical dishes that can be easily replicated by other parents. This type of image is more likely to be accompanied by a hashtag #cookingforkids or #readyfortheweek that both show meal preparations with several containers filled with staple foods such as chicken, broccoli or sweet potatoes. Again, participation in the display of these meal preparations on social media reflects the identity of the users. A sociological study studying food consumption patterns in social classes based on educational levels has shown that “upper class diets are more often in line with dietary recommendations than those of the lower classes ”. In light of this, such a practical but health-conscious image would likely come from a middle-class family. On the other hand, a more extravagant post could have been followed by a #gourmet with contents probably limited to a special preparation of some selected ingredients and considerably smaller portions indicating the superfluous nature of the actual meal and the affluent wealth of the instagram user. The role of the hashtag is very helpful in further defining the meaning of both self-image and identity in food-related instagram images.

Instagram and the power of #hashtag

Images intrinsically contain the potentiality of plural interpretations. To borrow from Barthes, they are thus “polysemous” and able to carry more than one semiotic or symbolic message. Adding text or captions to an image, instagram, and advertising can add clarity and specificity to the meaning. In The Rhetoric of Barthes’s Image, Barthes seeks to understand how images and linguistic components can work together to create complexities of meaning that neither could reach separately. Effective advertising made up of photographic content successfully masks the hidden message by “naturalizing the symbolic message”. However, not all images seek to subliminally convey suggestions to viewers. Some messages deliberately draw attention to themselves by allowing them to fit into the context of a broader theme, while others unknowingly reproduce symbols of social status and identity. On Instagram, this usually happens through hashtags.

On Instagram, anyone who clicks on a hashtag can discover a stream of images that have also received this tag. Instagram users can easily search for similar content, which is especially useful for food-related images, as they often have practical applications such as new recipes or links to culinary blogs. Because Instagram is both social and visual, users are connected to others through shared interests, desires, and passions. Adding hashtags strengthens and clarifies the meaning and purpose of these groups. Instagram users quickly realized that this connection model would work equally well for marketing and branding purposes.

Create desires

The hashtag #foodporn is somewhat controversial in the world of food and its connotation is probably part of the reasons for its popularity. In an article published in Gastronomica en 2010, several celebrities in the culinary world discussed the term #foodporn. Alan Madison, a food industry producer and scriptwriter, argued that “the use of such a pornographically charged word is simply to generate interest.” This hashtag, widely used, seems to be applied without much regard to the content of the image, the apparent intention being to use the label to get more views. The general trend, however, encompasses all the images of dishes overflowing with quantities, very artistic or fried foods, to cheese with a fat content considered so profane that they have been labeled as “pornographic”. As Roland Barthes said in Mythologies, these images “offer a fantasy to those who can not afford to cook or eat such dishes”. Since foods labeled #foodporn usually contain foods considered unhealthy and lead to visual frenzy without guilt. “The web offers endless opportunities to watch and fantasize about what we are told to be bad,” explain Signe Rousseau in his book Food and Social Media.

In light of the recent social movements for the body, health and well-being, the use of #foodporn could also work as a rejection of guilt and social pressures of self-restraint and idealized thin body as an example health and a Western aesthetic canon. It is also interesting to note that much of the food content on instagram is also classified as “comfort food” or #comfortfood thus attempting to “cultivate a taste for memories and nostalgia”. In conjunction with using a hashtag like #guiltypleasure, the addition of #foodporn and #comfortfood creates an interesting combination of transparency and public accountability where the instagrammer also seeks comfort with the company and the indulgence of others .


Digital representations of food, while visually appealing, create a subtle sense of misplaced utility. No longer only functioning as a means of nourishment, this thriving culinary trend reflects a new era of societal interaction with food. Considering that the vast majority of instagram users who participate in and consume food photography are not in poverty, social media are therefore turning to a new use of food representation as a tool for self-representation, communication group and merchandising. The visual nature of instagram allows the transmission of various messages, from the expression of personal interests to the signaling of belonging to a social class, through the integration of openly advertised advertisements. Given the wide accessibility of smartphones among younger users from more affluent cultures, the power of symbolism and representation creates enormous potential for creativity and even social mobility. Instagram serves as a broad cultural connector, allowing people across the globe a glimpse of culinary worlds both far and close to them. While symbolic complexity greatly depends on the purpose and intent of the user, be it an occasional amateur cook or an influencer, instagram can provide channels to explore all tastes. Among the potential disadvantages, however, is the inseparability of economic privilege and the opportunity to participate easily in this virtual culinary world. Although widely regarded as a somewhat exasperating pop-culture trend, a more in-depth review of culinary content on instagram highlights a platform ready for societal criticism and serves as a reflection for the reinforcement of class standards and the possibilities of power. equalizer “of the digital world in general.

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