Getting Social with Fruits and Veggies

Feb. 27, 2020

When it comes to eating veggies, can social media take the place of your mother?

The other day I posted to this website a news item about a study that looked at how social media affects young people’s food choices. The study, by researchers at Aston University in Birmingham, England, found that university students tended to follow the leads of their Facebook friends on food choices. If they saw a lot of posts featuring high-calorie foods, that’s what they ate; ditto for fruits and vegetables, although that correlation was less pronounced.

Usually, I forget about my news items a minute or so after I post them. But this one has stuck with me, for a couple of reasons.

The first: Facebook? Seriously? My understanding is that college kids abandoned Facebook years ago, leaving it to graybeards like me. (Not that I personally have a Facebook page. I don’t need digitized, up-to-the-second reminders of how few friends I have.) But maybe it’s different in England.

The second: If the researchers’ conclusions are correct – that social media does influence food choices – then we’re faced with a classic cause-and-effect question. Caloric foods are more popular than fruits and vegetables, which is why, on Instagram, #fudge has 1.37 million posts, or almost 10 times more than #brusselssprouts. If more people eat bad-for-you foods, they get more attention on social media, which influences social media users to eat more of them, and round and round (or down and down) we go.

I’m not sure what can or should be done about this. Instagram, YouTube and other platforms are replete with “influencers,” whose lives center on how many followers they can rack up. These followers are presumably open to suggestions about consumer choices, because shopping is a major theme of influencer posts and videos. Most of the influencer videos I’ve seen are of rich girls showing off the camisole they just bought for only $1,500.

But when it comes to fruits and veggies, this situation poses some problems. Influencers often influence because they’re given the stuff they tout for free, or at a reduced rate. That works great for luxuries like fancy clothing or exotic vacation spots, but how are you going to bribe anyone with asparagus?

And even if you could, who’s going to do it? Bad-for-you food is big business, produced by some Fortune 500 corporations. There’s even an advocacy group for it. Produce doesn’t have any big guns like that. Of Food Processing’s Top 100 companies, only two are devoted to fruits and veggies. As for advocacy groups, they’re either nonprofits like the Produce for Better Health Foundation, or highly specialized trade groups, devoted to one kind of fruit or veggie.

Maybe we’ll have to do what we so often do: use technology to solve a problem created by technology. In this case, that might be bots. Hey, if they could allegedly swing a presidential election four years ago by spamming political blogs, what can’t they do?

In fact, political blogs are as good a place to start as any. So if you start seeing comments in your favorite political blog like “You’re right! Our country needs vision, which is why everyone should increase their consumption of carrots, rich in vitamin A,” you’ll know whom to blame.