person taking picture of food

How social media is influencing what young people eat

Published on : 2/28/23
Reading time : 4 min
  • 95% of 16-24 year olds have a social media profile, making them the biggest user demographic in the UK. Known as 'digital natives', Gen Z’s engage with social media numerous times a day. Read more to understand its impact on their daily lives, particularly on their food habits.

    Gen Z commonly enjoy visual platforms such as Snapchart, TikTok, Instagram and YouTube. With a huge 3.7 million active UK users, TikTok engages 60% of Gen Z daily, with the average user spending 41 minutes on the app each day. TikTok is the 7th most popular app in the world and has over 1 million UK downloads each month. 

    Over 75% of Gen Z follow at least one influencer on social media. The top TikTok influencer in the UK, Kyle Thomas, has collected a significant 35.2 millions followers with an additional 1.5 million followers on Instagram, showing a clear link between the platforms. Taking second place is Guinness World Records with an impressive 19.8 million TikTok followers.

    Food and Social Media

    Young people often turn to social media to gather meal inspiration and are influenced by the food trends they see on the various platforms. Since it is an environment where visual and social cues overlap, users are more impressionable and more likely to copy the food they see online.

    Furthermore, research indicates that social media may be altering our relationship with food. A study predicts that young people are exposed to food marketing around 30-189 times per week on social media, with high sugar and fast food being most commonly shown (BBC, 2021). 

    According to the same study, young people who were exposed to vloggers promoting sugary and fatty snacks went on to eat 26% more calories than those who didn’t.

    woman filming herself cookingThe average food and beverage influencer campaign generates approximately 7.38% engagement rate, five times higher than average.

    Gordon Ramsey is one of the most popular food influencers in the UK on Instagram with 14 million followers. Jamie Oliver comes in second place with 9.3 million followers. Another popular influencer is Ottolenghi, an Instagram food blogger with over 2 million followers. Dr. Alex George is a good example of a professional turned influencer using his platform for good, with over 1.9 million Instagram followers.

    Influencers such as Gordon Ramsey and Jamie Oliver are long standing professional chefs with years of experience, generating well balanced, easy to recreate food content and contributing to the growing food community on social media. The content they produce is typically educational in terms of sharing recipes and cooking techniques - with an increasing focus on health - and therefore those who engage with their expert content and culinary advice benefit by enhancing their own knowledge and understanding.

    Interestingly, many influencers who promote food content do not have an established food or nutrition background. Whilst enthusiastic, they may not fully understand the impact of what they are promoting to impressionable minds and the repercussions that may have over the long term.

    Gigi Hadid, a popular high fashion model who has over 76.8 million Instagram followers has been criticised for promoting fast food and posting content which is sponsored by a fast food brand. Influencers who promote unhealthy food yet work in the high fashion industry - which promotes diet culture - create a confusing juxtaposition for young followers. The disconnect between unhealthy food and diet culture could ultimately result in a negative relationship with food for these young people.

    Conversely, micro influencers are on the rise and arguably produce more impressions. They will create more content and interact with comments on a more personable level. Some studies suggest that engagement rates increase as the followers decrease (Renyard & Porter, 2021).

    The key takeaway is that not everything promoted on social media is reality and many influencers portray an unrealistic image to their audience which can often be damaging to all involved.

    Informed Decisions

    Influencers are all over social media, some positive some negative; in the context of repetitive and fast-paced content and scrolling, it is difficult to breakaway from their promotions and endorsements and take an objective view.

    group of young people on their mobilesFood education is a great way to help to control exposure and ensure young people are making informed decisions to support their own health and wellbeing benefits, minimise confusion and give power to Gen Z and ensure they are confident in their habits and able to contextualise and ignore negative influences. Making educated and informed decisions about their individual eating habits gives young people ultimate control over their diet and ensures they are not negatively influenced or swayed in a damaging way.

    Expert culinary influencers who promote educational food content have a level of credibility when promoting healthy eating experiences that encourage good habits and expose young people to a wider range of well balanced meals. Equipping Gen Z with this knowledge helps them to by giving them the knowledge base to browse social media daily without being negatively influenced by misleading or unhealthy content that they may encounter on various platforms and helps them to be more confident of the decision they make. It is impetrative that we all continue to question and challenge, assess and critique what we see rather than simply take it at face value. To support Gen Z and Generation Alpha to make informed food choices at school, Sodexo has implemented numerous initiative to spark a healthy interest and positive relationship with food:

    • For students at state schools, Sodexo's Agents for Change gives pupils a voice so they can  contribute to menu and dining space design, to tailor their dining experience to better meet their needs.
    • Sodexo's Powering Performance for Independent school students aims to inspire, engage and nourish pupils by delivering food prepared from scratch using fresh, seasonal and sustainable produce while Chefs in the classroom brings the culinary experience to life while teaching pupils vital cooking skills through interactive sessions.