College of Liberal Arts

Where People Live Shapes How They Talk About Food, Study Shows

Thu, Feb 8, 2018
Words such as “great” and “love” were commonly used to describe food, indicating that people generally associate positive emotions with food.
Words such as “great” and “love” were commonly used to describe food, indicating that people generally associate positive emotions with food.

Food has been a topic of conversation for centuries, and now new research from The University of Texas at Austin shows that how we specifically talk about food plays a role in our health. Scientists have found that people in healthier cities talk differently about food — that healthy cities (e.g. Austin, San Diego, Boston) referenced locations, such as grocery stores or farmers’ markets, and used more complex language to describe a variety of cuisines more so than people in unhealthy cities (e.g. Houston, San Antonio, Columbus). 

In other words, the way people conceptualize and talk about food is related to where they live and the type of lifestyle afforded to them.

“Very few studies have explored how language used by people can reflect their thoughts or feelings about food or food-related issues,” said lead author Kate Blackburn, a psychology postdoctoral researcher at UT Austin. “Language has the ability to not only reflect people’s perceptions about food, but shape their behavior.”

When describing rich foods, such as dessert and meat, healthy cities used more positive words while unhealthy cities used negative words, indicating that people in healthier cities may be more “aware of” their dessert intake than those in unhealthy cities, researchers speculated. 

Overall, people in unhealthy cities referred to pizza and alcohol more frequently than people in healthy cities. Time also emerged as a revealing theme between healthy and unhealthy cities, with discussions in unhealthy cities being more oriented toward past food interactions, whereas healthy cities discussed more future food plans.

“These themes may emerge due to the differing lifestyles of unhealthy and healthy cities. For example, people living in healthy cities may lead more active lifestyles that require a future-oriented focus,” Blackburn said. “By tracking the connection between language use in online discussion of food, researchers and practitioners can identify habits of vulnerable populations and generate targeted health campaigns for eating healthy and having an active lifestyle.” 

For the study, researchers conducted a psycholinguistic analysis on Reddit users. First, researchers considered the language used in 290,223 comments from two general food communities (subreddits) on the social media site Reddit between 2010 and 2016 to examine how and why users generally converse about food. Across all analyses, words such as “great” and “love” were used to describe food, indicating that people generally associate positive emotions with food.

More specifically, researchers found that most of the language used was related to the cooking processes, as well as baking, cooking resources and cookware. Discussions were also driven by sensory-related themes such as flavor, dessert, spice and meat.

To compare language in healthy versus unhealthy cities, researchers sorted subreddit communities into healthy or unhealthy cities based on the Anthem Foundation American Fitness Index, which measures the health of the 50 most populated metropolitan areas in the United States. In total, 4,818 comments from healthy cities and 4,000 comments from unhealthy cities were analyzed.

The study is published in the journal Appetite

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