Instagram: Foods people eat if there’s no grocery store

"Instagram literally gives us a picture of what people are actually eating in these communities, allowing us to study them in a new way," says says Munmun De Choudhury. (Credit: iStockphoto)

Three million geo-tagged posts on Instagram show what people in different regions of the US eat if they don’t have access to a grocery store.

No access vs. access by region

Northeast: Pork, mayonnaise, and cookies vs. bagels, kale, and hummus

(Credit: eric j/Flickr)

Southeast: bacon, potatoes, and grits vs. collard greens, oranges, and peaches

(Credit: Jamie Brandon/Flickr)

Midwest: hamburgers, hot dogs, and brisket vs. beans, spinach, and kale

(Credit: Dave Sizer/Flickr)

West: pie, beef, and sausage vs. quinoa, apple, and crab

(Credit: keri./Flickr)

Southwest: barbecue, pork, and burritos vs. tomatoes, asparagus, and bananas

(Credit: Rudy Jahchan/Flickr)

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) uses the term “food deserts” to describe areas with limited access to supermarkets. The researchers who compiled the list found that food posted (and eaten) by people in food deserts is 5 to 17 percent higher in fat, cholesterol, and sugars compared to those with access to grocery stores.

“The USDA identifies food deserts based on the availability of fresh food,” says Munmun De Choudhury, an assistant professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Interactive Computing. “Instagram literally gives us a picture of what people are actually eating in these communities, allowing us to study them in a new way.”

“Fruits and vegetables are the biggest difference,” De Choudhury says. “Forty-eight percent of posts from people in non-food deserts mention them. It’s only 33 percent in food deserts.”

The research team used the USDA’s database of nutritional values for nearly 9,000 foods to create a nutritional profile for both groups. The amount of calories didn’t differ significantly, but the levels of fats, cholesterol, and sugars were much higher in food deserts, especially in the West and Southwest. The smallest differences between the two communities were in the Southeast.

“That would seem counterintuitive at first because so much of the south is designated as a food desert,” De Choudhury says. “But other statistics show that Southern people generally eat-high calorie food that is rich in fat and cholesterol.”

One final note about food on Instagram: Pictures of meals that are most likely to be posted by both groups tend to be the staples of each region. Steak and coffee in the West; lox and cheesecake in the East; okra and biscuits in the South.

“It doesn’t matter where you live,” De Choudhury says. “Everyone seems to eat what their region is known for.”

The researchers will present the study at the ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing on February 27-March 2 in San Francisco.

Source: Georgia Tech