Food and social media: the perfect pairing?
While traditional media would have us searching for recipes in books and magazines, or seeking nutritional advice from health-centre leaflets, the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest provide all the food-related information we could possibly need – at the click of a button.
According to the celebrity chef Osama El Sayed, who has more than 2.5 million Facebook “likes”, 179,000 Twitter followers and 9,000 Instagram followers, the internet has revolutionised not only the way people source recipes, but also, in many cases, their understanding of what constitutes a healthy diet.
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Debating how social media improves our eating habits at the first Arab Social Media Influencers Summit in Dubai last month, he said: “If a woman has a family and she’s working, she doesn’t have time to research the health risks of every ingredient in every dish she cooks. Videos and articles linked to recipes on blogs or even on Facebook can explain the danger of high levels of fat or salt. This is making a big impact on the dishes mothers choose to cook.”
Since streaming one of his cookery shows online in the mid-1990s, El Sayed has seen interaction with fans through social media increase dramatically, not least with those looking to lose weight.
“People often contact me for advice on how to shed a few kilos. Arabic food is tasty and our desserts in particular can contain high levels of fat. I advise them to eat in moderation and explain the need to control their calorie intake,” he says.
Weight is a huge issue in the Arab world: more than 58 per cent of men and more than 65 per cent of women across the Middle East and North Africa are either overweight or obese, according to the results of a recent study conducted by the University of Washington.
Deema B Hajjawi, a food specialist and author of three cookbooks, also participated in the panel discussion. With 420,000 Facebook friends, 5,000 Twitter followers and 27,000 Instagram followers, she tries to educate her fan base on how to eat healthily as much as possible.
“I’m conscious that people are inspired by what we do as chefs so I try to publish recipes that are not just easy to cook, but healthy, too, especially considering the amount of food allergies and food-related heath issues there are today,” she says.
It’s not just celebrity chefs and their various social-media platforms that influence our eating habits. There are a number of useful apps, too. True Food lists “green”, genetically unmodified food; Substitutions offers alternatives for foods you wish to avoid; and Is That Gluten Free? lists nearly 16,000 items that are, you guessed it, gluten-free.
Fooducate is another popular app that lets users scan a product’s barcode or type in its name to discover its total calories and exact ingredients. It also grades food for healthiness and lets you know if that low-fat cereal bar that claims it’s super-healthy is actually packed with sugar.
Particularly useful for those with allergies, Fooducate helped Abdulla Alshaer, from Dubai, find the right foods for his then two-year-old daughter, Shamsah, who broke out in eczema every time she consumed cocoa. “We didn’t know what was causing the irritation so we eliminated foods and eventually identified it was connected to milk chocolate,” he says. “We used Fooducate daily to check the ingredients of every product and gradually learnt what foods Shamsah could eat. Now, two years later, she is free of eczema and we use the app just once every two months.”
Dr Yousef Al Saadi, the first certified Emirati food scientist, is also a fan of Fooducate, claiming that packaging sometimes doesn’t list all ingredients and can even carry incorrect nutritional information. “For this reason, Fooducate is more accurate than food labels,” he says.
A dedicated user of the app and with LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts, Al Saadi is passionate about social media. He encourages using such apps to uncover hidden ingredients as well as better understand a product’s quality. “We need to eat more healthily by avoiding processed food and products with added hormones or high levels of salt and sugar. Social media is helping us achieve this,” he says.
Food scientists aren’t the only ones encouraging the use of social media to improve our diets. Nutritionists, doctors, bloggers and fitness experts are jumping on the online bandwagon using countless platforms to educate and interact with patients and clients.
Tim Garrett, the founder of Healthy 4 U, a Dubai-based personal training and health-coaching company, has experienced 20 per cent growth per year in the interaction with clients on social media, and uses Hootsuite, the social-media management tool, to schedule messages across multiple channels.
“People want instant access to information, at a time and in a medium that’s convenient to them,” he says. “A lot of my clients research healthy recipes on Facebook and Twitter, and increasingly on Instagram and Pinterest. People want information that’s readily available and social media offers that.”
Garrett also finds chat forums useful, discovering on one site how to separate potato juice from starch, providing “an amazing array of essential amino acids”. This transformed the energy levels and quality of life for one female client suffering from a severe nutrient deficiency due to multiple food allergies.
But according to Leneila Khalil, a personal trainer at Abu Dhabi’s Provita Personal Training & Nutrition, chat forums can cause as much harm as they do good.
“The internet is a big wide world,” she says. “There’s so much contradictory information with different views on topics. If you’re not an expert, you just don’t know what’s true and what’s false.”
While Khalil uses social media regularly for work and advocates most platforms, she also highlights the dangers of following food photography, a huge trend with the younger generation. “Shots of indulgent dishes, often on Instagram but across all major platforms, encourage us to eat unhealthily, especially those struggling with self-discipline. People sometimes feel tired in the afternoon and start looking through their social-media accounts only to see beautiful photographs of cakes and muffins. It doesn’t help at all,” she says.
Rupal Bhatikar, the Abu Dhabi-based founder of the food blog Foodienfabulous.com, agrees. “Chances are, if you’re hungry and go through pictures of doughnuts, you’ll end up eating something unhealthy. The bloggers and Instagrammers we follow shape the choices we make,” she says.
That certainly rings true for Samantha Wood, the Dubai-based founder of the restaurant review website Foodiva.net. Wood posted a critique in 2012 that elicited such a colourful response from the outlet’s chef that at least one major international newspaper picked up the story and the restaurant subsequently shut down.
“I know from comments on my reviews and on social-media channels, Instagram in particular, that my followers visit restaurants on the basis of my critiques. In many cases, they order dishes I have recommended and avoid the ones I don’t rate, and then give me their feedback. Social media can impact a restaurant’s business, positively and negatively,” she says. “Like with anything on the internet, it’s up to the public to digest and make an informed decision.”
Updated: April 23, 2015 04:00 AM