Why you love watching cooking videos on YouTube and TikTok

  • Following foodie Instagram accounts can help you build online connections and learn about new dishes and cultures
  • Seeing photos of food makes you feel good and triggers the part of the brain associated with pleasure and rewards
Tribune News Service |

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When Winny Hayes first joined TikTok, she thought it was mostly for lip-synching and dance trends. She didn’t know about its world of food content: creamy vodka pasta, mouthwatering birria quesatacos and anything and everything dropped into an air fryer.

“I was like, ‘This is amazing,’” Hayes recalls. “And now the majority of people that I follow are food content creators: barbecue, pizza, I actually follow someone who only makes bagels. That’s amazing. I’m addicted to them.”

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Food content and the internet go hand-in-hand, and online users can’t get enough. We live in the era of “phone eats first” - that is, capturing images of your food before taking a bite, and people go to great lengths to curate beautiful food Instagram accounts. Why are we so addicted to videos of food?

Hayes, who has around 1.1 million TikTok followers, is known for making vibrant, creative meals for her family, composed in short how-to videos that help viewers brainstorm their own meal ideas.

“Adopt me, please” comments flood the page, and that’s the other side of online food content: Though much of it serves as inspiration for home-cooked meals, there’s also an aspirational element. These photos and videos go viral not only because we want to know how to make them, but because we just want to eat them.

“It’s pleasurable. It feels good to look at pictures of food,” says Rachel Herz, a Brown University and Boston College faculty member with a PhD in neuroscience. She’s the author of Why You Eat What You Eat, which explores the sensory, psychological and social factors that go into our experiences with food.

“It makes us instantly - happy is a bit of a loaded word - but it does in a very loose way make us feel happy, because it’s literally making a neurological effect to trigger feelings of reward and pleasure,” she says.

Simply looking at photos or watching videos of food triggers the same activation of dopamine and other chemicals in our brain as seeing food in person does, Herz notes. Being drawn to delicious-looking food is driven by our biology, specifically a region in the brain called the nucleus accumbens involved with pleasure and reward.

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The bottom line: Our brain tells us that looking at food feels good, so we continue to seek more of the images we know can do the trick.

Over the last few years, viral food content has done more than trigger a psychological response or just make us really wish we had a cheeseburger or a big bowl of pho right now.

Through the coronavirus quarantine and beyond, it has become a gateway for reluctant home chefs to try cooking and an invitation to learn about cultures from around the world one might not otherwise be introduced to, whether they plan on cooking the dish in question or ordering it at a restaurant.

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Amid protests against racism this past year, sharing photos and videos of local restaurants became a way to show support for Black- and Asian-owned businesses.

In short: food videos serve a bigger purpose.

“At the end of the day, what brings us together is food,” Hayes says. “What the internet has done is open our eyes to different types of food that we don’t normally eat, or we don’t normally know how to make. These content creators make it so accessible.”

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