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Good enough to photograph, then eat

A recent episode of "Top Chef" challenged contestants to create picture-perfect dishes using junk food. Unlike their typical challenges, these creations were judged not on the basis of taste or innovation, but solely by presentation -- on Instagram.

The winner was determined by the highest number of "likes."

While the contest may seem odd, photography has become a large part of the dining experience. Food-related hashtags on social media have millions of posts and most Americans don't flinch at the sight of fellow diners snapping photos of their meals.

Intrigued by this new social norm and its impact, Sean Coary, Ph.D., assistant professor of food marketing at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia, teamed up with Morgan Poor, Ph.D., assistant professor of marketing at the University of San Diego, to research the impact of consumer-generated images of food on satisfaction.

"When we take a photo of something before eating, we create a momentary but intentional delay in consumption, allowing all of the senses to be engaged and building the anticipation of enjoyment," says Coary.

Coary and Poor's research, published in the Journal of Consumer Marketingthis past January, included three studies with over 120 participants in each study. Results suggest that taking a picture before consumption leads to more favorable evaluations of the food -- but only when the dish is indulgent in nature. However, according to Coary and Poor, the positive effects of photographing food can be activated when consumers are aware of the healthy eating habits of others.

"Diners want to remember the visual aesthetic of their food, especially when it's something indulgent," says Coary. On the other hand, "when eating healthy, there's a desire to signal to others that we are part of the 'fit' club." In either scenario, Coary says it's a way to participate in a widely accepted communal practice.

 In addition to sparking ideas for future research, these studies have implications for food brands and restaurants, according to Poor. Of this amateur food-photographer phenomenon, she predicts "this is only the beginning."

Poor and Coary encourage more restaurants and food brands to embrace it -- and capitalize on their customer's eagerness to take and share images.

"If your food is beautiful and aesthetically pleasing, your customers will want to take a photograph and potentially share it," adds Coary. "Training staff who understand the importance of aesthetics and finding creative ways to take advantage of this free advertising are crucial for both brands and restaurants"
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