Where people live influences how the talk about food on the internet

Kevin Dural

The way we talk about food depends on where we live, according to a study by UT researchers.

Psychology postdoctoral student Kate Blackburn and psychology postdoctoral student Ryan Boyd have discovered that those living in “healthy” cities may have more variety when it comes to food choices. The two, along with Gamze Yilmaz from the University of Massachusetts-Boston, analyzed the Reddit posts of thousands of users living in a variety of cities to see if the way people talk about food differs from city to city.

Boyd said that people’s language can provide an interesting gateway into their minds. Blackburn added that the different use of language among cities can reveal a lot about a community: it captures snippets of what the area thinks about.

“Analyzing the internet opens up the possibility to really engage with these interests and share your own thoughts with others,” Boyd said.

The research suggests that people in “healthy” cities, as ranked by the American Fitness Index, talk about food differently than the residents of cities deemed “unhealthy.”

Some findings were the exact opposite of what Boyd had expected. For example, the data showed that people in healthier cities tend to talk more about sweets and desserts than those living in unhealthy cities.

“We have some ideas as to why people in healthier cities might focus on sweets and meat more, but we can only really speculate without further research,” he said.

Unsurprisingly, residents of less healthy cities tend to show greater interest in pizza or alcohol, which Boyd said wasn’t much of a shock.

“Some of the findings were in line with exactly what I’d have expected; (pizza and alcohol) are not the healthiest things on the planet,” he said.

Boyd said the researchers found Reddit an adequate and authentic reflection of people’s opinions towards food. Blackburn added that the site offers a nice place to look at language naturally. Unlike magazine articles, which she described as somewhat formulaic, online message boards provide for more natural conversation. She also commented on long posts being a benefit to the study.

“The posts are not limited to 140 characters, but rather, they are long discussions,” she said. “This was what was really appealing about Reddit: the sheer size of the dataset.”

Boyd called the website a more casual, less regulated way to express opinions.

“For a website like Reddit where the overwhelming majority of users are semi-anonymous, people generally tend to be pretty authentic, perhaps more so than in the ‘real world’ or in everyday life,” he said.

Sociology lecturer Stephanie Osbakken said she agreed that society influences language in many ways, and language, in turn, influences society. 

“When it comes to healthy eating, or talking about healthy eating, you can see similar cultural influences,” she said. “It is not surprising to me that ‘healthier’ cities talk about food in varied ways more than those from less healthy cities, but the reasons are likely multifactorial.”

Some of these reasons, according to Osbakken, include better health behaviors such as increased fruit and vegetable consumption. She added that it is easy to imagine how economic and social factors would help explain how people in healthier cities are not only able to eat healthier but also be able to eat and talk differently about a wider variety of food.

“These cities are also more likely to have more healthy restaurants, more nutrition or dietetic professionals and other social factors that benefit health,” she said. “People’s healthy habits are shaped by those around them, so this undoubtedly helps comprise the data about ‘healthy‘ cities.”

According to Osbakken, another factor contributing to the varying language is that food, alongside talking about and preparing food, can be a status symbol and identity marker for some people.

“If you are health-minded and associate with other people who are interested in health, then food, along with other healthy behaviors like exercise, becomes a topic for everyday discussion,” she said.
Boyd said language was central to this investigation. He added that analyzing language patterns reveals a lot about the way people interact with their cities.

“Some of the discoveries were definitely surprising,” he said. “This is one of the joys of science — we often find that our intuition about things are just completely wrong.”