The Surprising History of So-Called ‘Food Porn’

Our obsession with decadent food is apparently nothing new. 

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Photo by Alison Miksch/Getty Images

Though we’re quick to blame Instagram for our cravings of rich, over-the-top foods, that appetite for indulgence began long before social media. According to a new analysis of centuries-old European paintings conducted by the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, meat and bread are depicted in paintings much more frequently than vegetables—suggesting that our ancestors preferred looking at indulgent foods as well. The results are published in Sage Open.



To determine the most commonly painted foods, the researchers first examined 750 food paintings from the past 500 years, ultimately narrowing it down to 140 paintings from Western Europe and the United States that focused on small family meals. The foods in each picture were categorized into food groups, and the researchers looked at the number of place settings to determine portion size.

Of the 36 paintings from the Renaissance Period, which spans from the 14th to 17th century, 86 percent depicted bread, 61 percent depicted meat, and only 22 percent depicted vegetables.

“Crazy meals involving less-than-healthy foods aren’t a modern craving,” Brian Wansink, lead author of the study, said in a statement. “Paintings from what’s sometimes called the Renaissance Period were loaded with the foods modern diets warn us about—salt, sausages, bread and more bread.”

Interestingly, just as our Instagram feeds today are much more likely to be populated with rainbow bagels than our (more often consumed but less exciting) yogurt carton, the most frequently painted foods did not reflect the commonly eaten foods of the time period. Instead, the most aspirational foods—such as shellfish and artichokes—were painted in abundance. Hazelnuts and chestnuts, the least commonly consumed nuts, were the most depicted nuts across all countries’ paintings.

“Our love affair with visually appealing, decadent, or status foods is nothing new,” said Andrew Weislogel, co-author of the study. “It was already well-established 500 years ago.”