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How does social media mediate food preferences with resulting environmental and societal consequences

Project Description

This project investigates the ways that social media may impact perceptions of food, exploring the wider impact of food fads on the environment and social wellbeing.

Project background
Social media allows the rapid communication of information and ideas. The internet is now a key channel where consumers gain information about the benefits and risks surrounding food (Jacob, et al., 2010; Redmond & Griffith, 2006; Tian & Robinson, 2008), with the rise of social media allowing them to actively participate in communicating what they believe to be true.

Some foods have become particularly popular due to real or perceived health benefits, conversely some foods have become less favourable due to real or perceived risks. It is important to understand the role of social media in the creation of food trends or fads and to understand the wider implications of an increasing demand for certain health food products. For example, due to increasing profits in avocado production, forested areas are being cleared to plant young avocado trees (Bravo-Espinosa et al., 2014).Relative to most other crops grown in Mexico, avocado is relatively resource intensive to produce, requiring large inputs of water as well as fertilizer and pesticide treatments, which can have further detrimental impacts on the environment (Nelson, 2016). In Mexico, it is now more profitable to grow avocados for export than it is to sell the crop domestically (Shumeta, 2010), whilst in Bolivia local people have been reported to no longer afford quinoa, a once staple grain, due to western demand and rising prices (Blythman, 2013).

The impact of social media on driving food trends has been underexplored and as yet little is known about the impact of food fads on local economies and the environment.

Research questions
This project will explore how food preferences and aversions are communicated via social media and begin to examine the wider implications of food fads on local economies and the environment. Questions include:

What role does social media play in the creation of food fads?
Which commodities are ‘fad foods’, and what are the environmental consequences of a surge in in their production?
Do food fads help or hinder local economies?
What the implications for food security if local food staples become global health foods?
There is considerable scope to shape these questions in line with the students own areas of interest and it is likely that a case study approach will be used to explore in more detail the impact of particular food items.

This project will involve the harvesting and analysis of social media data from a range of platforms including Twitter and YouTube. This data will be explored to identify which foods are trending, with sentiment analysis utilised to understand if unstructured social media data offer a positive or negative response. Once food fad items have been identified supermarket sales data will be used to determine if the commodities popular on social media are also being purchased more frequently. The environmental impact of the most popular fad foods will then be explored using a case study approach, with consideration given the positive and negative impacts that a rapid surge in demand might have.

Year 1: Training in social media analytics and statistical modelling techniques. Harvesting of social media data relating to food fads.
Year 2: Analysis of social media data to determine which foods are popular on social media and a comparison of this data with relevant supermarket data.Exploration of timelines and to determine to what extent social media impacts demand.
Year 3: Case study approach to exploring the environmental impact of fad foods, taking two or more popular commodities and determining the environmental footprint of a surge in demand.

A comprehensive training programme will be provided comprising both specialist scientific training and generic transferable and professional skills. Specialised training will be provided on social media data analytics and statistical modelling techniques if required.

Previous experience of using social media data to answer research questions would be ideal. A knowledge of Python or R would be advantageous. An interest in food security and the environmental is essential. This project could suit a student from a range of backgrounds including informatics, computer science, environmental science, sociology and others.


Jacob, C., Mathiasen, L. and Powell, D., 2010. Designing effective messages for microbial food safety hazards. Food Control, 21(1), pp.1-6.

Redmond, E.C. and Griffith, C.J., 2006. Assessment of consumer food safety education provided by local authorities in the UK. British Food Journal, 108(9), pp.732-752.

Tian, Y. and Robinson, J.D., 2008. Media use and health information seeking: An empirical test of complementarity theory. Health Communication, 23(2), pp.184-190.

Bravo‐Espinosa, M., Mendoza, M.E., Carlón Allende, T., Medina, L., Sáenz‐Reyes, J.T. and Páez, R., 2014. Effects of converting forest to avocado orchards on topsoil properties in the trans‐Mexican volcanic system, Mexico. Land Degradation & Development, 25(5), pp.452-467.

Nelson, K. (2016) ‘Demand for avocados destroying Mexico’s pine forests.’ Independent. 10th August.

Shumeta, Z., 2010. Avocado production and marketing in Southwestern Ethiopia. Trends in Agricultural Economics, 3(4), pp.190-206.

Blythman, J. (2013) ‘Can vegans suffer the unpalatable truth about quinoa?’ The Guardian.

How good is research at University of Edinburgh in Geography, Environmental Studies and Archaeology?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 14.70

Research output data provided by the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

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