The food and drink content posted by many of the most popular celebrities on Instagram is so unhealthy it would fail UK advertising standards, a study has claimed.
University of Chicago researchers looked at the meals, snacks, and beverages that made an appearance in Instagram posts by the world’s most popular celebrities.
The majority of the content, from 2019 to 2020, were of the stars living everyday life rather than sponsored adverts.
While the celebrities were unnamed in the study, they would likely include such superstars as pop singer Ariana Grande, Hollywood sensation Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, and reality TV star Kim Kardashian, who have a combined 650million followers.
Researchers found sweets and alcohol were the most popular food and drink items celebrities posted about and warned they may be normalising unhealthy eating habits to children.
One of the study authors, Professor Bradley Turnwald, wrote: ‘Celebrities are, of course, entitled to post foods and beverages as they wish on their personal social media.
‘However, given celebrities’ broad following, there is potential to shape their followers’ perceptions that healthy eating is normative and valued if celebrities commit to posting a healthier profile of foods and beverages.’
Obesity in children is a massive issue in both the UK and the US with up to a third of youngsters in each country considered overweight.
Paradoxically, social media influencer culture has also been linked to a rise in body consciousness and dysmorphia.
Hollywood superstar Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson has used Instagram to promote his tequila brand Termana on multiple occasions
Singer Ariana Grande shares a bit of pizza with one of her pet dogs in an Instagram post
Celebrities like Kim Kardashian have a massive following on Instagram, with the reality television star having just over 2million followers on the social media platfrom
Alcohol was by far the most popular beverage type for celebrities to post about on Instagram in the study found. The authors said the frequency of celebrities posted about alcohol significant considering it could normalise drinking to the stars’ young followers
Snacks and sweets, which are high in sugar and saturated fats, formed the majority of celebrity posts about food in the study, nearly triple the amount of the next highest category
Top 10 foods celebrity influencers posted about
Broken down by individual items the most popular food items for celebrities to post about on Instagram in the study were:
- Sweet bakery products (like cakes, donuts, and brownies) 21.2 per cent
- Fruits 12.7 per cent
- Vegetables 8.1 per cent
- Candy 6.5 per cent
- Savory snacks (like crisps and popcorn) 4.5 per cent
- Breads 4 per cent
- Other desserts (like ice cream) 3.9 per cent
- Sandwiches ( including cheeseburgers) 3.4 per cent
- Poultry 3 per cent
- Grain-based meals (like lasagna and rice dishes) 2.8 per cent
Researchers analysed 3,065 food and beverage photos posted to Instagram by the 181 celebrities, who had a combined total of 5.7billion followers. Multiple items appeared in some posts.
Pop singers were more likely to post about sugary drinks, while famous men tended to showcase stronger alcohol such as spirits like tequila.
Each item was then generated a score using the UK’s Nutrient Profile Index (NPI) — a system which ranks products out of 100 based their healthiness.
It takes into account varying levels of sugar, salt, fat, fibre and protein, with higher scores being considered healthier.
The authors highlighted that under UK advertising guidelines, foods with NPI scores less than 64 and beverages with scores less than 70 are considered unhealthy and cannot be advertised on television to young people.
Researchers found the overall nutritional food score for 87 per cent of celebrity social media accounts was unhealthy enough to fail legal youth advertising standards in the UK.
Beverages performed even worse, with 89.5 per cent of celebrity Instagram account posting about unhealthy options.
Snacks and sweets were the most commonly posted about food, forming 37.3 per cent of posts — three times higher than any other item. Alcohol accounted for just over half of all posts about drinks.
Top 10 drinks celebrity influencers posted about
Broken down by individual items the most popular drink items celebrities posted about on Instagram were:
- Wine 22 per cent
- Liquor and cocktails 18.6 per cent
- Coffee 14.6 per cent
- Plain water 10.4 per cent
- Beer 10.1 per cent
- Soft drinks 8.3 per cent
- Tea 4.7 per cent
- Sport and energy drinks 2.5 per cent
- Fruit drinks 2.7 per cent
- Flavored or enhanced water 1.7 per cent
The researchers, who published their study in the journal JAMA Network Open, blamed the majority of the unhealthy scores on the high levels of sugar and saturated fat content in the items posted.
Posts about unhealthy food and drink also drew more engagement from Instagram users, something that could be encouraging celebrities to post these items.
Dividing celebrities by professions revealed that musicians were more likely to post unhealthy drink options than other groups, but there was no similar trend for food.
The researchers chose the 181 celebrities for the study based on their appearance in Top 100 lists for the most influential sportspeople, musicians/singers, actors and actresses, and social media influencers.
They took the top 25 men and top 25 women from each list to maintain a gender balance for the study.
Researchers then excluded those who did not have an Instagram account, leaving 181 celebrities.
Professor Turnwald, an expert in behavioural science, said the influence of celebrities in promoting food and drink habits to young people should not be underestimated.
‘Creating the perception that users are broadcasting their real life, social media platforms boost perceived authenticity and credibility of posted content,’ he said.
‘Celebrities are particularly influential.
‘On social media, celebrities are perceived as fellow users but also as more credible than ordinary users and more trustworthy than television advertisements.
‘Celebrity posts can influence viewers through attitude alignment, social connection and positive meaning transfer from likeable people to the foods and beverages that they depict.’
He added that celebrities posting a lot about alcohol was significant as it could normalise drinking to the stars’ young followers by creating a ‘positive association’.
One limitation of the study the authors acknowledged is that they did not compare celebrities posting of unhealthy food and drink to that of normal Instagram users.
They noted this meant they couldn’t say whether the content posted by celebrities was any unhealthier than that posted by members of the general public.
Another limitation cited was the authors did not explore the Instagram video content of food and drink options.
WHAT SHOULD A BALANCED DIET LOOK LIKE?
Meals should be based on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally wholegrain, according to the NHS
• Eat at least 5 portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables every day. All fresh, frozen, dried and canned fruit and vegetables count
• Base meals on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally wholegrain
• 30 grams of fibre a day: This is the same as eating all of the following: 5 portions of fruit and vegetables, 2 whole-wheat cereal biscuits, 2 thick slices of wholemeal bread and large baked potato with the skin on
• Have some dairy or dairy alternatives (such as soya drinks) choosing lower fat and lower sugar options
• Eat some beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins (including 2 portions of fish every week, one of which should be oily)
• Choose unsaturated oils and spreads and consuming in small amounts
• Drink 6-8 cups/glasses of water a day
• Adults should have less than 6g of salt and 20g of saturated fat for women or 30g for men a day
Source: NHS Eatwell Guide