Are TikTok and Instagram the future of food writing?

Image description: A dish filled with cherry tomatoes and a block of feta cheese. 

If you have TikTok or Instagram, then the chances are that your feeds were inundated all February with videos of people oven roasting cherry tomatoes and feta cheese as part of the ‘Baked Feta Pasta’ trend. Claimed to have been so popular that it caused Finland to run out of feta, Google searches for ‘feta’ hit an all-time high in the weeks after these videos went viral.

The ‘Baked Feta Pasta’ trend is only one of many dishes that have gone viral in the past year, from the ‘Dalgona Coffee’ trend that provided much-needed distraction in the dark days of March 2020, to the videos of seitan that are currently filling up my feed. The huge popularity of these videos raises the question: are TikTok and Instagram the future of food writing? Will anyone still be buying recipe books in ten years’ time?

Certainly, TikTok and Instagram food writing have many advantages over traditional recipe books. The videos produced by social media food writers can influence your food decisions in real time, as you scroll TikTok on your lunch break. They can even make you crave something you didn’t know you wanted: researchers at the Max Plank Institute have proved that merely looking at pictures of food causes the secretion of ghrelin, a hormone involved in the regulation of eating behaviour and metabolism. This is hardly surprising: Instagram food videos are extremely aesthetically pleasing – I certainly rarely finish watching one without my mouth watering.

Moreover, TikTok and Instagram allow food writers to reach out to huge new audiences cheaply and with ease, as videos crop up on feeds with no active input from, or money spent by, the user. For the thousands of smaller food writers on TikTok and Instagram, these cheap self-promotion strategies allow them to establish significant virtual followings, without a need for the industry connections required to break into traditional media.

In fact, given the number of baked porridge videos I have seen on my feed this week from people I actually know, TikTok and Instagram food writing seems to follow the basic premise of social media: that anyone can be a celebrity. That said, most of the biggest Instagram food influencers were household names long before they started using social media.

Gordon Ramsey and Jamie Oliver are the two most followed food influencers on Instagram, with a combined following of almost 20 million. Yet both of them have decades-long careers and have written dozens of recipe books between them; for chefs such as these, social media is just another marketing strategy, rather than the basis of their livelihoods.

With this in mind, will anyone still be buying recipe books in ten years’ time? The answer still seems to be a resounding yes. In the US, recipe book sales increased by 21% between 2017 and 2018; while this data is slightly out of date, it is not unlikely that a similar trend will be seen this year. With the slower pace of life brought by Covid-19, I for one have spent much more time this year reading from recipe books than usual, cooking new recipes as a way to fill the time. TikTok and Instagram are good if you want to try the occasional food trend, but in no way replicate the relaxing experience of leafing through a recipe book.

While I follow several chefs and food writers on Instagram, and enjoy watching their content, I never find their videos that easy to recreate myself. Often you need to re-watch a video a good ten times just to catch all the ingredients used, and I normally find these videos are more than a little vague about quantities used. Moreover, these food accounts often seem to prioritise dishes that make a visually appealing or unusual sounding video over what actually tastes good. To return to the Baked Feta Pasta trend, while the tomatoes and feta make for a colourful TikTok, I found the pasta a bit (dare I say it) rich and bland when I made it myself.

Moreover, several of the food writers I follow on Instagram, who began their career on social media, have now gone on to publish their own recipe books. This suggests that even for the Instagram chef, the ultimate goal is to break into the recipe book market. In light of this, while TikTok and Instagram may allow anyone’s morning porridge to go viral, it seems the recipe book is here to stay.


Image credit: Sophie Smith