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February 25, 2018

Here’s the dish: How we talk about food says something about health, UMass Boston professor finds

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  • Boston

UMass Boston Assistant Professor of Communication Gamze Yilmaz is serving up food for thought in her latest study, which found that language varies significantly in healthy cities versus unhealthy ones.

The study appears in the April 2018 issue of Appetite, an international research journal that specializes in the different influences that factor in the selection and intake of foods and drinks. Yilmaz and her coauthors from the University of Texas at Austin shared their findings from their study, which focused on how language can reflect people’s thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and behaviors regarding food or food-related issues.

“The ways in which people talk or write about certain topics can reveal important psychological and behavioral information about them,” Yilmaz wrote in an email. “Yet, very few studies have examined the way people talk or think about food online—and what this may mean in terms of today’s food culture and decisions about food consumption.”

When conducting their psycholinguistic analysis, Yilmaz and her coauthors turned to Reddit, a platform that has over 234 million users and is ranked as one of the most visited social networking websites in the United States.

“Reddit is a unique forum where people engage in natural conversations,” Yilmaz wrote, explaining her team’s decision to use Reddit for their study. “It is open source, making all the online conversations accessible for data analysis.”

Using Reddit’s archival data, which was obtained from the site’s open-source application programming interface (API), the researchers monitored two general food communities (subreddits) and examined how users in different cities discussed food between 2010 and 2016.

After using the Anthem Foundation American Fitness Index (AFI) to determine which metropolitan area fell into which category, Yimaz and her colleagues analyzed 4,818 comments from healthy cities (e.g., Boston, San Francisco) and 4,000 comments from unhealthy ones (e.g., Houston, Chicago).

Yilmaz and her colleagues found that, while there were some discrepancies, most cities across the board used language referring to the food preparation process, such as recipes, cooking methods, and measurements. Yilmaz explained that this reflects the growing popularity of cooking culture in America.

“This … affirms that homemade food still plays a big role in our society,” she wrote. “Our research also revealed frequent use of words describing the sensation of food. This includes a variety of words referring to tastes, sense of smell, and ingredients used to create strong flavors.”

In addition, healthy cities reference the location of food resources, such as farmer markets and grocery stores, more so than unhealthy cities. This might be indicative of these cities’ accessibility to higher quality food.

“We also found that people in healthy cities talk more about food in the future tense, planning ahead for meals and discussing how to fit food preparations or dinner arrangements into a fast-paced, active lifestyle,” Yilmaz wrote. “In unhealthy cities, where most people rely on driving and live less active lives, we saw lower incidences of words associated with future planning of food choices and meal schedules.”

Of all the themes that emerged during the study, alcohol and pizza were prevalent among unhealthy cities. In her study, Yilmaz and her colleagues explain that this might reflect the food culture of unhealthy cities, which is more focused on indulgent food choices characterized by foods such as pizza.

So, what did the researchers learn about Boston? Yilmaz explained that Bostonians on Reddit use a lot of place and location words to talk about food. This includes references to restaurants, ingredient sources, and grocery stores.

“This provides evidence for a rich foodie culture in the city,” Yilmaz wrote, adding that, despite its high AFI score, Bostonians talked more about alcohol than any other healthy city. “Apparently, Bostonians still manage to qualify for the healthy city index while holding onto their beer.”

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