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Dining out on Instagram food porn

Food pornography is no longer a fringe activity.

Food pornography is no longer a fringe activity.

It is sometimes said we feast with our eyes first. Which is why merely gazing at photos of food - of plates expertly styled by professionals, dripping with chocolate, or glistening with pork crackling - is enough to make one salivate.

It takes photographic skill, expensive lighting, and time to create those delicious depictions of culinary magic - not something you can usually capture with an eight-megapixel smartphone in a dark corner with a wobbly hand (post drinks at the bar).

That has not stopped millions of foodie pundits from splashing their amateur food snaps across social media - just average consumers mostly, desperate to elicit gasps from their friends with the obligatory ''nom nom'' comments and a #foodporn hashtag of their latest meal.

Food pornography, as it is known, is no longer a fringe activity. Consider the proliferation of smartphones in Australia. According to a McCrindle Research Digital Media Nation Report, the average Australian each day spends one hour and 12 minutes on their phone - two hours, if they're Gen Y.

Tech analyst Telsyte reckons by the end of 2013 there were 15 million Australian smartphone users, 2 million of them using Instagram, which has aggregated 24 million searchable posts for the #foodporn hashtag. Telsyte's Australian Digital Consumer Study predicts 2014 will be the year smartphone use exceeds that of computers.

Given those statistics, social media posts about popular subjects such as food, sunsets and selfies suddenly mean something for business. The Restaurant and Catering Industry Association, which represents 35,000 restaurants and cafes in Australia, recently gave an industry ''thumbs-up'' to the practice of diners photographing their dishes, with members voting to develop an app that lets people describe and geo-tag their foodie snaps to post on social media.

Association chief executive John Hart says a beta version of the app will launch in July with a national database of food venues.

''One of our issues is that there are a lot of these photos of wonderful dishes floating about, but none of them are attributed. The app will say what the dish is and whose dish it is,'' Hart says.

The restaurant industry's chief lobbyist admits many top chefs, including Guy Grossi, of Grossi Florentino, have been anti-photo, but that it is ridiculous to work against the social media surge that likes to paint a picture on a plate.

''The board has agreed that we should be promoting this, rather than criticising it, so we've adopted a supportive position.''

Jason Jujnovich, executive chef of award-winning Divido, near Scarborough Beach in Western Australia, prefers diners enjoy the food without having to get out a camera.

''But we've come to the realisation that taking and sharing food pics brings a lot of people happiness, so we can't really deny people that right,'' he says.

Food-industry figures in France have not been so thrilled, with a group of French chefs fighting to end food porn. Some Michelin-starred chefs, including Alexandre Gauthier, of La Grenouillere, have ''no-camera'' rules on their menus to discourage diners from photographing the food and, more importantly, to make them switch off from their mobile phones for the duration of their meals, which, he says, are often eaten cold after so much phone-fiddling.

''Isn't that ridiculous?'' Hart says. ''How lame is that? It's like turning your back on computers. I would have thought people would be pleased to have their photo out there. Food is the face of social media.''

Food blogger Dianne Bortoletto, who documents her food experiences on Traveletto.com, says sharing photos on social media now rates as powerful promotion, and chefs should be encouraging the practice, despite the existence of many ''rubbish'' photos by overzealous amateurs.

''Social media and sharing photos is absolutely the new online way of passing our endorsements and recommendations on to our friends,'' she says.

She always asks permission as a courtesy, which often results in a better photograph. ''In one case, I had a waiter move me to a table that had better light.''

The bad news for food pornographers and voyeurs is that the activity might be spoiling our dinner. Research from Brigham Young University concluded that looking at too many food photos makes eating less enjoyable. The study investigated the food photo phenomenon by asking 232 people to look at and rate pictures of food, concluding that the more exposure people had to food photos, the less satiated they were with the real thing.

''In a way, you're becoming tired of that taste, without even eating the food,'' university professor and study co-author Ryan Elder said. ''It's sensory boredom - you've kind of moved on. You don't want that taste experience any more.''

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