Celebrities often endorse unhealthy foods in traditional ads, but they also promote these foods — often without compensation — on Instagram, researchers report.
An analysis of 181 popular Instagram accounts, based on the British Nutrient Profile Index (NPI), found that 87% had a food score and nearly 90% had a drinks score so low that they would fail the limits of legal advertising for young people in the UK, according to Bradley Turnwald. , Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and colleagues.
In addition, only a small portion of posts (4.8%) were sponsored by food and beverage companies JAMA Network is open.
The Turnwald group also noted that posts featuring foods with healthy nutrition were associated with significantly fewer likes (B -0.003, 95% CI -0.006 to 0.000, s= 0.04) and comments (B -0.006, 95% CI -0.009 to -0.003, s<0.001) followers. However, this trend was not observed for publications containing beverages.
“These findings suggest that poignant images of consumption of unhealthy foods and drinks on social media are a sociocultural problem that transcends advertising and sponsorship,” they wrote.
“Celebrities, of course, have the right to post food and drinks as they like on their personal social media,” the authors added. “They themselves are individuals who exist in societies that value and normalize unhealthy consumption, and it is possible that social media posts by the general public can be similarly unhealthy.”
They explained that the observed association between unhealthy food posts and increased follower engagement indicates a potential incentive to post about unhealthy foods. “However, with celebrities being widely followed, there is potential to shape their followers’ perceptions that healthy eating is standard and is appreciated if celebrities commit to posting a healthier food and beverage profile. It is also important for followers to remember that social media potentially represents an organized window and incomplete on what celebrities actually consume.”
The cross-sectional study included the Instagram accounts of famous athletes, musicians, actors and television personalities. Slightly more than half (56%) were male and 44% female. Their average age was 32. At the time the data was collected, from April 2012 to March 2020, 181 celebrities had 5.7 billion followers.
For each account, the researchers identified up to 30 of the most recent posts depicting food or drink. A total of 3,065 publications containing 5,180 foods and beverages were included in the study.
The researchers rated the health of each food and drink photographed using the NPI, a proven tool that uses the macronutrient and micronutrient content of foods and drinks to generate a score from 0 (the least healthy) to 100 (the healthiest). They explained that foods with a score of less than 64 and drinks with a score of less than 70 are rated ‘less healthy’, and there are limits to their advertising to young people in the UK.
The researchers used mixed effects regression models to generate the total NPI score for each celebrity account.
In an accompanying editorial, Eileen Silky, MD, of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison, noted that “despite the finding that nearly 90% of celebrity social media accounts have posts about food and drink.” With average scores in the staggering least healthy range and potentially concerning to readers, there are some caveats.”
Silky explained, “The average NPI score for food was in the low 50s, and the average NPI score for drinks was between 68 and 69. This suggests that even celebrity profiles that were less healthy overall were more likely to have some healthy content.” . Additionally, “only 60.5% of the advertised foods and 54.8% of the advertised drinks had lower health outcomes. Understanding the data at the literature level adds depth to the study findings.”
Turnwald’s group noted other limitations of the study including the fact that it did not include Instagram videos. Also, they said, the study did not report racial or ethnic information on celebrities, but it is possible that whites were overrepresented.
“In addition, we chose to focus on traditional celebrities rather than social media influencers because celebrities make up the majority of the most followed social media accounts, and this allowed the results of this study to be compared with the literature on celebrity endorsement,” the authors explained. . “More research is needed to understand whether celebrities and social media influencers differently influence the health behaviors of followers. We did not explore the effects on followers’ eating and drinking behavior.”
Turnwald and the co-authors have not disclosed any ties to the industry.
Selkie disclosed relationships with Google.