Poll: Are Menu Descriptions 'Food Porn' or Just Good Marketing?


By: , SparkPeople Blogger

You see them all over the place.

Enticing photos of beautifully prepared foods and treats, complete with descriptions designed to make your mouth water. Even the cheaper chain restaurants get in on the act. You’ve seen the TV ads showing those great-looking burgers that look like they’re fresh off your backyard grill and overflowing with fresh, nutritious veggies. And you’ve probably seen the real thing, which often looks much more like something someone accidentally stepped on, but wrapped up and tossed in your take out bag anyway.

And then there’s those restaurant menus, with nice glossy pictures and seductive descriptions of the menu items. Take, for example, this description of the Chocolate Chip Paradise Pie, from the menu at Chili’s restaurant: “We start with a warm, chewy bar layered with chocolate chips, walnuts and coconut. Topped with vanilla ice cream and drizzled with hot fudge and caramel.”

I don’t know about you, but that one would be pretty tough for me to resist. Unless I happened to read the nutrition information on the company website: one slice has 1,590 calories, 76 grams of fat, 37 grams of saturated fat, and 950 grams of sodium.

What’s going on here? Is this just effective marketing, the sort of thing we should expect from any business? Or is there a problem here?

It’s interesting that the Chocolate Chip Paradise Pie was the featured item in this month’s Nutrition Action Healthletter, published by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. It appeared in the FOOD PORN column, a regular feature of the Healthletter.

I kind of like the concept of “food porn” they came up with--it seems to capture the essence of the problem here.

It’s one thing for these kinds of products to exist. We’re all adults, we know that ads are often deceptive or manipulative. And we can decide for ourselves what we want to eat, as long as the information about what we’re putting in our mouths is available. If a restaurant can make money selling a dessert with almost a whole day’s worth of calories, and more than a day’s worth of saturated fat in it, who’s to say they shouldn’t do that?

But does that make it right to actively pitch these products by either making them look better in the ads than they ever will in real life, or presenting an enticing photo and description while burying the nutrition info in small type somewhere else?

What do you say? Is this reasonable marketing, or is it “food porn”?

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  • 256
    DEFINTELY FOOD "PORN" especially since there is almost nothing you can order in a chain restaurant that tastes good to begin with. I will go to one only to observe a birthday of someone who chooses that restaurant and then I get a salad. Even those can be supersized so get a side salad not a meal. Glad they now have to list calories. It's a good deterrent for me. - 12/22/2016   11:57:49 AM
  • 255
    Food Porn. Definately. And I do feel like I've been raped when I am enticed to buy it thinking it will be every bit as good looking as the photo shows, and every bit as tasty as the description reads, only to find a completely different mess that arrives on the table.... - 2/25/2016   1:56:07 AM
  • 254
    Food Porn
    Honestly I'm offended by the term. In my HONEST opinion this terminology just shows exactly how desensitized our society has become.
    Pretty soon you will be hearing people say that they felt Raped by the Food Porn.
    The only thing that I've EVER seen that was remotely close to FOOD PORN were the Hardee's commercials starring Paris Hilton. That actually bordered on FOOD PORNOGRAPHY.
    Mouth watering pictures of good food is just good marketing that you resent. - 1/26/2015   3:46:05 PM
  • 253
    Food porn is basically something that looks incredibly appetizing. Of course appetizing food images is good business for places serving food. There are food artists who are specifically paid to make food look appetizing for ads, and menus. They do a darn good job of it too! They use a lot of tricks you probably wouldn't guess, here's a great example of how they make burgers look absolutely perfect for commercials:

    https:// www.youtube.com/watch?v=xA14pAGW4UA
    - 8/26/2014   12:41:02 PM
  • 252
    Food Porn!!! ROTFLMAO!!!! Love it!!! Wow, I'm going to remember that tonight when hubby and I are out tonight and I come across the "pornography" on the menu. LOL :) - 11/9/2012   12:51:44 PM
  • 251
    I've never thought of this as 'food porn' but the description does fit. And I've always wondered why the food I buy doesn't look nearly as good as the commercials on TV.

    Becca - 9/8/2012   5:51:26 PM
  • 250
    Those pretty pictures and enticing descriptions can make unhealthy food look and sound appealing. Similar pictures and words can also make delicious, health-supporting food look and sound appealing. We're grownups here. If you can't look at a photo or read a description of a food and not order it, you need to keep yourself far away from all the marketing that bombards us every waking moment in our society. Since that's not such an easy thing to do, I'd vote for education and self-control. Use the spark tools to know how those foods stack up nutritionally. Use the tools to build a life that naturally causes you to reach for the healthier options. Use the tools to make healthier choices about where you choose to eat out. If the pictures on the Chili's menu are kryptonite for you, find healthier places to dine. - 8/23/2011   1:31:23 PM
  • REDSHOES2011
    We are bashed and I mean utterly bashed with get healthy, actually it is up to the individual to wake up, take responsibility for their lifes and be critical consumers..

    Dean quite making excuses for people- NEWS FLASH they went to school too.. The food industry had to get more sneaky and employs shrinks to help the food industry make advertisements sell material..
    Even the supermarket layout is planned to catch people.. We consumers have to wake up to this fact and say no thanks.. - 7/9/2011   12:02:16 AM
    Food porn. This is why I have an app on my iphone which lists the cal count of foods from the major chains. - 8/6/2010   10:46:21 AM
  • 247
    I believe its both. Marketers make money by doing a good job at presenting a product whether or not it fulfills the expectation in reality. They are doing what they get paid to do. You cant blame them for that... even though I'd have a hard time morally doing that job. The word porn carries with it a lot of baggage and a serious moral weight. To use the term on a large scale would only weaken its meaning, I believe. However, I can see using it in my personal casual life as light conversation. Either way, the marketing does the same thing as real porn... enticing our lusts, "Give in to the desires of the flesh", it whispers to our senses. - 10/30/2009   1:22:54 PM
  • 246
    The descriptions of those decadent desserts along with the unrealistic pictures (since what you receive usually doesn't look like the picture) can really tempt you. I feel strongly that I must exercise extreme self-control in not giving in & ordering these items. - 9/28/2009   8:23:46 AM
    ugh! that's why i hate going out to eat. Just because it's nicely prepared from fresh ingredients doesn't make it good for you! Might as well eat at Carl's Jr or something with all the crazy portions at some restaurants. My friend works at Cheesecake Factory, and was telling that they have to put the calorie count on the menu, and the portions are so big that it sometimes comes out to like 3,000 calories, that's almost a whole pound!

    I rather just stay home and make my own food for cheaper, at least i know exactly what's going in it and can control the portion size, and it's so much more fun making it. - 7/2/2009   3:54:40 PM
  • 244
    they're just trying to get our money! - 7/1/2009   9:11:51 PM
    TO BE HONEST!!!!! This is my weakness. I didn't want to look at any more. I would, and have eaten these foods. BUT, not any more. This is a very important life change for me, and so far it is successful. I want to keep it that way. - 4/23/2009   3:04:29 PM
    The writer made a slight faux paux. The nutrition info states:
    Calories: 1590 Total Fat: 76 g Satd Fat: 37 g Sodium: 910 mg Carbs: 220 g Protein: 19 mgs Fiber: 5 grams
    What they don't mention is what the sugar content is. I'd be interested to know the amount ! - 4/22/2009   9:08:48 PM
  • 241
    I seriously doubt it included "and 950 grams of sodium". Milligrams, maybe. - 4/22/2009   10:32:11 AM
  • 240
    I LOVE to eat. But it amazes me that anyone would even WANT to eat that stuff. Food porn is a good term for it. To me it was pretty discusting. I think what I will do is print the pictures and then refer back to them when I feel like binging! That will put any of those kind of thoughts out of my head! - 4/22/2009   10:07:12 AM
  • 239
    I think it's apt to call it porn. If your needs are fulfilled and it tempts you to overindulge, it is indeed pornography of a sort. - 4/22/2009   12:26:35 AM
    'Course it's food porn. My late friend Chris thought about doing advertising as a career, but quit when he found out "how much of an ***hole I'd have to be." He was very discouraged with the ethical problems of plugging products. So, I do what I do with "regular" porn... I ignore it. - 4/21/2009   8:32:41 PM
  • 237
    "Food porn" is a stupid term to use, when thousands of marriages are ruined over men's addictions to PORN on-line and in magazines. PLEASE, spare us. We can make the choice to NOT go to CHILLI's. They can sell what they want. - 4/21/2009   11:31:11 AM
  • 236
    I also go online to a web-site of a place I'm going out to eat and try to figure out which options are the healthiest and most balanced.
    My god, I can't believe that desert is that BAD as far as nutritional value goes. - 4/13/2009   10:35:32 AM
  • 235
    Food porn! - 4/3/2009   1:15:44 AM
  • 234
    I love Chili's and Applebee's, but now before going there to eat, I sit down at the computer and figure out how many calories I can "spend" there. I look through the nutritional information of the entrees I'm interested in before I order. There are many entrees that work for me...and if I'm feeling indulgent, I'll order something with a higher calorie count, but only eat half and bring the other half home for lunch at work the next day! - 3/23/2009   1:40:54 PM
    Definitely food porn, although once you taste the chocolate chip paradise pie...you don't need the description anymore, you now know for yourself. The menus description actually doesn't even come close to describing how excellent it is.

    I definitely think it should be mandatory to list nutritional information on menus or at least: calories, fat, carbs, and sodium content.

    Also Shockinggirl said, "They boast that they have a line of entrees each "less than 750 calories." " I happen to know because it is my husbands favorite place to eat that their Guiltless grill has many options in the 300's (all but a few) calorie wise and one that is less than 200 I believe and more than half of the guiltless grill selections have less than 10 grams of fat. Many of their soups are moderate in calories and fat and very filling even the smaller cup of soup. Their portion sizes are huge, often we take food home or share entrees...it is all in portion sizes, just because the restaurant serves huge portions doesn't mean you have to eat it all.

    I always check the nutritional information online and menu if I know I am going out to eat to decide in advance what I might get. Sometimes it takes a little more than going to the home page to find that information. - 3/1/2009   2:08:45 PM
    Reasonable Marketing: The dessert is only selling itself, even if the picture is an idealized one. Sure, when it arrives, it is often not quite as amazing as it was presented on the menu, but we're not put off by it or surprised at its appearance. We got what we asked for...

    Food Porn: We actually get more than we asked for. Often the portions and toppings are out of control, and the content of the dessert itself is far beyond merely ending a meal on a sweet note. And if ignorance is bliss, we get that too: we have little or no idea of what we're actually eating, calorie-wise and nutrition-wise.

    Imagine how desserts in restaurants would change if it was required that the nutritional information was on the menu. Portions and topping-madness would decrease to something that a single person could actually eat. Recipes would change and MORE people might actually buy dessert, just as those 100 calorie packs actually go faster (and for more money) than the big bags o'snacks because people don't fear them....But then restaurants might cheat on the ingredients and tinker with sizes just to lure people to come back and have the (actually not) "healthy" dessert. Who wants to police that? /sigh

    I just wish that there was a "sensible" dessert or two on every menu, with the nutrition information as well. Just something that a single, normal, nutrition-conscious person could eat...

    Until then, perhaps the best policy is to ignore what we can, resist when we're able, and remind ourselves that, no matter how good it seems now, we won't even remember it in a couple of days... but our scale will. - 2/24/2009   10:00:33 PM
    It is food porn it is! - 2/24/2009   9:11:53 PM
  • 230
    The cool thing is when the food porn writers turn their talents to healthy food. - 2/24/2009   10:04:27 AM
  • 229
    Wouldnt it be great if someone could come up with something like a special tooth pick that tells you all the cals and fat and junk thats in the food... all you have to do is poke it in the food... i can always give it to the table next to me lol hee hee and they would think i was sweet MUUHHHHAAAA - 2/17/2009   1:56:22 PM
  • 228
    I so agree! When I am at Applebees, if I could see how many calories something was, I would think twice about ordering it!
    There has to be a way to find out the caloric intake without having to go to a website! - 2/16/2009   1:48:04 PM
  • CLAWW855
    Of course it is food porn!!! Obviously, with the child obesity epidemic, it is easy to see we don't mind subjecting our kids to this type of obsenity!!! - 2/14/2009   8:09:49 AM
  • 226
    Food Porn - I could not have said it better myself. The pictures are out there to tempt you make you think that you must have it.......I hate the menu pictures and commercials - I already have enough issues saying no to bad food, to add visual food porn - 2/11/2009   3:32:19 PM
    The perfect label for pictures on commercials or even magazines.
    I hat late night food commericials and all the food they advertise when you struggle with not eating - 2/10/2009   11:50:49 AM
  • 224
    Yeah- pretty much food porn if you ask me. Makes you WANT the item even if you don't NEED it!! Commercials do that to make you WANT to come in and eat their products. Carnival Cruise Lines makes you WANT to spend the money on a vacation in these tough times because it looks so fun!! Advertisers do that with everything. But why shouldn;t they? How many McDonalds Big Macs would be sold if they just said "It's a hamburger with 1000 island dressing and lettuce" instead of "Two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese , pickles , onions on a sesame seed bun". Which sounds better and which would you buy? - 2/10/2009   10:44:44 AM
  • 223
    Food Porn.... hahha -- I've been using that term for years!!! One time I bought a beautiful 4 color photo, well presented cookbook... for the sole purpose of admiring the food pics......... food porn............ wow.... check out the Apple Torte on page 36 -- Mama Mia!!!

    OK OK.... I was also in advertising.... food photography etc etc. Partly the reason for getting the cook book as a resource for photo color/design/ compostion and partly cause I just loved the delicious fantanstic yummy photos. (Never made one of the recipes though)

    It's true... those delicious looking food photos are constructed. The food product is there (truth in advertising -- hahah) .... then it's glued, sprayed, dyed, painted, brushed with glycerin... ick. A lot of times the heat or steam coming off the product to make it look hot and fresh is layered in on the film later with a graphics program...... yummy yummy. ick

    --- If I'm tempted by a menu or commerical's tantalizing photos and imaginative copy...... I try to think of the advertisign producstion side of it and that helps quell my sweet tooth!

    Truly... if you are not sure about how many calories might be in a Chocolate Lava Fudge Mountaing topped with sweet fresh whipped cream drizzled with Hot Fudge........................... please read more Spark Articles!!!! You'll get the hang of calorie aproximation. Hey if you want the Chocolate Mountain... go for it... but just beware of what your getting into. When the waitperson brings it to the table -- ask yourself "Does this look like the photo?????" Usually not.:)
    - 2/10/2009   10:23:27 AM
  • 222
    The objective of marketing is to create a demand that is not necessarily there. Whether it's an outrageous serving of food, a new cell phone, a slinky dress, or carrots, the idea is to make you WANT the item, whether you need it or not.
    It is our job as consumers to evaluate the products offered, educate ourselves about the products, and analyze our financial situation before making our purchases. I'm sorry to say that the American public has failed miserably at their job.
    - 2/9/2009   10:14:16 PM
  • 221
    Wrong or right, you can't blame the food photographer. I myself went to college for graphic design, and understand the jobs. The food photographer is concerned with making the food look more asthetic and pleasing to the eye than he is concerned with making it look like it does coming out of a restaurant. It's the job, plain and simple.
    We don't criticize athletic apparel companies for making exercising look fun and easy. We all know exercising is hard work, and don't have to think twice about it.
    Why then, should we have to think twice about something that has been deep fried in fat, or something smothered in caramel and fudge being high in fat/calorie content? Isn't it common sense?

    We as individuals are responsible for ourselves and should know what we are putting into our mouths. Something with that description just screams calorie overload to me, and I've only been paying attention to what I've been eating for a month. I've learned that eating out is not only expensive on the pocketbook, but over the top when it comes to calories. I have to research the menu before I go to the restaurant to find one or two things that i can actually eat or eat half of what I order. And it still isn't the best meal of choice.

    I vote for reasonable marketing. Food is marketed no differently than any other product. The only difference is that food sells better in the US because of our overindulgent culture. - 2/9/2009   7:30:48 PM
  • 220
    There is nothing wrong with what they do. It's their business to sell what ever it is they are selling. It's just too bad they don't know what moderation is. FOOD PORN ? IT CERTAINLY IS!!!! - 2/9/2009   6:31:54 PM
  • 219
    My name is SweetTooth and I'm addicted to menus..... - 2/9/2009   2:39:56 PM
  • 218
    Food Porn - I LOVE it!! Perfect phrase for what they're trying to do to us.

    I also hate restaurants that don't use simple English in describing a dish so we can make a semi-educated decision based on what's the healthiest choice. Not everyone is a French Chef or instructor at a culinary school. I get dismayed having my "fish-and-vegetable plate" arrive with big greasy puddles of butter everywhere...

    Deb - 2/9/2009   1:33:27 PM
  • 217
    I knew a food photographer and once I found out how they make food look so good in pictures I am not tempted by pictures at all. Dirt, nail polish, hair spray.....weird and yucky!!!! - 2/9/2009   12:48:58 PM
  • 216
    I did have to wonder about this article a lot of Spark pages I looked at that day had the advertising for Dove Bars. It didn't really bother me. I don't like chocolate.

    Right now I could binge out on fresh cherries, strawberries, rasberries, blueberries....... you get the picture. - 2/9/2009   3:55:07 AM
  • 215
    "Food porn" is a pretty good phrase for what those dessert pics look like; a phony version of actual food that is good for you. But I have to agree that it is marketing afterall, and that anyone over 12 years old knows that desserts are high in calories. How can you live in this world and escape knowing that. I agree with sisterdoe. We don't need Big Brother to help us decide what to eat. - 2/9/2009   12:19:31 AM
    I wouldnt mind getting a slice of that pie as long as I can eat it along with my boyfriend, y'know like share it?? lol

    But yeah, media is so controlling these days on how they tweak things to make people "want" to buy something, like those oh so yummy DQ blizzards, which I absolutly miss btw :( But I think they should have a special menue for deserts complete with the nutritional fact label thing so we can control what we eat ourselves but if a restraunt doesnt have a fact label the best bet would be to share it or pass it up.

    -- Rach - 2/8/2009   11:05:16 PM
  • 213
    Sorry I have to add an addendum. Yes, it is correct that we have to make our own choices, but how can we do that if we don't have the correct information to base those choices? If advertisers are making things look brighter, shiner etc, are we basing our choice on the real thing? If they are exaggerating the qualities, our mind see better, more satisfying.

    It goes beyond that nowadays, as so much is being studied on how we respond. So they are marketing not to our cortex, but to our brain stem.

    For example, a study was done (source: Tipping Point - great book) in which a ball bounced up and down as people watch the ad, because it made the head go up and down in a yes response way, people were more likely to say yes to the product that the ad with the same content without the bouncing ball. Another example (source: radio lab - program choices) people were asked to hold a mug while the interviewer got a pad of paper. Some held a cold mug others a warm mug...after the people that held the warm mug rated the interviewer as "warmer in personality".

    I personally have experience with this. I worked for an internet company and we'd put ads out and then tweaked them - raising an eyebrow on the female in the ad and the hit rate in real time would go up by 3%, then we'd darken the pupil and the hit rate would go up another 26%....we were messing with people's DNA instincts not their choices. This is why I'm in health care today. I want to help people not force them to make choices that they never really made.

    We need to hear the calorie count so our cortex has a chance. - 2/8/2009   10:50:20 PM
  • 212
    that pie should be made illegal!!! - 2/8/2009   7:59:31 PM
  • 211
    I love the term ~ it's very appropriate. Those businesses are IN business to make money and they are doing that well. OUR business is to pay attention to the reality and make our own choices. I don't need "Big Brother" to pass more legislation to protect me from bad personal choices, nor do I need to pay higher taxes to even have my representatives waste precious time arguing the subject. How about a grassroots "Think for Yourself" program? Anyone? - 2/8/2009   1:31:06 PM
    I'm all for legislation that would force restaurants and other food sellers to publish their "technical specifications". Marketing blah-blah is fine, but people deserve the facts too. It would certainly make my life easier if I could make my choices in the moment based on real information and not just pretty pictures and text. - 2/8/2009   11:51:52 AM
  • 209
    It's all in the advertising. If you ever notice, they mostly use adjectives to help you visualize, usually little or no reference to taste, therefore the disappointment when you do order and it tastes not so great. Plus as for pictures, they have food artists for those. It's actually quite fascinating to see their work to get the "just right" picture.
    As a school project my son and his group had to create a restaurant menu, part of the requirement was to briefly describe the menu item. Suggestions were, "use many adjectives" and find attractive pictures.
    Sadly, I would do the same type of thing if I were to describe items on my own restaurant menu. It's just what seems to sell.
    - 2/8/2009   10:06:15 AM
  • 208
    Consider how much money these people spent on advertising, they'd better be good. It's their job to entice people to buy their food products and make the best sale of it. I am not saying that's a good thing for us, only they are very good at doing what they are doing. It's up to us to make a decision whether or not to put a stop to it. It's all about education and disciplines; not just for us but our next generation as well. - 2/8/2009   9:59:09 AM
  • 207
    As someone that has tracked food intake, it doesn't take long to understand it doesn't take much to get over 300 calories fast. I think all restaurants, fast food or any other food service should label foods over 300 calories. At least the pie is pretty straight forward on ingredient that probably are high calorie. I work at a hospital and have repeatedly written to our cafeteria manager because our "healthy" vegatables are covered in salt, sugar and oil - worst heavy on garlic when we need to work over patients. I even had one of the worker, as I ordered three serving of zucchini, ask "is that all you're having?" multiple times after I explained I was attempting to stay healthy.

    Who is paying for all the health care for the heart disease, diabetes, bone fractures, strokes etc that this weight causes? Porn? At least that doesn't kill you, this is more like a legalized guillotine with a time lapse release and those that do stay healthy get to pick up the pieces. Thank goodness that same hospital put me through rehab and pointed me to Sparkpeople. - 2/8/2009   8:25:39 AM

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