A new study tapped Twitter to shine a light on pandemic eating patterns, indicating people may have been making healthier food choices during the pandemic (Patterns. 2022. DOI: 10.1016/j.patter.2022.100547).
For many consumers, the COVID-19 pandemic impacted nearly every facet of life—and especially health. Lockdowns and retail restrictions, for example, forced consumers to modify how they shopped, what they purchased and how they prepared meals. Many consumers also placed greater emphasis on health, driving increased interest in healthy and functional foods.
The present study, published in Patterns, used data from Twitter to measure changes in tweets about healthy food, fast food and alcohol during the pandemic, and how those tweets correlated to users’ food and alcohol access. A total of 1,282,316 tweets about food consumption posted before (63.2%) and during (36.8%) the pandemic were analyzed for the study.
Results showed the share of tweets about healthy food increased 20.5% during the pandemic compared to pre-pandemic. In contrast, tweets about fast food and alcohol decreased 9.4% and 11.4%, respectively.
“Salad,” “apples,” “chicken,” “corn,” “eggs” and “peanut butter” were identified by researchers as frequently tweeted healthy food terms during the pandemic. Frequently tweeted fast food and alcohol terms included "McDonalds," "tequila," "Taco Bell," "Starbucks," "Chick-Fil-A," "KFC," "Chipotle," "beer," "wine," "vodka" and "mimosas."
The increase in healthy-food tweets was seen in every state except Massachusetts and Montana, which saw declines in the shares of tweets about healthy food of 9.3% and 3.4%, respectively. The biggest healthy-food Twitter gains were seen in Wyoming (62.1%), Vermont (57.4%) and Washington (46.5%).
While the share of tweets about fast food decreased in most states, 15 states saw an uptick in fast food-related tweets. The share of fast food tweets more than doubled in Vermont with an increase of 130.2% and nearly doubled in New Hampshire and Idaho, which saw increases of 95.8% and 86.7%, respectively.
Similarly, most states saw fewer tweets about alcohol, though six states saw more alcohol-related tweets, led by South Dakota (30.6%) and North Dakota (13.2%).
The tweets studied by researchers were geotagged, meaning they included metadata that yielded information about a user’s location when they posted on Twitter. Data gleaned from geotags helped researchers gain more insight into how the user’s location—what researchers call the “built environment”—impacted their health behaviors.
For example, the study showed people who had access to more grocery stores were more likely to tweet about healthy food and less likely to tweet about fast food. The same was true for people who spent more time at home. Information about where residents were able to spend more time at home was gathered using Google's COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports.
“For those able to stay at home during the pandemic, more time at home may have coincided with less exposure to fast food chains,” researchers wrote. “In addition, more time spent at home may have afforded people more opportunities to prepare meals consisting of healthy food ingredients.”
People who lived in areas with access to more restaurants and bars, however, were less likely to tweet about fast food and alcohol, which researchers hypothesized could be the result of greater disruption to these industries caused by the pandemic.
“... counties with a high density of restaurants and bars would likely have high rates of fast food tweets and alcohol tweets before the pandemic,” researchers explained. “When the pandemic disrupted the food and drink industries, the largest relative decreases in fast food tweets and alcohol tweets would likely occur in counties with many fast food restaurants and bars.”