Food as Culture

Trends / Realness
Matt Henry Gunther
Reya Sehgal
Sep 7, 2021
Food is more than nourishment—it’s how we express ourselves, create relationships, pass along tradition, and explore our world. A year and a half of pandemic life has shifted many people’s relationship to food, both what they seek from it and what they can do with it. From TikTok videos inspiring home cooking trends to new infrastructures of dining, food was in the top 25 of most popular search terms at Getty Images in 2021 and has represented central changes in our everyday lives. And while content used between 2020 and 2021 showcases a focus on health, home cooking, and celebration, America’s diverse food cultures are not well represented. There is an opportunity for our customers to broaden their visual choices of food and cultural experiences around dining.

What's Cooking?
Fruits and vegetables make up over 20% of all food‑related visuals, underscoring the USDA’s dietary guidelines; however, the fruits and vegetables shown do not include culturally‑specific produce like daikon radishes, mangoes, plantains, or collard greens, which are frequently consumed in immigrant and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) households. Vegan diets have been rising in popularity throughout the US, and Getty Images customers are following suit, with searches related to ‘plant‑based’ foods rising +44% in the last 12 months alone. Veganism is particularly popular amongst Black Americans, who are three times as likely to give up meat than people of other ethnicities, tracing culinary roots in Rastafarianism and Caribbean culture.

Customer searches for quintessential All‑American foods like burgers, BBQ, pizza, hot dogs, and fried chicken remain high, but this represents just a small percentage of what people actually eat. Food delivery service GrubHub found that Asian and Latin American dishes are among the most ordered on their platform over the past year. But these dishes are not limited to takeout—they are cooked every day in people’s homes. 
Inclusive, authentic storytelling relies on the details that make up people’s lives, and food is a rich part of our human culture.
Who's Cooking?
Many Americans attribute 2020’s stay‑at‑home orders to an uptick in home cooking, with a rising share of time spent on leisure baking activities and meals eaten with family. And while Getty Images searches for ‘family cooking’ and ‘family dinner’ have fallen in 2021, 71% of Americans intend to keep up their home cooking habits even as the pandemic ends, and families plan to continue eating meals together.

According to our data from 2020‑2021, women are overrepresented in food‑related settings. Customer searches for ‘woman eating’ rose +32%, while ‘man cooking’ fell ‑3%. More women are pictured both eating and preparing food at home, baking with children, or making healthy meals in their kitchens, while men are more likely to be seen grilling outdoors or working in a professional kitchen—reinforcing stereotypes about domestic labor, and who gets celebrated for their kitchen prowess.
Changing Demographics, Changing Palates
US Census data shows that Asian and Latinx households are growing in number, and more multiracial families are on the rise. This means that visuals of food and cooking can go beyond the tropes of “women laughing alone with salad” or burger‑and‑ice‑cream indulgences, and showcase the variety of foods that people cherish. To reflect the expansive palates of our world, the Emoji library, a mainstay of digital communication, has routinely expanded their catalog of foods, recently adding tamales, falafel, and bubble tea.

Terms like “ethnic food” have long limited Americans’ capacity to understand nuanced cultural traditions around cooking and eating, turning anything outside of European cuisine into a foreign entity; in reality, America’s food culture is built from patterns of migration, as well as regional, land‑based understanding, which Padma Lakshmi details in her show Taste the Nation. In many BIPOC and immigrant homes, food is a central way to retain ties to one’s culture of origin: 50% of Asian Americans connect to their culture through cooking or eating (nearly twice as high as the general US population), and 72% of Latinx Americans believe it’s important that their children carry on their family’s cultural traditions.

Nearly a quarter of food related visuals are related to celebrations. The majority of these images center Thanksgiving, Christmas, July 4th BBQs, and birthdays, leaving out celebrations around Lunar New Year, Ramadan, and Passover. Rituals around holidays often include specific meals, with distinct dishes and table settings. Honing in on these details helps move stories from generic to inclusive.
Diversity of Setting
Not all homes look alike, nor kitchens, nor backyards. Whether equipped with culturally‑specific utensils and food prep items, or located in shared apartments, the places people cook and eat are just as specific as the foods they prepare. Showing dining environments beyond uncluttered, minimalistic homes speaks to the truth of how people live.

While most cooking happens inside a home, 14% of food‑related content is set outdoors, showing the increased appetite for grilling and outdoor dining as a result of the pandemic. As a result, Getty Images searches related to eating outdoors have grown in popularity, with terms like ‘picnic’, ‘bbq’, ‘grill’ rising, and ‘outdoor dining’ increasing more than two‑fold year‑over‑year. Whether dining outside or inside or serving takeout, restaurants are making a comeback after a slow and tenuous year, and more restaurant‑focused imagery can bolster the hospitality industry.
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