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TikTok’s food-obsessed power users are exposing how we really eat, cook, and connect

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Popular FoodTok star @emilymariko.Handout

A woman slices cucumbers in her kitchen. She’s hunched over her cutting board, which has the added benefit of bringing the camera closer to her face. You only hear the sounds of cooking. Cucumbers sliding across a mandoline. Fork hitting plate.

A man in his 20s sits in his bedroom. He’s taste-testing MREs, the ready-to-eat meals used by the army. He raises his eyebrows, pleasantly surprised.

A mother and daughter bake cookies in their home. “Can I try?” the little girl asks. She cracks the egg. Whoops, it breaks over the edge of the bowl. It’s a perfectly ordinary moment – one that’s been viewed 3.4 million times online.

This is FoodTok – not to be confused with BookTok, or NewsTok, or DanceTok, or any of the other subgenres, or sub-subgenres on TikTok, the massively popular social-media platform. There’s a TikTok for everything. And one of the most popular genres of TikTok is food.

Worldwide, FoodTok videos (videos with the hashtag #Food) have been viewed more than 360 billion times. In Canada, #torontofood and #vancouverfood videos have been viewed, together, more than 560 million times – more than 14 times the number of people in this country.

And just as the past two decades of social media have had a seismic effect on our food culture – first Facebook, then Instagram – now the TikTok effect, too, is taking place. More than a billion people around the world are on TikTok, the suddenly ubiquitous (and contentious) online platform. By the end of this year, that number is expected to jump up to 1.8 billion.

As the TikTok effect unfolds, it’s already upending our ideas on what we eat – and how we talk and think about food, too.

At first, there was avocado toast.

There was nothing new about the idea of sliced avocado on toast. But around 2015 – around the time Instagram solidified its place as the social-media platform of millennials – so too did the internet’s definitive version of avocado toast (topped with a drizzle of olive oil, and a sprinkle of chili flakes).

“The biggest impact of Instagram on food was creating this focus on the aesthetic,” says Eve Turow-Paul, the author of Hungry: Avocado Toast, Instagram Influencers and Our Search for Connection and Meaning.

Instagram gave birth to an obsession with visually stimulating food – on curating an aesthetic, and then gloating about it.

@tommywinkler Reply to @matt.gombert Part 2 is in the comments!! These are packed with food😅 #foodtok #fyp #mre #kingofcrunch ♬ Military - Florews

The dominant aesthetic of Instagram, of course, was millennial: filtered perfection, muted pinks and yellows, and fiddle-leaf fig plants. In restaurants, that translated into designer interiors and plates designed around camera angles. In home kitchens, it manifested as Mason jar salads and sunshine-yellow stews.

No matter where you were in the world, restaurant dishes all began to look the same. Turow-Paul saw this while travelling in Southeast Asia a few years ago. “I saw sushi burritos. Rainbow bagels,” she says. “I had a cold brew in Yangon, Myanmar.”

Now, it’s FoodTok’s turn.

TikTok was first developed in 2016 by the Chinese company ByteDance to allow users to share short-form videos. In China, the app is known as Douyin. At least at the beginning, it was used primarily to share dance and lip-sync videos.

But at the start of the pandemic, with billions of people suddenly stuck at home, TikTok took off. The range of subjects expanded.

It was the most downloaded app of 2021, with more than 656 million new users last year. This hasn’t been without controversy. The platform has been plagued with persistent concerns about data security and access to user privacy. There have also been questions about censorship by the company.

Compared with other social media, users spend much more of their time on TikTok: an average of 20 hours a month, and more than 10 minutes a session (three times as long as the average user spends on Instagram). Younger users spend even more time on TikTok: more than an hour and a half each day. This is owing in large part to TikTok’s algorithm. Instead of scrolling a self-curated feed, TikTok curates a feed for users – one that’s based on their previous browsing history. It’s a system designed to give users exactly what TikTok knows they want.

FoodTok is where much of that time has been spent. It’s where, with restaurants shut down in early 2020, many turned to figure out how to cook at home. They exchanged cooking tips and recipes – simple, relatively cheap meals such as feta pasta or rice bowls made with leftover salmon.

@feelgoodfoodie Baked feta pasta with cherry tomatoes!! Recipe on blog • Inspired by @grilledcheesesocial 😘 #tiktokpartner #LearnOnTikTok #fetapasta #recipes ♬ original sound - Feel Good Foodie

They also turned to TikTok as an outlet for their feelings of isolation. It was where they could share a meal with a camera, or a virtual audience, while sitting alone in their homes.

Already, FoodTok has significantly expanded the scope of foods that can go viral. And so far, it seems to be signalling a shift away from pretty pictures.

Over the past two years, these viral dishes have ranged from practical (like the salmon rice bowl) to absurd (“mashed potatoes” from Pringles and boiling water, or “cola” made out of balsamic vinegar and soda water – videos that may as well be called “I dare you to try”). Some of these dishes have become so popular that last year TikTok announced plans to open hundreds of delivery-only “restaurants” across the U.S., selling viral dishes from the app.

And whether you’ve tried any of the TikTok food trends for yourself is beside the point. Chances are you’ve heard of whipped coffee, or cloud bread, or spicy vodka pasta – or even seen them pop up at your local restaurant. Just as Instagram helped to spread the millennial aesthetic, so too are TikTok trends trickling down into broader culture, says Turow-Paul – from the paint colours in homes, to the way we plate our food.

The way the stories are told has changed on TikTok, too. Unlike on Instagram where the focus is on the plate, on TikTok, the cooks, the creators and the cooking are all part of the story.

FoodTok videos offer glimpses into other worlds: Rural cooking in the Chinese countryside. Meals in Japanese and Korean convenience stores. Fast-food kitchens, where workers assemble burgers and bento boxes and ice-cream blizzards by the dozen.

And then there’s the ASMR posts, the so-called “brain massage” videos that focus on sensory stimulation. In Emily Mariko’s posts (the woman cutting cucumber in her kitchen), she rarely speaks. Instead, we’re lulled by the soothing sounds of her cooking. The thwack of a whole fish dropping onto a cutting board. A colander of leafy greens sloshing under the faucet. A serrated knife zigzagging through crusty bread.

For Mariko’s 11 million followers, the point is not the pretty picture. Instead, it’s the actual cooking that draws her audience – the process of washing and cutting and stirring – and the meditative effect that comes from it.

On TikTok, they refer to him as “the ice-cream guy.”

He’s the young man in the bucket hat who appears in Toronto-based Neale’s Sweet N’ Nice ice cream’s TikTok videos. Sometimes he dances, other times he sings, and a lot of the time he’s angry at his sister for finishing all the ice cream.

He’s gained so many followers – more than 200,000 of them – that when the brand posts videos without him, commenters ask where he’s gone.

But the bucket-hat-wearing man, whose real name is Trevor Dubois, isn’t just the ice-cream guy.

On the TikTok account for Rubicon Exotic, he’s the juice guy, wearing a baseball cap and T-shirt.

And in other videos, his face isn’t shown at all.

Dubois, 26, is a professional TikToker. He works for the Toronto-based marketing agency, Let’s Snack Toronto, which makes social-media content for restaurants and food brands.

Since launching the firm in early 2020, Kelly Samuel, the founder of Let’s Snack Toronto, has converted all of the agency’s clients to TikTok.

“TikTok was completely unsaturated. A lot of people were talking about it, but there were virtually no agencies that knew how to do it,” she says.

“Arguably, I don’t think there are very many agencies who know how to do it even now.”

Samuel, who is 29, attributes this to the generational shift currently taking place both in the labour force, and among consumers.

A decade ago, millennials were the bright young things poised to take over the world. Now, the oldest of that cohort are entering their 40s. They’re parents, and managers, and homeowners. (On TikTok, they’re very often derided as “cheugy” – or deeply uncool.)

But two years ago, the Gen Zs – who range in age from 10 to 25 – officially outpaced millennials as the world’s largest generation. Already, more than 30 per cent of the world’s population is Gen Z. Many of them have entered the work force. Over the next decade, as more and more of them join the labour market, their incomes are expected to surpass those of millennials.

And what Instagram was for millennials, TikTok is for Gen Z. More than 75 per cent of TikTok users are under the age of 35.

With food in particular, TikTok has proven to be particularly effective. In one Canadian survey, 36 per cent of TikTok users say they’ve visited a restaurant because they saw it recommended on TikTok. And 65 per cent of TikTok creators – those who make videos on the platform – said they had made a food purchase because of the app.

That’s what happened after Nathan Apodaca, a 39-year-old Ohio native, filmed himself riding his skateboard to work in 2020. The TikTok video that shows him skating with a phone in one hand, and a bottle of juice in the other – and paired with the soundtrack of Dreams by Fleetwood Mac – received 50 million views. It’s difficult to explain what made his video so popular, except to say that his laidback, blissed-out expressions perfectly encapsulated a feeling – what the Gen Zs call a vibe.

It was a vibe that millions wanted to recreate – and purchase – for themselves. In the weeks after the video went viral, Ocean Spray juice, the brand he drinks in the video, was sold out across North America.

Many businesses, says Samuel, haven’t yet tuned in to the shift to TikTok. A running meme on TikTok is about how much millennials don’t want to hear about TikTok. Many marketing agencies are run by “an older crowd,” she says – who are skeptical of the app, preferring instead the familiarity of Instagram and Facebook.

“People saw this as a dumb app where kids were making dumb little jokes,” says Dubois. “They thought, ‘There’s no possible reason my business needs to be on it.’”

At least part of this dismissive response, he says, might have to do with TikTok’s history – as a dance app, and one popular among teenaged girls.

“No matter how big something is,” he says, “if teenaged girls like it, it will be discredited.”

The video is an ad for Tim Hortons, which last year generated US$2.2-billion in revenue.

It’s a TikTok post on Tim Hortons’ account, promoting its annual “Camp Day” charity – which raised more than $12-million last year. Yet it’s deliberately low-fi. It uses TikTok’s in-app voice narrator, rather than a professional voice actor. The text is laid on top of more text, making it difficult to read. It looks like it could have been made by a teenager with an iPhone. Which is exactly the point.

@timhortons Camp Day is July 13! For a limited time, buy a Camp Day bracelet and help empower youth. #TimsCampDay ♬ Not Child's Play - Tim Hortons Foundation Camps

If the Instagram aesthetic was that of millennial perfection, then TikTok’s is an obsession with authenticity. TikTok’s overall look is 1990s DIY, with text and video and audio that clash, like a magazine cut-out collage.

It’s a style the older generations are having to learn. Michael Nowacki manages social-media accounts (mostly Instagram) for restaurants. The 31-year-old has spent the past decade investing in cameras and lighting equipment, and learning how to optimize Facebook and Instagram (he has 170,000 followers on the latter).

But now that more of his clients are asking for TikTok, he feels like he’s starting from scratch.

“I’m still trying to figure it out,” he says.

Increasingly, he’s ditching the professional equipment and editing software, and using his iPhone instead.

The content reflects this too.

One of FoodTok’s biggest celebrities is Joanne Lee Molinaro, aka the Korean Vegan (three million followers). Her videos weave gorgeously shot food videos together with stories of her family’s migration from North Korea to the U.S., and her own struggles with racism and discrimination.

It’s become a popular genre of FoodTok: food images juxtaposed with stories about people’s struggles with mental health, trauma or childhood abuse. The effect is jarring, subverting the expectation of conventional “food porn” on social media.

The expectation of authenticity runs across the platform, and even for the most benign content.

Ssonia Ong, a 40-year-old Vancouver stay-at-home mom, started posting TikTok videos with her four kids at the start of the pandemic, to keep them from running up the walls with boredom. (She’s since had a fifth child.)

They post cooking videos (with her kids’ faces out of the frame), and silly dances and skits they’ve made up in their kitchen.

“Really cheesy stuff,” she says.

Now, she has more than eight million followers. She’s hired a manager to wade through an inbox filled with offers of brand deals. In her first year of full-time TikTok, she earned six figures. Ong, who used to be a mental-health counsellor and has degrees from Stanford and Harvard University, now considers herself in a third career.

At the height of the pandemic, her family’s videos – of pajama-clad children, and chocolate-chip cookies – offered a sense of comfort, and normalcy. Her recipes are remarkably ordinary: banana muffins and yogurt Jell-O (it’s misspelled “jellio” in the video). She’s often wearing slippers, and has bits of flour or butter stuck to her shirt.

“How long is this going to last?” she says. “I’m hoping 10 years.”

After all, a decade ago, Instagram felt fresh and authentic, too. And a decade before that, so too did Facebook.

For now, Ong is happy riding the wave.

“On Instagram, everything is perfect over there,” she says. On TikTok, her imperfections are celebrated.

Case in point: a video of her making cookies with her daughter – the one that received three million views.

As they were filming, Ong initially left her daughter’s broken egg yolk on the counter. But the girl wouldn’t stop poking at it. So Ong cleaned it

In the comments, users pounced on the detail. “What happened to the egg?” they asked. They feel betrayal at even the hint of artifice.

“People want food to be different on TikTok,” she says. “People want real life.”

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