Federal Gov’t Pays $700,000 To Analyze What Food Is Mentioned On Twitter

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The National Institutes of Health (NIH) gave researchers more than half a million dollars to study mentions of food on social media sites in an effort to track how Americans feel about food.

NIH gave a team of researchers at the University of Utah $721,825 to develop “HashtagHealth,” a database of publicly available social media posts about food researchers say will make public health surveys far easier.

The research team collected 80 million tweets from 603,363 unique users between April 2015 and March 2016. Analyzing that data, the team determined that coffee and beer are the most frequently mentioned food items on the social media site, the researchers wrote in a study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research – Public Health Monday.

Researchers say the data can be used to track how specific neighborhoods think and feel about food. By geotagging the tweets, researchers determined that certain areas (low-income neighborhoods, for example) mentioned food more negatively than other parts of the country. Researchers could also tell that areas with “greater numbers of fast food restaurants predicted higher frequency of fast food mentions.”

Only 5 percent of all the tweets they analyzed mention food at all, and 2 percent mentioned any kind of physical activity.

The team offers the caveat that the data collected is not necessarily representative of actual nutritional behavior. “We cannot be certain that the food that was tweeted was indeed consumed.” Furthermore, “the content of tweets reflects the type of information that people feel comfortable reporting and may not represent the true spectrum of their feelings or their experiences.”

Some foods are more popular, so people may be more likely to tweet about those foods, or present “a neutral stance rather than voicing polarizing viewpoints.”

“Certain foods (cupcakes) may get tweeted more often than others (celery).”

The results of the team’s research concluded that coffee and beer are the most popular foods to mention on Twitter, with 250,000 tweets mentioning coffee and more than 200,000 mentioning beer.

Somewhat surprisingly, fewer than 50,000 tweets mentioned bacon. Less surprisingly, about 30,000 mentioned salad. Tacos and ice cream only received 75,000 tweets.

“We found that neighborhoods with social and economic disadvantage, high urbanicity, and more fast food restaurants may exhibit lower happiness and fewer healthy behaviors.”

The ultimate goal for the HashtagHealth project, part of NIH’s Big Data To Knowledge program, is “harnessing the largely untapped potential of social media data to capture social and cultural processes with potential impact on health,” the researchers said in the project summary in 2014.

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