Instagram influencers promote more unhealthy foods than other celebs

The findings could encourage new social-media regulations to protect young users from unhealthy ads, teen says

Who you follow on social media may affect how many healthy or unhealthy ads you see on your feed.

The Good Brigade/Getty Images

No matter how hard you try, ads on social media are almost impossible to avoid. Especially when they’re built into the posts made by people you follow. And who you follow may determine whether you’re seeing posts promoting healthy or unhealthy foods. Influencers are internet celebrities with lots of social media followers. New data from a teen researcher now shows that these influencers endorse more unhealthy foods and drinks than other celebs.

The new finding comes from Nyasha Nyoni, 17. She’s a senior at Ossining High School in New York. The research earned Nyasha a finalist spot in the 2022 Regeneron Science Talent Search. It’s the nation’s premier science and math competition for high-school seniors. It’s run by Society for Science. (Society for Science also publishes Science News for Students.)

Regeneron Science Talent Search finalist Nyasha Nyoni discovered that when it comes to promoting unhealthy foods, Instagram influencers are particularly bad influences. Chris Ayers/Society for Science

Nyasha is an athlete who likes cooking. Nutrition is important to her. Past research has looked at food and drink ads in mainstream media. “I thought it would be interesting to look at social media,” Nyasha says, “because it’s a newer technology and is continuing to grow so quickly.” On social-media platforms such as Instagram, celebrities are often paid to promote foods and drinks. Nyasha wondered how healthy those products were.

First, she needed a list of famous Instagram accounts. Nyasha picked 100 athletes from a Forbes list of the world’s highest-paid athletes. Her roster of 100 musicians came from Billboard‘s hot 100 songs. And she used Hopper HQ‘s “Instagram Richlist” to pick 100 influencers. That list ranks the top Instagram influencers by number of followers and earnings per post. Nyasha combed those 300 accounts. She looked for posts endorsing foods and drinks in 2019 and 2020. Then, she calculated a nutrition score for each product.

Together, the 100 influencers promoted more than 500 foods and drinks over the two-year period. The 100 musicians endorsed about 160 of those products. The athletes promoted about 280. Influencers promoted more snack products than other groups. These were the most unhealthy foods in the analysis.

Nyasha was surprised by that. It didn’t match up with her experience or other studies. She’d expected influencers to promote more diet-related products. Snacks were the most endorsed type of product by all three groups. Fruits, vegetables and water were least promoted. Musicians mainly advertised alcohol. Influencers and athletes focused more on energy drinks.

These findings could encourage new-social media regulations to protect young users from unhealthy ads, Nyasha says. About four in every 10 Instagram users are 13 to 24 years old. Influencers’ ads may be especially alluring, she says. Why? Influencers may be seen as more relatable than mainstream celebrities. As a result, users may be less skeptical of the products they promote.

This study has changed the way Nyasha sees her own social media. “I’ve had a little bit of a cleanse,” she says. She has unfollowed some people who were pushing unhealthy habits. “I honestly think everyone should do that.” Users get to construct their own social-media feeds. Why not make that online space as healthy and positive as possible?

Maria Temming is the Assistant Managing Editor at Science News Explores. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

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