According to a study published in Food Quality and Preference, dishes arranged in an upwards triangle shape are most appealing and can impact how much we’re willing to spend on food.
I'm an unapologetic food photographer, one of those annoying dicks who snaps a quick salad shot when the micro herbs look like green fairy plants, or the lamb glistens with such tenderness it resembles some sort of miniature meat trampoline.
But I'm not the only one. We're obsessed with taking pictures of the things we eat. @ItsFoodPorn has more than 1.3 million followers on Twitter and swathes of Tumblr are continual streams of waffles and cupcakes, existing solely for the purposes culinary exposé.
Last week news broke of a restaurant in Tel Aviv that runs "Foodography" dinners, specially designed evenings to feed such desires. Dishes are presented on "media-optimised plates" and guests are shown how to photograph what they're about to eat in the most appetising light (presumably before the food gets cold.)
But as the Instagramming of our lunches reaches the point of near fetish, research published today from the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford suggests that it's not just bragging rights or general steak-induced excitement driving the food photography craze.
The study, authored by chef and scientist Charles Michel and published in Food Quality and Preference, shows that the orientation of food on plates "really does matter" and can impact the value we place on what we eat.
Michel and his team worked with the Science Museum to quiz the public, together with "internet-based testing methodology" to assess the "impact" of dishes in various forms. They found that there is an "explicit point or angle" at which people have a preference for what's in front of them.
One of the example dishes shown to study participants featured a triangle of pickled onions pointing away from the diner. The team found that positioning the onions in this way proved most appealing for the majority of diners, while dishes with elements arranged in downwards triangles can be "associated with threat."
Perhaps most important of all (at least to restaurateurs), the more aesthetically pleasing the food, the more customers are likely to spend. According to the study, "people are willing to pay significantly more for a dish with greater eye appeal."
"(Plating is) such a small detail of the dining experience—something people rarely think about—but it does matter," Michel tells me. "It seems that many principles of visual aesthetics and art perception apply when it comes to food."
While the study offers an insight into what exactly makes us salivate over our certain images on our Instagram feed, Michel says the study is also intended to benefit those working in the food industry.
"I guess my aim is to make people have more thought when it comes to placing the food on their plate; heightening awareness," he explains. "At the same time, using modern tech and the internet to give tools to chefs and people serving a lot of food a way to enhance the enjoyment."
Positioning the food in the shape of an upwards triangle proved most appealing for the majority of diners, while dishes with elements arranged in downwards triangles could be "associated with threat."
One of the pictures used in the study is of a signature dish by Alberto Landgraf, Michelin-starred chef at Epice in Sao Paulo and co-author of the study.
"The way I see beauty translates to how I present my food on plates. Food is beautiful. I think a big difference with a Michelin-starred restaurant is finesse," Landgraf tells me. "Whether you're plating a hot dog or a really expensive piece of meat, you've got to have finesse."
No one embodies the art of plating a hot dog with "finesse" more than Jacques la Merde, the Instagram saboteur making gummy dinosaurs look like New Nordic masterpieces.
Despite la Merde's parodying, Michel thinks the presentation of food is too often overlooked in everyday life.
"Food is a big part of our everyday wellness, and it will never deserve enough attention," he says. "In particular, in the last decades where it seems that we sometimes attribute little value to all the effort underlying the creation of a dish from farm to table."
But while appearance is important, flavour and taste remain Michel's biggest concern when it comes to food.
"I also believe that the essence of deliciousness lies in flavour, not in what we see. The quality of the ingredients is above everything, and the techniques to respect what nature brings," he says. "But presentation (or plating) is the last detail where we can all seek beauty every day. In Plato's view, beauty is an embodiment at a physical level of what we would, at a psychological plane, call 'goodness.'"
Food is beautiful. I think a big difference with a Michelin-starred restaurant is finesse. Whether you're plating a hot dog or a really expensive piece of meat, you've got to have finesse.
Platonic comparisons aside, for Peter McGunnigle, Senior Lecturer in Hospitality Management at Oxford Brookes and former chef (before the arrival of haute cuisine), food has always been about sourcing the best ingredients.
"I suppose I never gave much thought to whether there was any psychological preference to where things were," says McGunnigle, who trained at a catering college that served meat with sauce and everything else separately. "However, in teaching menu design to undergraduate food service management students, I was aware of 'gaze motion theory,' taken from consumer psychology. It suggests that there is a standard pattern of gaze motion and that the impact of some positions has greater influence on dish choice."
McGunnigle attributes the restaurant industry's recent interest in plating not so much to the pursuit of beauty, but profit.
"Menu designers for casual dining restaurant chains would place the high value or high margin dishes in these positions, thus maximising revenues," he says. "It would seem plausible to extend this to plating, I suppose."
Fine dining restaurants have long known that there's money to be made in making food look sexy. Michel and his team's study has just amplified our understanding of what looks good on a plate, right down to the direction our cod fillet is facing.
If nothing else, it shows that photographing and posting shots of attractive vegetables isn't going to stop any time soon.
And how can it? Food just looks so, so good.