Kale has officially had its day. According to data from Google, search interest in the leafy green peaked the week of January 5, 2014, and has been declining ever since. Today, people are all about cauliflower. Searches for Moscow mule are up, too.
America’s culinary search history says a lot about the country’s changing appetites, but there’s more to be gleaned from that data than what people are eating. Designer Moritz Stefaner and his team at Truth & Beauty worked with Google News Labs to produce a captivating data visualization project they call The Rhythm of Food.
The data can tell you quite a lot about fashion, immigration, and cultural changes. Simon Rogers
The project comprises hundreds of food-related infographics. Stefaner‘s team created them with data from Google Trends, the analytics tool Google uses to track how often users search for certain terms. Each one visualizes 12 years of search queries, most of them originating in the US. Taken together, they constitute a compelling survey of the country’s collective culinary interests.
Stefaner started by graphing keyword trends linearly. This was perfect for mapping gradual drifts in the nation’s search habits. Searches for “superfood,” for instance, have risen steadily since 2004, while searches for “fat-free” have done the opposite.
But he also noticed that some patterns came and went from year to year. “That’s when I got hooked on the idea of looking into seasonality,” Stefaner says. So he ditched the line graphs in favor of something he calls year clocks. Basically, he plotted 12 years’ worth of data—upwards of 130,000 data points—onto a series of circular graphs, assigned each year a specific color, and divided each graph into 52 radial segments, one for each week of the year. (The animation above visualizes his process.) The closer a colored segment was to the outside of the circle, the more frequently the term was searched for during that time frame.
The resulting visualizations let you identify trends not just within years, but between them. The graph of searches for “pumpkin spice latte,” seen below, is instructive here. Search frequency always spikes in the fall, but it’s clear from the visualization that interest in the beverage has been peaking earlier and earlier since 2011.
There are lots of other food trends to tease out. Even the obvious ones are interesting, if only to confirm your suspicions; people Google cold brew coffee more in the summer than in the winter; searches for fruits and veggies tend to peak when they’re in season; holidays and other annual events are associated with spikes in searches for things like gefilte fish (Passover), mint julep (Kentucky Derby), and turkey (Thanksgiving); and search volumes for foods like pizza and beer are high year-round.
Other insights are less obvious, and genuinely intriguing. For instance, Stefaner’s charts suggest that Americans really only eat fruit salad four times a year: On Easter or Passover, July 4th, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Orange Jell-O is surprisingly popular on Thanksgiving. Searches for spinach spiked in 2006, when the leafy green was found to be infected with E. coli in 2006. The same thing happened with kumquat, when Nike named one of its sneakers after the fruit.
That’s the thing about food-related search data: It’s a barometer for things other than taste. “It’s fascinating,” says Simon Rogers, a data editor at Google News Lab. “The data can tell you quite a lot about fashion, immigration, and cultural changes.” Imagine that: The foods you Google reflect more than your appetite; they reflect culture at large.