On a particularly creepy episode of Conspiracy Theory -- yes, the one with Governor Jesse Ventura and the Blond Ponytail of Better Days -- a cornered spokesperson for a government Fusion Center told producers and Gov. Ventura that the Fusion Centers don't track people, they "track trends."
Weaseling your way around the supposedly oppositional processes of tracking "trends" versus "people" didn't really hold water in that episode, and it doesn't hold water anywhere else either. You have to track people in order to track trends. And what you find when tracking those people/trends is enlightening in so many ways.
Below is a graph showing the top 10 search terms for 2010 in Google's "food & drink" category. The resulting trends show more -- in my opinion -- about the manner in which people are using the Internet in 2010 than any particular food trends. Draw your own conclusions based off this data; I did.
To start, let's look at the way people are still using the Internet, particularly Google: as a shinier version of the Yellow Pages. That's what accounts for the key search terms "pizza" and "Pizza Hut."
Millions upon millions of people are simply looking to get a pizza delivered. And a good chunk of those people are Googling "Pizza Hut" either because they hate Domino's -- despite the pizza chain's $12 million advertising campaign and switch to new recipes -- or they're in an unfamiliar location and don't know what their local pizza options are.
This Yellow Pages mentality also accounts for the No. 4 search term on the list, "restaurants," as well as the astronomical popularity of sites that aggregate that information -- along with reviews and photos -- like Yelp and Urbanspoon.
People are also still using the Internet to help them prepare meals at home, a sort of 21st-century cookbook. Hence the No. 1 spot on the list for "recipes" and -- I'm making an educated guess here -- "easy" at No. 9. How many times have you typed "easy lasagna recipe" or "easy chicken soup recipe" into Google, after all? You can't Google grandma's index cards in her old church cookbooks, sadly.
Where it really gets interesting is if you alter the filters to "Product Search" or "Image Search" from the standard "Web Search" (which I used for the first graph of data). "Product Search" gives a far better idea of trends in food and beverages than the simple "Web Search" does:
Grilling, drinking wine, coffee and vodka, and -- yes -- eating candy. I bet you were expecting to see cupcakes and bacon somewhere, no? It appears those trends aren't nearly as universal as their advocates (and their detractors) would have us believe.
"Image Search," meanwhile, is a way of tracking what foods Americans are visually obsessed with. This obsession could stem from any number of areas -- wanting to decorate the perfect birthday cake, for example, and needing visual references -- but the graph below speaks volumes about the kinds of foods that make us salivate merely on sight, the visual equivalent of a Pavlovian response:
Cake, beer, chocolate, chicken -- now these are the things we all expect to see widely searched for on Google. This is more like it!
The accompanying "News Search" (graph seen below) taken in combination with the "Image Search" results might as well be a link to This Is Why You're Fat:
But what about our own backyard?
The great state of Texas, wherein we love chicken and tea almost as much as we love *sigh* pizza:
And, finally, the Bayou City itself, where Domino's finally gets that love it was missing in the rest of the nation. Well done, Houston:
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And, as a special bonus, one of the most enduringly popular search terms that spikes every year -- without fail -- right before Christmas: cheese.
If you guessed that cheese would spike right before the holidays each year, when people are looking to bring quick and easy cheese plates to Christmas gatherings, then you probably wouldn't have a hard time guessing that the majority of those cheese searches take place in one state above all others: Wisconsin.