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Have you noticed that photos of food on packaging and in magazines don’t look exactly like the real thing? Everything looks brighter, fresher, more sumptuous… just better. If you’ve ever wondered how they achieve that, you’ll probably think of the obvious – digital retouching. However, the real magic actually comes from practical effects. Enter the world of food styling, where specialists use a variety of tricks to make the products they’re selling as appealing as possible.

Here are a few of the techniques that food stylists rely on. We recommend not trying them at home!


Glue for Milk


In advertisements for cereal, the milk always looks impossibly rich and creamy. That’s because it isn’t milk at all; food stylists use liquid glue instead. Its thick texture and opaque whiteness make for an appealing substitute, as is the fact that it won’t make cereal pieces soggy. My question is: do they clean out the bowls somehow at the end? Or do food companies have dozens of bowls full of solidified glue and ancient cereal in storage?

Shortening for Fluffy Ice Cream

Ice cream melts really, really fast, but it can take a long time to do a photoshoot. Rather than trying to bring the entire studio down to freezing (and forcing people to work in that), food stylists create mock ice cream using vegetable shortening and a few other ingredients. The result is a doughy paste that holds up in the heat and can be easily molded, allowing for the creation of those ridges in the scoop that photographers love.

Brown Paint for Cooked Chicken

If you’ve ever roasted a whole chicken or turkey before, one thing you’ll have noticed is how much smaller the poultry becomes when it’s done cooking. This happens because as meat heats up, the fat within melts, thus reducing the volume. Photographers prefer the bigger, fuller look, so food stylists use a raw chicken and paint it with various shades of paint to simulate browned skin. DO NOT EAT.

Damp Cotton for Food Steam

Most food and drinks, even if they’re super hot, don’t stay steamy for all that long. That’s because water evaporates quickly from within them, leading to fast dissipation of vapors. Not so with cotton, which can hold onto water for much longer. Stylists will dampen some of the stuff, heat it up, and then place it behind the real food item, making it appear that the steam is coming from there.  Sometimes, cotton balls are used, but another popular option is tampons because they can hold so much liquid... so I’m told.

Deodorant for Fresh Vegetables


Advertisers love the look of beads of water on the surface of fruits and vegetables. Normally, though, they only stay for a few minutes before running off or being absorbed. So, what do food stylists turn to? Spray-on deodorant, of course. A light application functions as an invisible barrier between the greens and the water, while also repelling fluids so that the water instantly beads up. An alternative option: hairspray. This technique is also used on glasses of soda and beer to make them look extra frosty.

Dish Soap for Coffee Foam


A fresh cup of coffee usually has some foam to it, called crema. Most of the time, though, this dissipates rather quickly. You know what kind of foam lasts much longer? Dish soap bubbles! Food stylists will mix some up with water, then carefully lift out the resulting foam and place it strategically on the surface of the coffee. And here’s a bonus – if the coffee itself isn’t looking quite rich enough, stylists reach for soy sauce.

There are a lot of tricks that food stylists use to fool us into thinking that what we’re seeing is utterly delectable. Turns out, though, that they have nothing to do with culinary talent. So, the next time you’re disappointed to see your home-cooked meals don’t have the sparkle and shine of what you see in magazines, just know… yours probably tastes a lot better.

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