COVID-Washing in US Food and Beverage Marketing on Twitter: Content Analysis

Krystle A. Tsai, Omni Cassidy, Josh Arshonsky, Sara Bond, Inés M. Del Giudice, Marie A. Bragg

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Food companies have increased digital and social media ad expenditures during the COVID-19 pandemic, capitalizing on the coinciding increase in social media use during the pandemic. The extent of pandemic-related social media advertising and marketing tactics have been previously reported. No studies, however, have evaluated how food and beverage companies used COVID-washing on social media posts in the United States or analyzed the nutritional content of advertised food and beverage products. This study was designed to address these gaps by evaluating how food and beverage companies capitalize on the COVID-19 pandemic to promote unhealthy foods and sugary beverages. Objective: We aimed to document the types and frequencies of COVID-19-related themes in US food and beverage companies' Twitter posts during the first wave of the pandemic in the United States, and assess the nutritional quality of food and beverage products featured in these tweets. Methods: Research assistants visited the Twitter accounts of the most-marketed food and beverage brands, and screen-captured all tweets posted between March 1 and May 31, 2020. Researchers documented the date of the tweet; the number of likes, views, comments, and “retweets”; and the type of food and beverage products. We coded tweets for the following 10 COVID-19 themes: (1) social distancing, staying home, or working remotely; (2) contactless delivery or pick-up; (3) handwashing or sanitizing; (4) masks; (5) safety or protection; (6) staying connected with others; (7) staying active; (8) frontline or essential workers; (9) monetary relief, donations, or unemployment; and (10) pandemic, unprecedented, or difficult times. Researchers calculated the nutrient profile index scores for featured foods and sorted beverages into categories based on sugar content. Results: Our final sample included 874 COVID-19-themed tweets from 52 food and beverage brands. Social distancing themes appeared most frequently (n=367, 42%), followed by pandemic, unprecedented, or difficult times (n=246, 28.2%), and contactless delivery (n=237, 27.1%). The majority of tweets (n=682, 78%) promoted foods and beverages. Among those tweets featuring foods and beverages, 89.6% (n=611) promoted unhealthy products, whereas 17.2% (n=117) promoted healthy products. Conclusions: Our findings point to a concerning marketing tactic in which major food and beverage companies promote unhealthy foods and sugary beverages during the COVID-19 pandemic. Given that nutrition-related diseases such as obesity and diabetes are risk factors for COVID-19 morbidity and mortality, food and beverage companies should reduce the promotion of unhealthy products to help decrease the prevalence of health conditions that place people at higher risk for severe illness and death due to COVID-19.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere37642
JournalJMIR Formative Research
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 2022


  • COVID-19
  • Twitter
  • Twitter
  • food and beverage marketing
  • health advertising
  • marketing
  • nutrition
  • obesity
  • risk factor
  • social media

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine (miscellaneous)
  • Health Informatics


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