I love to cook and try new foods, and frequently find myself writing short alt text and image descriptions for food so that I can tell my friends all about the new recipe I tried or the fun restaurant we got takeout from. Recently, I received a post request asking for more information about writing alt text and image descriptions for food for social media, blogs, and online websites. Please note that this is not a description of specific foods or an endorsement of restaurants, just tips on how to make food pictures accessible to a larger audience.
WHAT IS ALT TEXT? WHAT IS AN IMAGE DESCRIPTION?
Alt text tells people what is in an image, such as text, colors, or basic essential details. If an image fails to load, alt text will display in its place. Search engines also index alt text information and consider it a factor when determining search engine ratings.
An image description gives more details than alt text and allows someone to learn more about what is in an image that goes beyond alt text. Alt text gives the user the most important information while image descriptions provide further detail. For example, alt text tells someone that I’m looking at a picture of a veggie burger, and an image description tells someone that I am looking at a black bean burger with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, pickles, ketchup, and mustard.
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SHOULD I USE BOTH ALT TEXT AND IMAGE DESCRIPTIONS?
If possible, use both alt text and image description when posting detailed information about food or its ingredients when it comes to posting food that is being sold, i.e at a restaurant or bakery. Alt text is read out loud when hovering over the image, while image descriptions are typically written in a different area or in the comment/caption area so that the user can choose whether they want to read the extended description or not. It is strongly recommended that alt text be 125 characters or less to ensure compatibility for popular screen readers. Image descriptions can be longer, but I recommend keeping them the length of a tweet, or about 280 characters whenever possible, though longer descriptions are also okay as long as they have relevant information.
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What to include when writing alt text for food
Helpful information to add when writing alt text for food can include:
- The name of the food, i.e a veggie burger or the exact name of the item on a menu
- Any items it is served with, such as a vanilla ice cream sundae with caramel sauce
- A one or two word summary of what the food is served on- for example, a plate of beef and broccoli stir-fry
- Any especially interesting details about the food, such as if pancakes are shaped like pumpkins or if there are sprinkles on top of a strawberry milkshake
- Any text that appears in the image
What to exclude when writing alt text for food
Information to exclude when writing alt text for food can include:
- An opinion about how the food tastes or looks
- Over-describing a particular food- I know what a banana looks like, no need to describe it as a curved yellow fruit
- The color of the food, unless it is part of the name (i.e a green apple, yellow curry paste, or red velvet cake)
- The phrase “image of” or “picture of” at the beginning of the alt text
- Listing of allergens or similar information- that should be listed somewhere else on the menu
Where to put an image description
Trying to figure out where to put an image description for the visually impaired? For online menus, I recommend writing it as a caption for an image so that users can read it more easily and see which picture the text corresponds to. Many blogging tools allow users to insert extended image descriptions the same way that they insert alt text, however, I recommend having image descriptions “exposed” so that people who do not use screen readers can still benefit from them.
On social media, I recommend adding the description to the caption of the post if space allows, though adding it in the comment section is also a common practice. If the image description is in the comment section, make note of this within the caption. I also recommend writing the phrase “Image Description:” or “ID:” in front of the description so that users know what it is.
What to include when writing image descriptions about food
Helpful information to add when writing image descriptions for food can include:
- Any ingredients that are used in the food, such as the elements of a salad
- How the food is arranged- I know how a sandwich is arranged, but I might be curious to know the order of ingredients
- The name of a particular food with an additional description, especially if it may not be obvious what is in it- I may not recognize the name of a particular curry, so I would be interested to know what is in it
- Complete sentences that describe the food in the picture, i.e a plate of french fries with a truffle mayo on the side
- The same information that is used to describe the food on the menu if this is being created for a restaurant- the description can be copied and pasted into the caption
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What to exclude when writing image descriptions about food
Information to exclude when writing image descriptions for food can include:
- Elements of food that are not visible, such as baking soda or flour (unless it is a special flour such as buckwheat)
- Description of the plate or serving items unless it deviates from what is expected- I will assume soup is served in a bowl and don’t need any more details, but I would be interested to know if it was served inside a shoe or in a super colorful bowl
- The cost of the item, unless it is otherwise listed in the image
- Opinion-based language such as “delicious smoothie”
SHARING ALT TEXT AND IMAGE DESCRIPTIONS ON SOCIAL MEDIA
Whether you’re showing a fun meal on Instagram or advertising a special dinner on Facebook, it’s important to make sure that social media posts also include alt text or image descriptions so that users with visual impairments are able to access this information easily- and yes, there are people with vision loss who use social media for figuring out where to eat next. I have an entire post about adding alt text to popular social media websites linked below.
Summary of how to write alt text and image descriptions for food
- Alt text and image descriptions provide information about what is in an image for people who may not otherwise be able to see it
- Users should add both alt text and image descriptions if possible and include the image description in an image caption or in the comments of a social media post
- Alt text should include the name of a food and a one-sentence description of what it looks like, and avoid giving opinions about the food or writing long descriptions
- Image descriptions should include information about ingredients and can use the same information that is on the menu
- Alt text and image descriptions for food can be added across almost all popular social media websites and should be added so that users can easily access information