Actor: Just remember this: Theatre is an illusion. Bourbon is Tea. Champagne is Ginger ale. Everything is something else. Now, when it comes to food, there's just one rule: everything on stage is bananas. Mashed potatoes are bananas mushed up. Even steak is bananas pushed together.
Prop Boy: But steak is brown.
Actor: You leave bananas out, they get brown.
— Frank Langella, Those Lips, Those Eyes
Food seen in commercials has often been improved for the purpose of shooting the commercial. Lettuce will always be crisp, hamburger buns perfect and full, cake light and fluffy. Ice cream is never melting, unless that was the point. As good as the food may be made to look, however, actually eating that specific example is probably hazardous to your health.
For starters, the food may have been coated in shellac to ensure that it stays looking good no matter how many takes are done. This is somewhat reasonable, as heat from any lamps being used can cause things to wilt.
If the food comes in standard proportions, they may have to keep those proportions due to Truth in Advertising laws... but they can still engage in trickery. Arrange the items on the plate so that (at the angle chosen for the shot), where the view is blocked by other food, there's nothing behind it - but people won't realise that! Cut a wedge out of the hamburger patty, so you can spread it out a bit, making it look wider (this one's almost universal in fast food advertisements). Use camera angles and zooms that make it look larger than it actually is - essentially, the Hitler Cam as applied to food. And you can always just put those standard proportions on a really small plate.
For a good example of the last of those tricks, watch a Dairy Queen ad for their Peanut Buster Parfait and compare how large it appears with what you actually get in the restaurant. You will notice that you rarely see an actor's hands in the picture to give you a sense of scale.
The items used for photo layouts and "beauty shots" are often not even edible. Ice cream sundaes are often constructed of scoops of lard or mashed potato covered in motor oil, or other toxic-yet-pretty trickery. Likewise, "steam" rising from "hot" food is often smoke from a hidden cigarette, and ice cubes will really be deftly sculpted chunks of acrylic.
Note that, in general, truth in advertising laws require that the product being advertised should be the same as the one shown (though some of the tricks described above are still applicable), so, for example in a commercial for chocolate syrup, the syrup will be real, but the ice cream onto which is is poured is just as likely to be made of plasticinenote In the director's defense though - YOU try keeping ice cream from melting for several takes under hot studio lights.. The cereal shown in the bowl is, indeed, the product, but the pouring stream of milk is almost always watered down glue.
Played with in this Dutch PSA. The items look like food- but they're poisonous.
Anime And Manga
In the Oh My Goddess: Adventures of the Mini-Goddesses manga, one of the strips depicts a certain voice actress as having a fetish for touching fake food samples and gets Squicked if they turn out to be real. (This is based on Belldandy's voice actress' real life tendency for such a habit.)
Subverted in Glass Mask. Maya is playing a character that's supposed to eat manju on stage. Some of the other actors, who aren't happy to be performing with her, switch the real manju with mud balls. Which Maya then eats anyway, since to do otherwise would disrupt the play.
In Ghost in the Shell, Cyborgs who do not need to eat can still eat food that looks real but isn't. It's still edible and nutritious, but tastes awful, at least to normal humans and to the Major, who finds the fake sandwiches (made from gluten and amino-acid-based micromachines) disgusting, while Batou chomps them down several at a time. It's mentioned earlier in the series that, because of their Cyber-Brain, full-prosthetic cyborgs can alter their brains' perception of how the "fake food" tastes, allowing it to register in their augmented brain as having the same taste as the real thing, which is presumably what Batou is doing. He also mentions in S.A.C. 2nd Gig that cyborgs sometimes miss the real thing, and that's why they make novelty food specifically for people who are cyberized.
Big Night was set in an Italian restaurant, and all the food was undercooked to look better on screen. The actors would spit it out between takes.
As if "D-FENS" wasn't dissatisfied enough in Falling Down, when he asks for lunch in a fast-food restaurant, his burger looks nothing like the one in the menu board.
Trivia: While almost all fake fast food signage shows the pickles hanging out of the sides of burgers, anyone who was paying any attention when they were trained for grill knows the pickle goes hidden in the center so it can be reached by a bite from any direction around the burger.
Charlie Chaplin's A King In New York parodies this, as the king agrees to play in a liquor commercial. The scenes are rehearsed with water in the glass, but the actual commercial broadcasted live is played with the real thing, which is nowhere as mild as the text of commercial would suggest. Hilarity Ensues.
In one notable scene in Animal House, John Belushi's character downs an entire bottle of whiskey; reportedly, the bottle was actually filled with tea.
Since food is the central theme in Ratatouille, the guys at Pixar did put some extra effort into animating food that actually looks genuinely appetizing.
On the first Harry Potter movie, Chris Columbus insisted on using all real food for the Great Hall. This did not go well, as they had to replace food whenever it spoiled, essentially forcing them to churn out the Hogwarts feast over and over again. In subsequent films, much of the Great Hall food was cast out of resin.
Live Action TV
Exception: in Coupling, actor Ben Miles decided that his character Patrick was a Guinness drinker. This may have had something to do with the fact that Guinness is very difficult to fake convincingly, so while his fellow actors were drinking coloured water with foam on top, he was drinking genuine Guinness...
The giant cup of the "Caf-Pow" soda that NCIS lab rat Abby frequently drinks is actually sugar-free cranberry juice; it was orginally Hawaiian Punch up until around the fourth season, when Pauley Perrette gave up eating or drinking anything that contained refined sugar.
An episode of The Gruen Transfer, a show about advertising, has an advertising executive mention that flowing molten chocolate in television ads is generally substituted with brown paint.
Another describes in depth the process of making a steak appear appetizing. The final touch is apparently to soak a tampon in water, microwave it, and then put it under the steak to create those lovely wafts of steam.
In an episode of Stargate SG-1 called Window of Opportunity, O'Neill and Teal'c repeat the same 10-hour period over and over again. The period started with O'Neill eating Fruit Loops, and the start of each period began with the spoonful of Fruit Loops halfway to his mouth. In the DVD commentary, it was revealed that the Fruit Loops were glued to the spoon, to guarantee they'd be in the same place in every shot.
The recurring "John and Peter" sketches on A Bit of Fry and Laurie featured the titular characters guzzling truly ridiculous quantities of Scotch, generally punctuating their conversations by downing entire tumblerfuls at once. If it wasn't tea, they'd probably have been hurling by the end of a three-minute sketch...
The Monkees episode "Success Story", while pretending to be rich and successful, Davy is served rubber food while his grandfather gets the real stuff. Also, the fruit in the center of the table is plastic.
When he hosted Saturday Night Live, Ron Howard talked about drinking fake beer while filming Happy Days in his openning monologue. He then pulled out a can, declaring it to be the real thing, then chugging it.
In episode 10 of Season 17 of The Amazing Race, teams were sent to a restaurant in Japan's Kappabashi-dori district, and had to pick out the fake food from a buffet table covered with real and fake display-food items. They could only use chopsticks, and if they touched a piece of real food, they had to eat it. The fakes were convincing enough that even close up, many of the Racers had difficulty identifying them; the task took some teams several hours, and a couple of racers picked wrong (real food) so often that they got sick from the amount they had to eat.
Actors from the classic British television series Upstairs Downstairs have stated that, while those performers playing servants (the "Downstairs" characters) often had real, good food to eat in meal scenes, those portraying members of the family upstairs had things like "grouse that had gone off" and stuff painted or coated in glycerin and other product to make it look "perfect."
One episode of the British sitcom Saxondale has the titular character and his pest control assistant Raymond encountering a suicidal man who is revealed to be a food painter - as in, he paints the food that gets photographed for the packages of products to make them look more appealing rather than, for instance, a pastie coming out "battleship grey", to quote Tommy.
Usually averted in the Disney Channel Italia sitcom Game On! Almost all of the food is real, to the point of having actual (if not necessarily hot or well-made) coffee in the totally opaque cups held by extras. Many, many sandwiches were eaten when Guyb's parents provided them in one episode.
Averted in the production of Babylon 5, where the food is almost always real because they actually show the actors eating it. Note that, for practical purposes, a lot of shows tend to cut away before the actor can be shown swallowing what they've just put in their mouths. B5 often didn't use those tricks. You start to understand why most shows do when you read what J. Michael Straczynski had to say on Usenet about using real food on set:
This is mentioned in a season 5 episode of Breaking Bad during a very awkward dinner between Walt, Jesse and Skyler.
Jesse: I eat a lot of frozen stuff. It's usually pretty bad. I mean the pictures are always so awesome, you know? It's like "Hell yeah I'm stoked for this lasagna!" and then you nuke it and the cheese gets all scabby on top and it's like, it's like you're eating a scab. I mean, seriously, what's that about? It's like, "Yo, whatever happened to truth in advertising?"
Japan, as mentioned in a few examples above, has an entire industry dedicated to producing realistic wax models of a restaurant's menu items permanently display in the restaurant itself.
In fact, there's a block or so of Tokyo's kitchen district, Kappabashi-dori, dedicated to this. It's worth a visit and you can purchase USB drives and refrigerator magnets that look like realistic sushi.
Milk is hard to photograph: under studio lights it often comes out looking bluish and translucent. The "milk" you see in cereal-box photographs is actually a 50/50 mixture of whole milk and PVA glue. And if a cereal box shows a splash of milk, the splash shape is molded from plastic, which is of course easier than trying to photograph a real splash at exactly the most photogenic moment.
In Christina Aguilera's video for "Candyman," there's a scene of her drinking a strawberry milkshake. As mentioned above, milk is notoriously hard to film, and there were several attempts to make the perfect shake. They ended up using a glass of pink paint.
Going even further with the difficulty of milk, the "Got Milk?" ads. If you look in real life, milk mustaches don't show up as thick and opaque as they do in those print ads. Usually, they drink something comparable to a vanilla milkshake to get those mustaches. It gets ironically funny when you realize that to make an ad praising the health benefits of milk, the people in question have to chug huge amounts of ice cream in the process.
Two real life subversions: Glamour shots for actual ice cream, not sundaes, are a special skill. Entire cartons of ice cream will be used to make the perfect scoop, which much then be photographed quickly and perfectly before it melts. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Brooklyn, NY is full of fried chicken restaurants that display pictures of their menu items in the front window. These photos are of actual food items, and thus look completely disgusting. At least they have chicken.
The last can be applied to some eateries in some third-world countries, who had photos of its most popular foods. Some places have even real samples of its food in exhibition, who change inter-daily. Anyway, while rarely looking appalling and disgusting, those photos and samples rarely look that delicious either.
Greek restaurants, traditionally, do not have menus. Diners are led through the kitchen and invited to lift pot lids to decide on a meal. In places where health laws prevent such tours, there is often a wall of photos of all of the dishes to help diners choose. Usually the experience is WYSIWYG.
Pictures of hot chocolate will often involve adding dish soap to the liquid to make it bubbly.
To photograph a roasted turkey, you roast it in a hot oven for half an hour or so, just long enough for the skin to swell up and look plump and tasty, and then paint it a delectable golden-brown with soy sauce. Sometimes iodine is also used. And if it needs to be carved, the breast will be pre-sliced and the visible meat will be cooked with a curtain steamer. Notice you never see a pristine turkey being cut, the knife is always halfway through it.
"Consumer Reports For Kids" detailed in one issue some of the trickery used when photographing burgers for advertising, including not fully cooking the patty so that it doesn't shrink, basting the patty to look more done, and using toothpicks inside the burger to neatly stack the vegetable slices higher so the burger looks larger.
There was a similar article in a Nickelodeon magazine about food photography. The photographer they were interviewing explained that the bun is hand-picked out of several other buns, and sometimes extra sesame seeds are glued on for show. Ketchup and mustard are applied artfully via eyedropper.
As a pastry chef, usually a standard part of training is learning how to make 'display' versions of your normal desserts. Any restaurant you see with a cart of desserts displayed usually has at least a bit of lard on the plate.
Related is making display plates for culinary competitions or as centerpieces. The food is coated in a very thin layer of aspic jelly, which is edible, but gives everything a pretty shine.
Ditto bakeries that have display cakes, which generaly consists of frosted Styrofoam. For example, if you watch Ace Of Cakes on the Food Network, you'll see them cutting foam for display-only cakes sometimes (but most of their creations are actual cake).
In a interesting case of fake food intersecting with real food, shady merchants in China (or anywhere else with lax food inspection) are known to soak yellow prunes in urine to make them more shiny and colourful, replace ethanol in liquor with the cheaper methanol (which can blind and kill you), or to make youtiao (s sort of deep fried breadstick) in a oil/washing detergent mixture, the detergent will make gas bubbles in the bread, making it look more substantial than it is.
Domino's pizza is trying to avert this and have customers photograph their pizza for their advertisements instead of using any sort of fake food or camera tricks. Their website has plenty of examples showing that they're trying their best to break away from this trope.
Like perfect "Hero" cars used for stunt shooting, "hero" foods are designed to be handled on screen in a desirable manner. For sandwiches, this normally means having one side glued together to keep the ingredients in place while the other half can be bitten into by an actor.
This McDonald's ad shows the burgers in the picture are edible, though overly prepared to look good.
Sometimes, couples looking to save money on their wedding cake (or to prevent heat-and-humidity-related disasters that end up on Cake Wrecks) do a "Rental Cake": The display cake is mostly Styrofoam (with the exception of the bottom layer for the cake-cutting), and then the "cake" is wheeled back into the kitchen after the cake-cutting "to be served" and replaced with sheet cake in the specified flavor and style. The guests (usually) do not know the difference unless they are told.
On stage, food props are almost always real food of some kind (if not the food they're supposed to be) because actors have to eat it onstage. It usually is intentionally made to taste awful so the actors wont eat too much and it can be re-used multiple nights. Alcohol, however, is almost invariably fake because of the hazards of the actors getting drunk in the course of performing the show (usually, dark liquors like whiskey will often be iced tea, lighter drinks like beer are apple juice, and wine is, of course, non-alcoholic grape juice. Obviously these can be subbed out for something more to the actor's tastes, all the way to simply water with food coloring.)
Which is very conducive to the classical practical joke of replacing your victim's prop drink with some Gargle Blaster. And theatre people love practical jokes.
In some productions of Oliver! applesauce stands in for the gruel eaten by the workhouse orphans in the opening scene. It's easy to "set up" (no cooking required), easy to clean off of prop bowls and spoons, is readily gobbled by a group of 8-14-year-old kids, and looks "truly disgusting" from the audience.
In The Simpsons Krusty the Klown is often seen to be disgusted with what he actually has to eat during commercials for his restaurant chain, and spits it out when the camera is off. This may have been a reference to George Foreman, in which leaked footage showed him spitting out food cooked by his signature grill (which is actually what they do when people eat for a shot, since after 30 takes he would have been throwing up with all he ate otherwise). Even better, it's shown that despite being Jewish Krusty has no problem putting his name on pork based products and eating them himself.
During Total Drama Action, one of the challenges was to find a key Chris had hidden amongst a pile of styrofoam prop food. Owen eats his way through the pile, not realising its fake, and ends by burping up the key.