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Revealed: how we eat, and why we love our favourite foods

Consumer-behaviour expert Brian Wansink on the strange and powerful relationship people have with food

Growing up in Iowa farm country, Brian Wansink was surrounded by fresh food. So when he was 11 years old and trying to earn some extra money, he began selling vegetables door to door. A funny thing, though: “If I had tomatoes to sell,” he recalls, “some people would say, ‘I’ll buy everything that you have.’ And right next door, a person with the exact same demographics and education would shout ‘Get those tomatoes away from me!’ They were like kryptonite.”

That experience spurred a lifelong interest in how people interact with food. Today, Wansink is a professor of consumer behaviour at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. and director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab. He’s one of the world’s top experts on consumer behaviour and food and has written two books: Marketing Nutrition and Mindless Eating. We spoke with him about everything from the myths of comfort foods to how people’s eating habits change in hard times.

You’ve found that people make, on average, 200 decisions about food every day. That seems like a lot.

Most people remember making 20 to 30 food decisions a day. They’ll remember deciding on soup versus salad, for instance. But what they don’t remember is deciding whether to add a second ladle of soup to the bowl, or whether to finish all the soup or just half. Think about when you’re at work and you decide whether to hit the vending machine. If you answer no, you don’t count it as a food decision. But really it is.

One of the most fascinating things I learned in your book Mindless Eating is that human beings are essentially unable to measure how much they’ve eaten. Why is that?

As an instrument, our stomach is really insensitive. We can tell if we’re really stuffed and bloated. We can tell if we’re starving. But between those two extremes we’re basically saying, “I want more!” We’ve done a lot of studies that show that we eat with our eyes and not our stomach.

Your most famous study is the bottomless soup bowl experiment in which people were served a bowl of tomato soup that kept refilling itself from the bottom. Yet because the bowl never emptied they never felt full.

It showed that people use visual cues to tell themselves whether or not they should feel full. The typical person who had one of these refillable soup bowls ate 73% more soup within just 10 minutes than those who didn’t have one. But when we asked them whether they were full, they said, “No! How can I be full? I still have half a bowl of soup left.”

Is that why shoppers who buy extra-large, value-sized packages in grocery stores tend to serve themselves larger portions at home?

Yeah, absolutely. But a lot of people have misinterpreted that point. They’ll say that’s why it’s a bad idea to buy the really big-size packages of food. I’ve even had people tell me that values-sized packages should be illegal. That’s fine if you happen to be rich. But most of the world is not that way. They need value-sized food packs to stay within their budgets. The point should be that once you buy that large-size container, break it into smaller packages when you get home, such as in Ziploc bags. It’s a form of portion control.

You’ve found that in hard times, or when food prices go up, people cut back on basic groceries such as produce. But they don’t cut back on candy and snacks. Why?

It’s what we call “compensation,” and compensation is one of the most powerful principles in food consumption. It works like this: I exercise; therefore I deserve to eat more. If I eat a healthy lunch, I deserve to eat a bigger dinner. So when things are going wrong, people see candy and snacks as small indulgences. Or take a guy who gets laid off. His family doesn’t reduce the amount of red meat they eat; they reduce the quality of the red meat. If they drink wine on weekends, they buy cheaper wine; they don’t cut it out. People don’t want to indicate to themselves that they’re worse off than they are. And if you cut down the quality of something, it’s not obvious. But if you cut it out, it is obvious.

You’ve found people develop a taste for certain comfort foods based on emotion. If my family eats, say, meatloaf on Friday night–and every Friday is a fun evening–meatloaf will become one of my comfort foods.

Yeah, but there are a lot of fallacies about comfort foods. People believe that comfort foods are hard-wired into our brains by the time we’re five years old. That’s totally wrong. Take someone who’s never eaten cookies in their life before, for example. Let’s say it’s a 25-year-old from China, where cookies are not common, coming to North America to do an MBA program. The first day they get here, there’s a reception for the students and cookies are made available. It’s a happy event. The next week there’s a study group meeting. Well, they take a break and have cookies. Then there’s a birthday party with cookies. So what happens four years later is that the person who’d never eaten cookies prior to coming here all of a sudden associates cookies with comfort and being happy. It’s incredibly powerful.

But it also works the other way around, doesn’t it? The bad memories associated with certain foods can create lifelong turnoffs.

We once looked at 2,000 Second World War veterans who had served in the Pacific. We wanted to see how their experiences in the war influenced how much they liked certain foods. And we knew that back in 1941 almost all Americans had never eaten Chinese food. What we found in the study was that Pacific veterans either really liked Chinese food or they really hated it. At first, we couldn’t figure out why there was such a split. Then we discovered that it had everything to do with what their experience was like in the war. People who had been in extreme or frequent combat hated Chinese food; people who weren’t in extreme or frequent combat liked it and still ate it frequently, decades later. Why? Well, if you were driving a truck or were a mechanic in the army, the war was a break in your routine, and inconvenient for certain, but the memories were OK. But if you saw a lot of combat, you just hated Chinese food–even though we weren’t actually fighting the Chinese; they were on our side.

There’s a belief that the recession has caused people to do more cooking at home and eat out in restaurants less. Does that necessarily mean people are eating healthier?

No. A lot of people like to blame the restaurant industry for all ills. We did a piece last year in the Annals of Internal Medicine called ‘The Joy of Cooking Too Much.’ We took the most famous cookbook in the English language, The Joy of Cooking, which was first published in 1936, and we analyzed every recipe from 1936 to 2006. We found that the average recipe in The Joy of Cooking increased in calories by 44% per serving. Two-thirds of that was due to different ingredients, such as more butter or more sugar or more meat and less vegetables. About one-third was due to things such as bigger serving sizes.

Is there anything you wish the food industry would do to help people eat healthier?

We are unfortunately faced with an increasing population that has no idea how to cook. They are very influenced by whatever seems to be the easiest solution. I just came back from the Natural Foods Conference in Anaheim, Calif., and one thing I found that was neat was this product that was like a Birds Eye frozen food package with mixed vegetables that came with a little sauce packet. So what you did was take the vegetables out of the freezer, put them in the frying pan and pour in the sauce pack, which contained the oil and all the seasonings and spices. It was great because people will actually feel like they’re doing something productive in the kitchen when they prepare it.

Just by pouring sauce, people feel like they’re actually cooking?

Let me tell you about this great study done in the 1950s. They took two groups of people and gave them a shopping list of what this woman had just bought. Let’s call her Karen. Each group was asked to look at the shopping list and describe what they thought Karen was like as a person. The list given to each group was identical, except the second group’s list had one extra item: instant cake mix. So here’s what happened: The first group described Karen as a lovingmother. They thought she was wonderful. But the second group, which looked at the list with the instant cake mix, described her as a terrible mom who’s probably having affairs right and left, and she hates her kids. There’s something about that insight that led cake manufacturers to say, ‘Look, we don’t need consumers to add an egg to our cake mix to make it work. But we know that if they do add that egg to the cake mix, they feel like they’re a bigger part of the process.’ And that’s what I think is going on. If you add sauce into a saucepan you’re showing some love, rather than just microwaving it.

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