Cornell University's Brian Wansink researches the kinds of nutritional questions that flit by the food-conscious every so often. Why is more of the main dish left over if it's on the kitchen counter during dinner? If I keep a bowl of candy in the office, where's the safest place to put it so I don't scarf it all before 10 a.m.? Or if I drink soymilk for breakfast, will it cancel the effects of the margarita I had last night?
To study these sorts of concerns, Wansink founded the Food and Brand Lab at the University of Illinois in 1992 and moved it to Cornell in 2005. The lab team conducts interdisciplinary research in marketing, food science, consumer psychology, advertising and consumer economics.
Wansink, a marketing and applied economics professor, also researches how ads, packaging and personality traits influence people's consumption of healthy foods. This month, Bantam Dell will be publishing his book, Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think.
In a month-long study of the temptation factor, 40 secretaries were given an unlimited supply of Hershey's Kisses in candy dishes placed either in a desk drawer, on their desks or six feet away. The secretaries who had opaque candy dishes six feet from their desks ate the least, but underestimated how many candies they ate by 63 percent. The results suggested people eat less when it takes more effort to get something, but still eat more than they think they do. Wansink and his colleagues also found a connection between what food is named and whether people find it tasty, and whether someone else tells them it tastes good.
The Natural Foods Merchandiser interviewed Wansink about the psycology of healthy eating.
NFM: How did you get into your specialty?
BW: I spent a lot of my time being raised in an [agricultural] environment, and I developed a real interest in fresh foods. I wanted to encourage people to eat nutritiously. I actually got a master's degree in journalism because I thought that was the way to do it. Then one day I read a book on consumer behavior. I realized that in order to change people's behavior, I had to [study it], so I got a Ph.D. I've been doing [this] for 20 years. For about 12 years, nobody cared, though. I went through three universities before anybody thought it was important.
NFM: Your tests are very clever—not what's normally found in scientific journals.
BW: A lot of academics unnaturally constrain themselves. They don't do any project that they don't have a grant for. None of those [tests] would ever have been funded. They're too speculative. One of the things about straddling department lines is that we don't have that problem. Another thing, too, is that most [of my tests] have been rejected by four or five other journals because they're too quirky.
NFM: Describe the ideal meal setting for nutritious eating.
BW: People would be given modest-sized plates and serving things. The meal would be pre-plated in the kitchen. The only stuff at the table would be salads, vegetables. Bread, fried chicken, etc., would be in the kitchen. You have to make a very conscious decision to get up and get more.
NFM: What's the role of natural foods retailers in marketing nutrition?
BW: As they do things, it's a tremendous awareness-builder for the industry. Look at yogurt, for example. Thirty years ago, no one was eating yogurt. Ask people if they'd like some lactobacillus in a cardboard box and they'd say, 'Are you a lunatic?' Now, ask if they do, and sure, that sounds great. People tweak, make changes, a product becomes more competitive, there's more innovation, more development. Similarly, some of the small, niche natural retailers have been struggling, but they're bringing awareness. They play an important role in nurturing a market. Once innovations are made, they can break through. Without trying, nothing is going to work.
NFM: Are consumers really changing?
BW: I see short-term behaviors, and I see people breaking out of patterns and habits. I see variety in their habits. I can't say it's a huge step in a positive direction. I see people flirt with soy, for instance. They see it as a magic bullet. The important thing is that they experiment with other eating behaviors. Even if they don't always stick, they're trying, which is a good sign. The very act of trying may make them converts.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 10/p. 74