Here are a few short items from my in-basket as summer approaches.
I am always intrigued when I read of studies that point out some of the oddities of human eating behavior. One that was cited in The New York Times recently was so counter-intuitive that I had to look up the original citation.
It was electronically published by the Journal of Consumer Research in April with the somewhat off-putting title, “Vicarious Goal Fulfillment: When the Mere Presence of a Healthy Option Leads to an Ironically Indulgent Decision.”
The researchers looked at how customer choices change when different sets of items appear on the menu. “Results demonstrate that individuals are, ironically, more likely to make indulgent food choices when a healthy item is available, compared to when it is not available,” they found.
The study's subjects were college students in a fast food environment with a menu including such items as French fries, baked potatoes and chicken nuggets. When a salad was added, they were three times as likely to order French fries as when the salad was not on the menu.
Further, “the influence of the healthy item on indulgent choice is stronger for those with higher levels of self-control…” Apparently, the mere presence of the healthy food option “vicariously fulfills nutrition-related goals and provides consumers with a license to indulge,” the studies authors conclude.
If you want to read the whole study, or abstracts of other research, here's the url: www.journals.uchicago.edu/toc/jcr/current
I am also fascinated by glimpses into the history of things, and heard a very interesting short piece on NPR's All Things Considered in late May. It was a radio “demonstration” of how to prepare “Hoecakes,” a subsistence food that was still common in the Great Depression era.
The recipe was from a new book by bestselling author Mark Kurlansky, The Food of a Younger Land, billed as “food before the national highway system, before chain restaurants and before frozen food…from the lost WPA [Works Projects Administration] files.”
It turns out that one of the WPA's unfinished projects was a book that was to be called “America Eats.” Much research for it had been farmed out to a variety of Depression-era writers like Eudora Welty and Nelson Algren, who had been charged with chronicling eating habits, traditions and recipes from across the country. Thre findings were quaint, interesting and quirky, but were never published because the advent of WWII put a quick end to this and many other WPA projects.
In any case, Kurlansky found much of the original manuscript material and used it as his source in the new book. If you want a taste of it, you can listen to the original NPR broadcast that hooked me at www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=104498614).
Finally, I want to note corrections to my last two editorial columns. In April, an art production glitch truncated my editorial column headline so that it read “In Praise of Kitchens.” The actual headline was “In Praise of Kitchen Chemists.” The online version has been corrected, and you can find it at www.food-management.com/editors_page/praise-kitchens-chemists-0409.
The other error was a factual slip I made under the heat of deadline. Last month, when I discussed some of the issues related to emergency and contingency planning in case of a H1N1 flu epidemic, I cited an incorrect mortality rate for the 1918 influenza. I said that nearly one in 10 U.S. citizens died from the flu that year. I should have said that nearly that many caught the flu; of these, as many as 675,000 died. That error has also been corrected in the online version, which you can find at www.food-management.com/editors_page/open-window-0509.
The mere presence of a healthy food option on the menu apparently “provides consumers with a license to indulge.”