The director of Cornell's Food and Brand Lab thinks onsite serveries can be a great place to change human eating behaviors for the better.
Brian Wansink, PhD, has built a career from his fascination with the oddities of human eating behavior. The Iowa native first came to many people’s attention in 2006, with the publication of his fourth book, Mindless Eating.
Entertaining, enlightening and surprising, Mindless Eating explored why our eating habits are not what we think they are and documented his views with behavioral science experiments that illustrated why many snacking and mealtime choices are unconscious ones, driven by factors diners are often unaware of.
Since 2005, Wansink has served as a professor in the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University and is director of its Food and Brand Lab, where much of his research has taken place. His earlier career included academic stints at Dartmouth, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.
In 2007, Wansink took a leave of absence from Cornell to serve as the executive director of USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. Since returning to his academic role at Cornell, he has been the driving force behind the grant-funded SmarterLunch Rooms Initiative and the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs. Both programs are devoted to funding and applying research concerning children’s health to the cafeteria environment.
FM recently interviewed Dr. Wansink, to discuss his research and what it can tell us about eating behavior in a variety of onsite dining environments. Here are some key excerpts (you can read the full version of the interview at food-management.com):
How did you first get interested in the science of eating behavior?
Wansink: Oddly enough, it was probably because of Herbert Hoover. Every state has its favorite sons, and if you are from Iowa, John Wayne and Hoover are top choices. Growing up, we heard a lot about everything Hoover did to address the problem of hunger in tough economic times. My Dad had been a baker and was laid off in the mid-60s, and the importance of food’s role in our economy just sort of struck home for me when I was at an impressionable age.
My original academic work at Stanford was about consumer behavior as it relates to food. My master’s degree was in Journalism and Mass Communications. Originally, I wanted to be a food writer. I thought I could change people’s eating behavior by writing about food.
These days, I consider myself a behavioral engineer. I look for real problems and to solve them by looking for principled solutions that will work in multiple contexts. “Behavioral Economics” is a good term and the idea is that psychology plays a role in consumption decisions, whether in how much you pay for a car or how much of a Slurpee you want to drink.
On the Hoover thing, here’s a true story. When Nancy Johner [in 2007, USDA Under Secretary] interviewed me for the job heading up USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion [a sister agency to USDA’s department for Food and Nutrition Services (FNS)], I had extensively prepared for that interview in advance, mapping out the most likely questions I’d be asked and how I’d answer them. At the meeting, with her and several aides, I quickly found that they didn’t want to know anything about my background or vita, they’d already researched that.
What they asked were questions like, “If your view on a particular issue was different than that of the administration’s policy, how would you handle it? And I was ready with my answers. But then Nancy Johner asked a question I had not prepared for. She asked, “Why do you want this job?”
I fumbled for a minute and then found myself saying, “I’m from Iowa, and from the time I was a little boy, Herbert Hoover has been my hero. I proposed to my wife at his birthplace and went to Stanford because it was his alma mater. And if I could have only a fraction of the impact he had on the health of the country, I would be the happiest guy in the world.”
I think my voice was cracking at that point, it was just an emotional response. Her aides were looking at me with pained expressions, but I looked at her and she was nodding and said, ‘I’ve heard enough. If your background check comes through, the next call you’ll get will be from us asking, ‘When can you start?’” So that was the right answer for her.
In your view, what is the best public policy approach if we want to improve eating behaviors?
Wansink: There are some who think that regulation is the answer to everything in the world and that is just the opposite of how I see it. Over regulation would destroy so much. If you don’t have a creative, behavioral solution for something, the easiest thing to do is to take it away or tax it. That is the tremendous danger of regulation. If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
I’ll give you a contrasting approach. The New York Department of Health called me for advice on a program to increase whole fruit sales in school cafeterias. I was asked, “How much do schools need to subsidize fruit prices in a school cafeteria for sales to increase five percent? ‘ I told them that was the wrong question to ask—that they could make the fruit free and consumption might not increase five percent. Instead, I said they needed to look at how fruit was displayed and merchandised on the cafeteria lines.
We looked at that and recommended that they buy big, colorful bowls to display the fruit and that they place it in the best-lit part of the line. Sales at the schools in question immediately went up 187 percent and after a month stabilized at a 105 percent increase. We had doubled sales for only $25-30 a school.
What does your research suggest about the right way to portion food for healthier meals?
Wansink: At Wharton, we did a lot of research that showed the larger the package size, the more people ate; and that the smaller the package size, the less people ate. We also found that many people were willing to pay more for food offered in smaller sizes because it helps them manage their eating behavior more effectively. We showed that research to a number of manufacturers, and most had a hard time getting their heads around the idea then. Later, it became a strategy several have embraced.
What about in cafeteria settings??
Wansink: Cafeterias, lunchrooms, serveries—whatever you want to call them—have a huge potential for change because they are a place where psychology, sociology, economics and human behavior “meet to eat”.
We’ve found it’s very effective to have customers order before entering a serving area. Having them look at a menu first, writing down their orders, will help them reduce their calorie count by about 20 percent. It also increases the percentage of healthful items in the order mix. The simple act of writing down an order makes it something of a personal commitment, and that has an effect on behavior.
One thing that happens in dining halls, in contrast to ordering from a menu, is that people make sequential decisions. They are yes or no decisions—will I like this item or not? When ordering from a menu, they make an optimized decision while looking at the whole menu.
In a buffet environment, the more a customer puts on a plate, the higher the hurdle becomes for the next choice. So if you consider the first three items on a buffet line, you are 11 percent more likely to put the first item on your plate than the third item. You want your most healthful, highest-margin items to be the first things people see. Unhealthful, low margin items should be last.
Another way to manage the sequential process is to incorporate suggestive selling into the main dishes and the way they are merchandised. That is, finding ways to suggest that a particular side dish is especially appropriate with the main entrée choice, and so on. To provide more choice, suggest multiple appropriate side dishes, all of them healthful.
How would you suggest managing traditional ‘comfort food’ choices?
Wansink: We’ve done a lot of work in that area in the Lab. One thing that’s clear is that there are often bad, unexpected consequences when diners settle for something that is really not their favorite.
For example: if you really love beef but order something else because you think it has fewer calories or for some other reason, in the back of your mind you will likely feel put out. That can lead you to feel less satisfied by the meal or to perhaps order a dessert, or eat more of some other food to compensate. A better choice for the diner might be to choose what he or she really wants but to consciously eat half as much, saving the rest.
Looking outside the culinary area, what can operators do to improve customers’ overall satisfaction with cafeteria meals?
Wansink: In dining, variety is truly the spice of life. That’s why they shouldn’t be concerned if customers occasionally go across the street for a change of pace. It only becomes a problem when it is the norm, not the exception.
The first thing to look at is whether they are offering enough variety. You can further enhance that by offering ‘do it yourself’ lines where customers can customize their choices further in a way the place across the street does not offer.
One of the easiest things to do to improve taste expectations and perceptions is to give better names to healthy, high margin items. There is an entire chapter in my book about that.
How did you become interested in school lunchrooms?
Wansink: In my role at USDA in the last 18 months of the Bush Administration, I oversaw the updating of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the educational programs of the Food Pyramid, promoting physical fitness and other things. In working with the folks at FNS I saw that much could be done quickly, cheaply and without resistance in school lunchrooms.
So, when I came back to Cornell, I started what we called the Smarter Lunchroom Initiative. The goal was to encourage schools to make two easy, low- or no-cost changes each year that would increase sales and participation and help kids make healthier selections without requiring any particular changes in the food.
It led to the work in New York state, to programs that gave more descriptive names to healthy vegetable items, and eventually to a $1 million USDA grant to help us formalize our research in this area and to fund our current program for disseminating this information to K-12 districts throughout the country. The money will go to managing the program the program, tracking the results, awarding grants and hiring the grad students and staff that field the calls and work with individual schools and organizations.
Our goal is to influence changes in 3,000 schools by the end of this year, 10,000 schools by 2012, and 30,000 schools by the end of 2013. We have about 30 recommendations, but there is a point of diminishing returns and these are not always additive. So while 10 of the changes may work best for one school, a different 10 might work best for another.
[Readers can explore an interactive look at some of the ideas Wansink’s program is suggesting]
How has that initiative been going?
Wansink: Creating change is always difficult. What we don’t say is, “Here are 30 changes. If they are relevant for you, they will work.” Instead, we say, “If you want to run a smarter lunchroom this year, make these two changes. But we will document how effective they are and what impact they have on sales and nutrition. We will consider the reservations districts have about implementing them and develop testimonials about how well they have worked.
You can’t imagine how many objections can up up just from the suggestion about displaying fruit in a bowl. ‘Where do I get the bowl? What color should it be? How do I pay for it? My fruit has to be individually wrapped if it’s in abowl. How do I sanitize the bowl? What if the fruit in the bottom spoils? What if I don’t have space for it? What if the kids can’t reach it?’
It just illustrates how even small changes can be seen as problematic. So to try to implement too many suggestions only encourages more reasons why they can’t be done. But we think our approach will have significant results over time.
What do you think about the current trend toward trayless dining?
Wansink: Trayless dining works—or doesn’t work—depending on what you are measuring. It does reduce waste. But if you are measuring nutrition, it doesn’t work. If a person or a child typically takes a salad, an entrée, a salad and a dessert, and now they are trayless, which two things are they now going to ake? We found that going trayless decreased salad purchases by 26 percent in one of our field studies. In the same study, it decreased ice cream and dessert sales by only two percent.
Another problem with going trayless is that I believe many of the measures used to show waste savings tend to be exaggerated. They often include liquids and beverages that are thrown away, and the weight of these can outweigh the waste of actual food items.
What does your research show when it comes to managing the movement of grab-and-go, retail and convenience items?
Wansink: As I said, put the better-for-you, healthier items in the customer’s line of sight at the register. The chips can stay—but somewhere else. Also, to understand that people buy things not just as something to eat but to reward themselves. So the goal should be to help these types buy something that is rewarding, but isn’t going to negatively affect their diet. It doesn’t even have to be food-related—it is just the reward factor. This could be a pack of gum, rolled up horoscopes, something for their kids, a funky pen or pencil. This is easier said than done, but the fact is, the reward factor is often the key behavior motivator. It is not only that you are looking for a snack.
Any last thoughts on the complexities of human behavior?
Wansink: As I’ve said before, if you look at the biggest contributors to a person’s well being and life expectancy in the 19th century, it was sanitation. In the the 20th century, it was medicine: vaccinations, antibiotics, surgery methods, etc.
In the 21st century the biggest contributor to longevity and quality of life will be behavioral solutions. And who is in a better position to do that than the people who understand consumers and how they make decisions? It sure insn’t the politicians.
You can reach Dr. Wansink at: email@example.com