March 29, 2010

‘The Last Supper’ Has Grown Over Time, Study Says

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A study published recently by a Cornell professor and his brother about the increasing size of food in paintings of The Last Supper has drawn international media attention.

Prof. Brian Wansink, marketing and applied economics and director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, worked with his brother Craig Wansink, a professor of religious studies at Virginia Wesleyan College, to analyze how the sizes of entrees, bread and plates relative to the average size of the disciples’ heads in 52 of the most famous depictions of “The Last Supper”have changed over the last 1,000 years.

Many studies have focused on increasing food portions over the past few decades, but after researching “perhaps the most commonly painted meal” in history, Brian Wansink suggests that “if art imitates life,” the gradual supersizing of meals may be part of a larger trend lasting at least the last millennium.

The study, published in the April issue of the Inter­national Journal of Obesity, found that from the earliest paintings, circa 1000 A.D., to the most recent ones, entrees have increased by 69 percent in size, bread has increased by 23 percent and plate size has increased by 65 percent.

The Wansinks used a CAD-CAM computer program to scan and rotate objects and calculate their exact measurements.

The number of wine bottles was the only variable that did not increase linearly over time. Wine bottles peaked between 1500 and 1600, in what “must have been a party-happy century,” Wansink stated in an e-mail.

A press release about the study on Wansink’s website,, states: “As food [has] become more and more available for less and less money, portion sizes have gotten bigger. Cheap, available food is probably something we should celebrate.”

Although Wansink has done extensive research on consumer behavior toward food, the strong results of this study surprised him.

“[Two-thirds of] the time, interesting research never comes out like you predict it will. I don’t think either of us thought the effects would be this strong,” Wansink stated.

Wansink and the Cornell Food and Brand Lab have studied hidden influences on eating for years. “We used a similar approach last year in our article ‘The Joy of Cooking Too Much,’” Wansink said. That study found that caloric content in most classic recipes has increased over the last seven decades, he said.

The Wansinks’ results surprised Prof. David Levitsky, nutrition and psychology, who admires “the very clever approach to the study of historical trends in eating behavior.”

Levitsky stated in an e-mail that portion sizes influence how much we eat and weigh and that becoming overweight can lead to various health problems. However, he noted that it is difficult to link these results to obesity because “the major jump in body weights began occurring in the early 1980s. The changes in plate size and/or portions in the paintings of the last supper occurred over the last 1000 years, a time where we do not know how the population’s weight changed.”

Prof. Claudia Lazzaro, art history, stated in an e-mail that she “applaud[s] interdisciplinary studies, but also think[s] that an art historian might have been consulted for a study such as this one,” in order to fully understand the social and artistic context of the paintings.

Lazzaro stated that the increasing prominence of food in “The Last Supper” is not “independent of other aspects of dining.” The growing food portions may reflect more than simply “portion distortion.” She added, “from the late 15th century, dining assumed a new importance, for a display of wealth, cultivated taste, new foods entering Europe, new notions of manners and new emphasis on tableware, as well as the introduction of the fork in 16th century Italy … It is not surprising that the depiction of “The Last Supper” would be influenced by the altered social practices.”

Original Author: Tim Becker