November 22, 2005

Prof Joins Good Eating, Economics

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While your mother may have hounded you to eat your broccoli, she probably failed to advise major snack food companies of their potential to increase profitability and make Americans healthier by “marketing nutrition.”

“Our entire mission is, how do we get people to eat healthier?” said Prof. Brian Wansink, applied economics and management, director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, of his new book, Marketing Nutrition. Through his research, Wansink has searched for new ways to create incentives for healthy eating, from the perspectives of both the consumer and the producer.

In particular, Wansink has focused his research on developing ideas for how state governments can encourage healthy choices without direct regulation or market interference.

“While the ‘food police’ have non-market mechanisms for the solutions they propose,” Wansink explained, “there’s a lot of market mechanisms that can start changing people’s eating habits and don’t necessitate legislation, regulation or taxation. We call them the shuns.”

Wansink is currently working with Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-Ark.), chair of the National Governors Association, to help generate ideas for the Healthy America campaign. Huckabee is leading this initiative to generate awareness for healthier lifestyles.

“We don’t need the government to be the ‘grease police,'” explained Alice Stewart, Huckabee’s press secretary. She noted that while Huckabee has made a point of encouraging healthy living in Arkansas and throughout the nation, “it’s not necessarily the government’s job” to engage in direct regulation.

Wansink is encouraged by the American public’s apparent desire to change its eating habits. A recent study showed that 76 percent of snack food consumers “would pay a 15 percent premium for some sort of package change that would help them eat less, help them better control the way they eat, whether that be sleeves, whether that be a smaller pouring area, whether that be smaller packaging,” he said. “So this is a situation where companies could actually make more by selling less.”

Such packaging changes could help reduce what Wansink deemed “mindless eating.” Packages like large bags of chips, he explained, provide “no indication of where you should stop eating.” Companies could, however, start to package smaller portions, an idea he thinks would help those companies as much as their consumers.

Wansink incorporated the concept of diminishing marginal returns into his study and stressed that consumers extract a smaller amount of satisfaction from each additional bite or serving of a given food.

“There’s this sensory-specific satiety that occurs,” Wansink added. “What happens is you burn out and you [say], ‘it’s going to be a long time before I buy those Oreos again.'” Such practices, according to his book, are not only unhealthy for consumers, but also unwise for corporations.

Appearing on ABC’s 20/20 last Friday, Wansink commented on an experiment he conducted at wholesale outlets. The study showed that consumers ate roughly 50 percent of all food products within 10 days of purchase, regardless of the quantities involved. As the program indicated, many shoppers may be deceiving themselves with false savings by buying in bulk. While these goods may be cheaper at wholesale prices relative to retail prices, many shoppers purchase unnecessarily large quantities at bulk food stores, offsetting any savings they may have sought.

Wansink also commented on the degree of control parents have over what their children eat.

“Most parents don’t believe that they have the control over what their kids eat. They think, ‘my kids just eat all sorts of garbage I can’t control.’ But who brought in the Juicy Juice? Who brought in the bags of Chips Ahoy cookies? Who bought the Kool Aid?” he asked.

By controlling what they buy and cook and decreasing the portions they serve, parents can make substantial inroads in improving child nutrition, he argued.

Another recent study points to the external cues that affect American eating habits.

“What we [found] is that Americans, as opposed to the French, have a much greater emphasis on external cues for meal cessation,” said Collin Payne, who works in Wansink’s Food and Brand Lab. “So, for example, they may eat until a television show is over, or they’ll eat until they’re done with what they’re reading as opposed to the French, who may eat until they feel full or until the food is cold.”

“The French, because they are more self-controlled, because they have more internal cues of meal cessation, may eat less over the long term than Americans, and that may be why, as compared to Americans, they have such low BMIs [Body Mass Indexes].”

Wansink credited Cornell’s wealth of human and other resources with his ability to succeed in such studies.

“There are very few universities that are world class enough to see things interdisciplinarily,” he said. “Cornell – with its incredible nutritional sciences department, incredible hotel school, food science department, its AEM, [its] business school, and all of that together – is a great interdisciplinary flash point for doing this kind of research.”

Archived article by Joshua Goldman
Sun Staff Writer