In 1993, we were fortunate to be visited by Professor Brian Wansink, the
Director of the Food and Brand Lab at the University of Illinois. He is known
nationally as the “food psychologist” and visited Eli’s to meet up with a film
crew for “Top 5″ on the Food Network. The film crew was at Eli’s to get footage
for our “top food tour” rating and it was great to meet Professor Wansink who
was interviewed for a show on comfort foods.
The Professor has some great experiences on the reasons we eat the way we
do and the Chicago Tribune did an indepth article on him today:
Recent studies by Brian Wansink found that …
not physical hunger, controlled most eating.
People ate 32 percent more
popcorn from big buckets than from medium buckets, even if the popcorn was
People served themselves 38 percent more ice cream when they had
big bowls than when they had smaller ones.
Subjects ate nearly 23 percent
more yogurt when offered an assortment of flavors.
Guests ate more party
treats when more dishes were put out. When treats were offered in a few large
bowls, they ate less.
People ate more when they were with people they
The more TV people watched, the fatter they were.
restaurants where soft music played stayed 19 minutes longer, ate more desserts,
and ordered more drinks.
When given olive oil to eat with bread instead
of butter, people ate 12 percent more fat per slice, but 19 percent less
The wizard of why
Brian Wansink studies the reasons we eat the way we
By Robin Mather
Tribune staff reporter
Published March 30, 2005
research to help me feel happy and comfortable in his living room. Rhythm and
blues standards played softly, muting the drumming rain. Tea candles cast cozy
puddles of limpid light here and there. Fresh flowers, dried plants and baskets
of pine cones soothed the spirit. Savory aromas wafted from the
Wansink, wearing faded jeans, and apricot pullover over a
cornflower-blue polo shirt, and well-worn navy canvas deck shoes, seemed
relaxed. As a consummate multitasker, however, he was both entertaining (feeding
and amusing me) and working (seeking opinion).
“C’mon, “he said, “you
have to help me make the appetizer.”
From behind his back, Wansink
whisked a military MRE, or meal ready to eat. This one happened to beef
teriyaki, one of 29 entrees the military offers to soldiers in the field. The
khaki-colored plastic pouches, a little bigger than a shoebox, include
everything a soldier needs for one meal. A nifty just-add-water chemical heats
the food to serving temperature. We peeled the packages open, added water and
Wansink explained that he is working with the military to see why
soldiers waste so much food. Then Wansink threw the MRE away. He would serve our
real dinner, he said, at the dining room table. His menu featured much more
familiar rations: broiled spice-rubbed salmon, mango chutney, couscous with
dried cranberries and pistachios, and apple salad, served with a very nice 2000
Hacienda Wine Cellars Merlot from Sonoma.
The plates were slightly
smaller than usual, but the portions looked generous.
“My wife and I
thought you might enjoy the wine,” Wansink said. “She’s visiting family, so she
couldn’t be here. But we wanted to welcome you with the wine we served at our
Welcome, then, to the wonderful world of Brian Wansink. Here, a
playful goofiness reigns at the right hand of acumen. The common-sense speech of
the Midwest trumps the highfalutin jargon of academia. And here, sentiment seems
always, always, to be at the heart of things.
Wansink, 44, has an
impossible title: Julian Simon Research Fellow and professor of business
administration, of nutritional science, of advertising and of agriculture and
consumer economics at the University of Illinois at
He’s also director of U. of I.’s Food and Brand Lab,
which he founded in 1992. The Food and Brand Lab is, according to Wansink’s
consumerpsychology.net Web site, “an interdisciplinary group of graduate
students . . . from psychology, food science, marketing, agricultural
eco-nomics, human nutrition, library science and journalism.”
known, however, as a “food psychologist”–the guy who knows why we do what we do
when we eat. Wansink’s research proves to consumers how food marketers
manipulate our appetites and wallets. What he has learned helps explain why so
many of us struggle with our weight.
His research shows, for example,
that we eat more from big boxes, even when the food isn’t good. (Moviegoers in
Philadelphia ate 32 percent more popcorn from big buckets than from medium ones,
even when the popcorn was old, cold and stale.)
His research shows why we
drink more from a squat glass than from a slender one. (You’ll drink 25 to 30
percent more, because of an optical illusion.)
His research shows how
many more Hershey’s Kisses we’ll eat if the bowl is on our desk than if it’s six
feet away. (Secretaries at the University of Illinois ate 50 percent more
Kisses–six versus four–when the bowls were on their desks.)
research shows what cues tell us when to stop eating, and he knows how old we
are when we learn the cues. (Our eyes tell us when we’re full, not our stomachs,
and we learn to use visual cues at about age 4.)
Grants and consumer
groups fund Wansink’s research, which has been featured in newspapers and
magazines, and on radio and television nationally, including USA Today, the Wall
Street Journal, CNN, ABC News and NBC News.
His third and fourth books
will be published this year and next. “Marketing Nutrition: Soy, Functional
Foods, Biotechnology and Obesity,” for food marketers, is due in May from the
University of Illinois Press, while Bantam/Dell will publish the mass-market
“Mindless Eating” in April 2006. He has contributed articles to dozens of
magazines and journals.
All that sounds pretty lofty.
anything but. He was born and raised in Sioux City, Iowa. His father, John,
worked in a bakery; his mother, Naomi, worked as the secretary for the Woodbury
County attorney. Wansink spent summers at the northwest Iowa farm of his aunt
and uncle, Grace and Lester Schulke, who raised corn, a few hogs and chickens on
their 140 acres. Wansink has said his fascination with food was born on that
Or maybe that fascination began with Friday games of Jeopardy with
his parents and younger brother, Craig. The family-night ritual included popcorn
mixed with M&M’s (both of which have figured in Brian’s research
Craig, now an ordained Presbyterian minister and the chair of
the religious studies department at Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk, Va.,
said Brian was the very model of what a big brother should be.
was in kindergarten or 1st grade, and Brian was in 2nd or 3rd grade, he’d walk
me to school every morning–it was about six blocks,” Craig remembered. “Of
course, when we got to the playground, we’d split up to play with our friends.
But when the bell rang for us to go in, he would always run to find me, and give
me a kiss before we went into school.”
After school, Craig said, “He’d
come home and want to teach me everything he had learned.”
Not that Brian
was all sweetness and light, Craig said.
“Of course, he also used to put
my head between his knees and jump up and down,” Craig said. “That really
Craig speaks of his brother with a loving mixture of amazement and
“I once heard the expression, ‘He’s like a mongoose on
cappuccino,’ and that would be Brian,” Craig said. “But do you know that passage
from Luke 12:48, ‘And to whomsoever much is given, of him much shall be required
. . . ‘? That really applies to him too. He knows what he can do, and would feel
like he was a bad steward if he didn’t do that.”
An avid amateur
musician, Wansink plays tenor sax in a jazz quartet and in a pickup Champaign
band called The Usual Suspects. The Suspects play only a couple of times a year,
said fellow member Mike Howie, but they’ve been doing so for more than 20 years.
Wansink is a relative newcomer, Howie said.
“He’s an extremely bright
guy, perfectly willing to laugh at himself, and to have other people laugh at
him too. He’s a goofy guy, but it’s a very cool goofiness. He’s not normally
going to be the guy in the room that you notice right away, but the higher his
comfort level is, the more he allows himself to be extroverted.”
As a sax
player, Howie rates Wansink as, well, improving.
Randy Westgren, a
professor in the U. of I.’s Agriculture and Consumer Economics department, views
Wansink as both colleague and close friend.
“We’ve worked together on
several projects,” Westgren said. “We’re sort of parallel; we both landed [here]
with an interest in food marketing, with him in one department and me in
Westgren considers Wansink a great research partner. “He is
extremely high energy, always thinking about something new and interesting,”
Westgren said. “At a distance he looks manic, but up close you can see he’s
boundlessly enthusiastic. I find his enthusiasm infectious, so when he brings in
his latest iPod playlist, I pay attention. He’s also very, very generous of
spirit. I wouldn’t have thought about publishing a paper in the research journal
Appetite, but he thought of it, and he helped me through it.”
isn’t all work and no play. Westgren and Wansink, who has completed the first of
a three-course wine-studies program at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, also share a
passion for good food and wine.
“We both enjoy the camaraderie that
develops around a shared meal,” Westgren said.
“Brian likes to have wines
[that come with] stories. It’s a lot about developing and sharing the dialogue
about the meaning of food.”
Wansink’s wife, Jennifer, recently completed
her second course at Le Cordon Bleu.
“So we spend a lot of time talking
about how a dish came together,” Westgren said. “But Brian has two states: It’s
either very good food, or it’s greasy spoon. There’s really no
Back in the living room, after dinner, Wansink and his guest
visited a little longer. The remaining half-bottle of merlot traveled with them
from the dining room table to the coffee table. Wansink knows that an empty
bottle of wine on the table provides a visual cue that the party’s over, and
he’s not eager for the evening to end.
He loves his work, but it has its
challenges, he said. When he taught at Dartmouth College, an adviser told him
not to waste his research time on silly topics like food. That’s why he came to
the University of Illinois, where the importance of such topics is
Finding research money is sometimes tough, he said. Sometimes
he funds research projects out of his own pocket. It is more important to him
that the research is done than that somebody else pay for it, he
With characteristic modesty, he failed to mention that, in 1999, he
founded the Wansink Consumer Education Foundation. The non-profit organization
supports high school science projects dealing with consumer welfare and provides
scholarships for books to college-bound students. The foundation also supports
Consumer Camp, free to the public, held each March in Champaign. The foundation
is funded by Wansink’s book royalties and speaking honoraria.
generously of the graduate students who work with him on research projects,
about their hard work and integrity. Voted both MBA core professor of the year
and graduate professor of the year in the U. of I.’s College of Commerce in
2001, Wansink clearly is admired and respected by his students.
hard, teaching, chasing grants, conducting research and writing it up, I
“No,” Wansink said quickly, “my dad worked hard. He did hard
physical labor all his life. I can’t even imagine what his life has been
Wansink’s eyes suddenly filled with tears. “Once he told me that
he was a nobody. That just killed me.”
He wiped his eyes. His goofy smile
returned. He offered me more wine.
No, I said, it was time to go.
Tomorrow was another day, and it would be a busy one.
As I walked to my
car, I heard a wild whooping from the house, and caught a glimpse of my host
dancing joyfully after an evening spent in pleasantry.
In my head, I
heard Louis Armstrong’s rough and gravelly voice singing: “And I think to
myself, what a wonderful world.”
- – -
STUDY 1: THE
Unsuspecting college students were invited to eat their
fill from bowls of tomato soup. Half the students didn’t know they were eating
from special bowls designed to refill slowly as they ate. People eating from
regular bowls ate about 11 ounces of soup. People eating from the bottomless
bowls ate about 17 ounces, and some ate more than a quart, or 24
CONCLUSION: People eat with their eyes, not with their
STUDY 2: M&M’S AND COLOR VARIATIONS
Two people are
each given a bowl of M&M’s to nibble while they watch a video. The only
difference between the bowls is that one has seven colors of M&M’s, and one
has 10. The person whose bowl has 10 colors will eat almost 20 more M&M’s
than the person whose bowl has only seven colors. He’ll eat more because he
thinks the additional colors add variety, even though everyone knows all
M&M’s taste the same.
CONCLUSION: The perception of variety makes us
STUDY 3: WINE LABELS AND FOOD APPRECIATION
Students at a
university dining room were split into two groups. Both were given the same food
and wine. Half got wine from bottles labeled “Made in California.” The others
got bottles labeled “Made in North Dakota.” Students who drank the “North
Dakota” wine believed the chef had received less training, and gave the food low
ratings. Students who drank the “California” wine said the chef was very
skilled, and gave the food high ratings.
CONCLUSION: Even wine labels can
affect our perception of food quality.
STUDY 4: CAN YOU SPOT THE PHONY