December 22, 2011

Netherlands Nutrition Centre goes viral with ecological foot print guru

Yesterday, I was pleasantly surprised by a personalized video message of the Voeroe, a guru that knows everything about your ecological foot print. At the website of the Nutrition Centre you can calculate your own food print. At Twitter, you can ask a question to the guru and if you are lucky, he will answer you personally.

I think this is a very innovative way to involve consumers beyond the traditional website. When done in the right way, they help organizations to really connect with consumers and get the message across. It is not easy, however, to create a successful campaign. In 2010, Old Spice developed a social media campaign in which 'The Old Spice Guy' responded to questions posed by fans, celebrities and bloggers in more than 180 personalized videos. This campaign was extremely successful (25 million views!) and inspired many other companies to use viral marketing to promote their products.

Tippex campaign: tell the hunter what to do
Since then, a lot has been learned on how to best create these virals. Basically, they should provide unique, funny and high quality content, otherwise people will not share it. And social media is all about sharing.

My all-time favourite is the Tippex Bear; it is really interactive, hilarious and entertaining! Try it yourself and you will not be bored the coming fifteen minutes.

December 19, 2011

Six principles of a good Choice Architect - inspiration for nudging consumers towards healthier food choices

Nudging is hot, as I described in an earlier blog post. Nudges are simple, low-cost interventions to move consumers towards healthier choices without banning (food) products or telling them how to live.

A freely available paper of Richard Thaler, Cass Sunstein and John Balz sketches the six principles of good choice architecture. A choice architect has the responsibility for organizing the context in which people make decisions.

The principles in the paper form the acronym NUDGES:
  • iNcentives - make consumers aware of the incentives they face. For example, make the costs saved of certain things salient, such as the cost per hour of lowering the temperature a few degrees or the calories burned by doing certain activities.
  • Understanding mappings - help consumers to improve their ability to map and hence select options that will make them better off. For example, make information more comprehensible and transparent (which is absolutely not the case with costs of mobile phone use or credit cards).
  • Defaults - a large number of people end up with the default option, the choice that you will get if you do nothing. Changing the defaults regarding the way food is served and presented could also change consumer choices for the better.
  • Give feedback - provide feedback on the performance of people (clever feedback systems).
  • Expect error - leaving the gas tank cap or bank card behind when done are examples of such predictable errors. This is called the 'postcompletion error'. As consumers make mistakes, a well designed choice architecture assumes that people make mistakes and takes this into account.
  • Structure complex choices - consumers are likely to go for a simple choice strategy when decisions are complex. So, the more complex a decision is, the more choice archictecs have to do their best to structure and organize the options.
    Schap op opstand2
    Nudging study: changed default snack assortment

These principles are an inspiration for empirical research into nudging consumers toward healthier food choices. At the staff canteen of a Dutch hospital, we recently changed the default assortiment of snacks (both healthy and unhealthy snacks) and measured how much we sold. Student Kai Otten will soon reveal the results of this interesting field study. Keep an eye on this blog.

More student nudging projects can be found at the page of this blog called 'Student thesis info: do consumer research yourself'.

October 26, 2011

The Multivitamin Paradox: taking a supplement gives a license to indulge, relax and smoke

Recent research has suggested that taking multi-vitamins can shorten your life. And this suggestion is not based on a single study, but on a review of 68 studies with more than 232.000 participants.The authors of this review state that there could be several explanations for this increase in the risk of early death. One of them is that multivitamins may interfere with the natural defense system of the body.

This could indeed be the underlying physiological mechanism. However, a recent paper of Chiou and colleagues in Psychological science an interesting psychological mechanism of consumers taking multivitamins. In two studies, they show that taking a simple pill (which participants believed was a multivitamin) generated a psychological license to exercise less and indulge in unhealthy food choices. Taking vitamins gives you 'permission' to do something bad, while still feeling good about yourself.

Vitamins; a license to indulge in Dutch Spice Nuts (pepernoten) 
To make it worse, another recent study in Addiction showed that taking dietary vitamins decreased the motivation to smoke less, giving smokers an 'illusion of invulnerability'.

Maybe this explains why the huge popularity of dietary supplements has not translated in healthier people.

October 24, 2011

Do increased serving bowl sizes influence how much we eat?

It is often stated that that the increasing size of food portions is a strong factor contributing to the incidence of overweight and obesity. Numerous studies have shown it again and again: larger portion sizes, serving devices and packages lead people to eat more, often without them realizing it. In particular, individual serving devices such as plates, spoons and bowl have been shown to influence food intake. However, what has not been shown is whether the most central focus of the dinner table, the main serving bowl, has a similar magnifying effect. When one is eating at home and eating out in buffet restaurants, food is often available in serving bowls from which individual portions are distributed.

This month, the paper 'Serving bowl biases the amount of food served' I wrote together with Mitsuru Shimizu and Brian Wansink came out in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. This paper reports our study in which we wanted to determine how serving bowls filled with food for many persons influence serving behaviour and consumption. We expected that the larger the size of a multiple-serving bowl, the more people will serve and consume. In the study, 68 participants were randomly assigned to a group serving pasta from a large-sized bowl (almost 7 litre capacity) or a medium-sized bowl (almost 4 litre capacity). When given a large bowl, diners served 77% more pasta compared with the diners serving from the medium-sized bowl. They ate more, even though the food was not rated tastier or otherwise notable different.

Bowl size matters, so fill your largest bowl with salad

We wondered about the reasons for our findings. It could be that more 'social' reasons inhibit an individual from taking too much food from a smaller common bowl. Perhaps people use the size of serving bowl filled with food for multiple persons as an indication of how much they can best serve themselves. It could even seem greedy to take more food from a smaller bowl.

In any case, small increases in food intake may lead to substantial additional caloric intake over a longer time period and even weight gain. Just like larger package sizes, large serving devices seem to suggest to people that large portions are appropriate to consume.

These findings again highlight the role that external cues play in food consumption and show the importance of considering serving bowl size in nutrition education. Maybe our findings can be used to turn bad habits around; just put your salad in bigger bowls.

September 07, 2011

Eye tracking studies done by our research group on Dutch television

Last Tuesday, the Dutch television show 'Altijd Wat' paid attention to the debate on how to best inform consumers about making a healthy choice in the supermarket. Increasingly, information about the healthiness of a food is put front of pack in the form of a logo or health stamp. These logos are supposed to make your healthy choice more intuitive and easy.

But do consumer see these logos and labels in the midst of other information on the package? And to they use them to make a healthier food choice?

To get insights into which elements at a food package really attract consumer attention, Erica van Herpen and Hans van Trijp use eye tracking techniques. An eye tracker is a tool for measuring how the eyes move over an object (such as a food package) and at which point they stop to focus. Their latest paper on this topic examined which type of nutrition label attracts most attention, even when consumers are under time pressure (as we often are in the supermarket).

Watch Hans and Erica in action while demonstrating the eye tracker (item starts after about 10 minutes).

Get Microsoft Silverlight Of bekijk de flash versie.

August 30, 2011

Are you thinking too much or too little about food?

I came across a really good paper of Dan Ariely and Michael Norton about the fascinating research being done in human decision making: 'From thinking too little to thinking too much: a continuum of decision making'.

Basically, there are two approaches to thinking; on the one end of the extreme someone is thinking too much and too carefully. On the other end of the extreme someone is thinking too little; a thinking style based on intuition, heuristics and quick short cuts. Both thinking too little and too much can have negative consequences and lead to mistakes, they argue.

More ice-cream options is definitely better... 
Thinking too much makes decisions harder or leads to postponing them. They refer to the famous study of Iyengar and Lepper who showed that grocery shoppers who were offered free samples of 24 jam flavors were less likely to buy any jam at all than those shoppers who sampled only 6 flavors. This clearly shows that considering too many options made it too hard to choose one. Barry Schwartz calls this 'the paradox of choice. Why more is less' and argues that we are faced with far too many choices on a daily basis. Nevertheless, Iyengar and Lepper's study also showed that people given more options enjoy the process of choosing. That is what I recognize when looking at my daughters in an Italian gelateria. They love to take their time to make a decision, although they typically end up with the same familiar strawberry flavour.

Dieters tend to think a lot about eating, particular negative self-thoughts. Their long history of going on and off on diets and guilty thinking patterns makes them more likely to overeat when confronted with tempting foods. Clearly an example of thinking too much, with harmful consequences. That is because their thinking is too 'concretely' and too much about the struggles of the moment ('shall I take the apple or the chocolate cake?). This uses up a lot of self-control in contrast to thinking about long-term goals (such as being fit and healthy) which can enhance your self-control. This finding came out of a study of Fujita and Han in Psychological Science.

Relying on habits ('I have always done it in this way') can be harmful as well. For example, out of habit, people tend to eat the entire portion that is served to them, even when it is stale popcorn. A little bit more thought could be good in that case. In other words, you may miss out opportunities to eat healthier when you often make quick decisions out of habit.

In an interview, Norton concludes by saying: 'What we know now is that people sometimes think too much, and sometimes they think too little. But we still don't know the right amount to think for any given decision, which is a fascinating decision yet to be solved.'

July 05, 2011

Snacking: what to do with the fourth meal of the day?

Snacking now constitutes 25% of calories consumed in the US, according to a study that was presented at the Institute of Food Technology meeting last month. This is about 580 calories per day, about the same size as a meal, according to professor Richard Mattes of Purdue University.

Why? There are more situations in which we are confronted with tempting food. Our internal hunger and satiety signals are weak, particularly when looking at large assortments of delicious treats. Refusing would require quite some self-control. What does not help, is that self-control is like a muscle in your arm, according to the well-known psychologist Roy Baumeister and his 'self-control-as-a-muscle-theory'. When used too intensively, it gets tired and is more likely to fail. Baumeister came up with the term 'ego depletion' to indicate that self-control is a limited resource. So the more you try to not give in to temptations the more likely you are to go for the 'forbidden' food in the end. Coupled with increased snack portion sizes available, it is not surprising that people get overweight. I guess there are two basic solutions: don't snack or snack smarter.

1)      Just do not snack 
When I was at Cornell last year, Jan Chozen Bays gave a very inspirational workshop about mindful eating. Mindful eating is paying full attention to eating without negative judgments. It is about being aware of physical and emotional sensations when eating. What struck me most during this workshop is that she said that we could learn to accept an empty stomach. It does not need to be filled immediately. Like Buddha, listening to the ebb and flow of hunger and desire, she explained. We are not used to that anymore, conditioned that we should not accept that nagging hungry feeling in our stomach. This reminded me of an old Dutch commercial with the slogan: 'Four o'clock: cup-a-soup, more people should do that'. Mindful eaters, however, do not look at the clock to decide what and when to eat, but listen closely to what their body is saying. Unfortunately, I still not that far in mastering the art of mindful eating...

Accept the 'four o'clock' feeling without snacking? (Still Cup a Soup commercial 1990s)

2)      Smart snacking: cut up your food 
You could switch to healthier foods, such as fruits. Another solution and probably more realistic for many of us is to cut up your food into smaller portions (maybe an interesting nudge?). David Marchiori and colleagues (see Journal of the American Dietetic Association) gave a group of study participants unlimited consumption from a bowl of candies. About half of the participants received candies that were cut in two pieces and the other half got the normal sized candies. Participants with the tiny candies ate about half compared to the other group. Although this was only a 60 calories difference, it showed that consumers typically view their consumption in numbers ('oh, I already had 5 candies) rather than quantities ('e.g. a handful). 

A related idea is to package your snacks in small-sized portions. A recent study of the Food and Brand lab gave one group of participants one large 400-calorie package of crackers and another group four smaller 100-calorie packs of the same crackers to eat during a television show. Results show that only overweight participants consumed more than double the number of calories when eating from the bigger package (384 calories versus 176 calories). Interestingly, all participants underestimated the number of crackers eaten. So, it is not the tracking of calories that is easier with a smaller package. Apparently, overweight people are more likely to rely on external cues (such as the need to open a new package) to stop eating, according to Wansink and colleagues.

June 21, 2011

Consortium starts research to promote sustainable and healthy foods

This morning, the press release about the start of our consortium went out! It is a very interesting and exciting nudging project (see a previous blog post about nudging).

This is the English brief version of the press release:

Many consumers support the importance of sustainability and health. Could you help these consumers in making the right choice by changing the shelf lay-out of sustainable products in supermarkets? Or by including healthy food products in the default options of restaurant menus? A consortium consisting of Wageningen University, Schuttelaar & Partners and other parties started with a study on nudging. This entails ways to nudge consumers into choosing sustainable and healthy products without limiting the freedom to choose. The project is commissioned by the Dutch ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation (EL&I).

For the interested Dutch readers, here is the complete press release in Dutch:


Consortium start met onderzoek naar het bevorderen van duurzaam en gezond voedsel.
Consumenten geven massaal aan duurzaamheid en gezondheid belangrijk vinden. Kun je deze consumenten helpen door bijvoorbeeld duurzame producten een prominentere plek te geven in de supermarktschappen? Of door gezondere producten op te nemen in de standaardmenu’s van een restaurant? In opdracht van het ministerie van Economische Zaken, Landbouw en Innovatie (EL&I) is een consortium gestart met onderzoek naar nudging. Dit zijn manieren om consumenten een duwtje – een ‘nudge’ – in de goede richting te geven bij kiezen voor duurzame en gezonde producten, zonder hierbij de keuzevrijheid te beperken.

Het consortium dat het onderzoek gaat uitvoeren bestaat uit Wageningen Universiteit, Schuttelaar & Partners, HAS KennisTransfer en het Restaurant van de Toekomst. Andere partijen die hun medewerking aan het onderzoek verlenen zijn PLUS supermarkten, Servex, het Jeroen Bosch ziekenhuis, Ziekenhuis Gelderse Vallei, Stichting Max Havelaar en Stichting Ik Kies Bewust.

Het onderzoek richt zich op mogelijke nudges om de consument te ondersteunen bij de keuze voor duurzame en gezonde producten. Dit gebeurt door middel van kleine veranderingen in de context, bijvoorbeeld een andere inrichting van het supermarktschap. Een ander voorbeeld is het laten zien van het percentage consumenten dat al heeft gekozen voor een bepaald product. Consumenten die duurzaamheid en gezondheid wel belangrijk vinden kiezen nog niet altijd voor deze producten. Het onderzoek richt zich specifiek op deze groep consumenten. Behalve onderzoek naar de effectiviteit van de nudges zal ook de ethische aanvaardbaarheid van de interventies worden beoordeeld.

Naast de wetenschappelijke onderbouwing richt het project zich vooral ook op de praktische uitvoerbaardheid. Om te kijken of de nudges daadwerkelijk werken in de praktijk zal onderzoek worden gedaan in onder andere een virtuele supermarkt en in verschillende real-life situaties, zoals bedrijfsrestaurants, zorginstellingen, stationskiosken en supermarkten.

Het onderzoek zal een beeld geven van nudges die effectief en ethisch aanvaardbaar zijn bij het stimuleren van de keuze voor gezond en duurzaam voedsel. Deze resultaten kunnen van belang zijn voor zowel overheidsbeleid als voor marktpartijen. Het project loopt tot eind 2012 en de eerste resultaten worden verwacht in het najaar van 2011.

Can we nudge consumers towards healthier choices by changing the way we organize supermarket shelves?

May 14, 2011

The six reasons why overweight is a wicked problem

No quick fixes and simple solutions. That is the case with the current overweight and obesity epidemic. You can read this important message in the recently published book 'Tegenwicht. Feiten en fabels over overgewicht', written by Jaap Seidell and Jutka Halbertstadt. The translation of this Dutch title would be something like 'Counterweight. Facts and myths about overweight'.

I really liked reading this book, because it describes in easy-to-read and understandable language the current state of the scientific knowledge on overweight and obesity. What struck me most was that science has not yet come that far in understanding how various factors interact in creating the overweight problem and providing effective solutions. A key reason for that, Seidell argues, is that overweight is a wicked problem. This term was first mentioned in relation to the highly complex problems of social planning, but it can also be applied to overweight and obesity.

Basically, there are six reasons why overweight is a wicked problem:

Reason 1: You know what the problem is, when you have the solution. Since it is hard to define what exactly the problem is, it is difficult to find a solution. This definitely applies to overweight. For example, experts often disagree what the major causes are of overweight: lack of physical activity or overeating? Bad genes or bad eating habits?

Reason 2: The solution process does not have a clear end-point. As Seidell wonders; it is not exactly clear what the purpose is of preventing overweight: halting the rising trends or reducing the number of people with overweight to zero?

Reason 3: Solutions are not right or wrong. All involved stakeholders (such as food companies, authorities, consumers, health professionals) have an opinion about the problem and often disagree. For example, last week we had the No Diet Day (or 'Anti-Diet-day' in the Netherlands). Although the day aims at body weight acceptance, it led to debates about the usefulness of particular diets and the risks of overweight

Reason 4: Each wicked problem is unique and new. The involved actors and concrete situations are different. The causes and potential solutions are similarly not the same for different groups of overweight individuals.

Reason 5:  There is no room to experiment. It is impossible to check beforehand whether a particular solution will be effective. Essentially, it is often a matter of critically informed trial and error.

Reason 6: There is no clear set of solutions and there can be many solutions or only one. Solutions are hard to find. As a result, Seidell argues that the overweight and obesity problem requires a holistic solution. For example, schools, food industry, health authorities and consumers should work together in exploring solutions that seem promising. After all, there is a lot at stake: overweight is not just a medical problem, but also a social one. 

Trish Groves likewise argues in the British Medical Journal that obesity seems to be the classic example of a wicked problem. Consequently, we need more innovative and collaborative approaches. I completely agree. Acknowledging that overweight is a wicked problem might help getting a more realistic overview of the problem instead of over-simplistic and one-sided analyses and claims for solutions. It also shows that as researchers we should look across the boundaries of traditional research fields and become more creative in contributing to the search for solutions.

May 02, 2011

Nudging consumers to eat healthier: guidance without being told how to live

Nudging consumers towards healthier choices has been a hot topic for some time. Nudges are simple, low-cost interventions to move consumers towards healthier choices without banning food products or telling them how to live. There is a lot of attention for nudging since Thaler and Sunstein published their influential book 'Nudge' in 2008. The authors explain how to subtly redesign choice environments (such as canteens, stores), the so-called 'choice architecture', in such a way that consumers are gently pushed in a more responsible direction without limiting their freedom of choice. The concept is based on behavioural economics and psychological theories on how people are biased in their decision making. People tend to act automatically, often triggered by the environment. Despite knowing we should eat more fruit, we tend to buy a chocolate bar while waiting in line for the checkout. By redesigning the choice context, we can be nudged into buying something more healthful. For example David Just and Brian Wansink illustrate how simply moving the salad bar to a more central position in the school lunch room led to increased sales of salads.

Not everyone is enthusiastic and there is a growing debate about the value of nudging. The British Medical Journal recently published two papers that debated the question: 'Are nudges really an effective public health strategy to tackle obesity?'. Geof Rayner and Tim Lang worry that governments are only interested because of self-promotion motives. It also allows them to back away from taking strong (and often unpopular) actions, such as higher taxes and stricter regulation. In contrast, Adam Oliver believes that nudges may help people to make healthier choices. He argues that nudges should be seen as additional tools to move society in a more beneficial direction. In the Netherlands, Henriette Prast argued in the 'Groene Amsterdammer' that the private sector takes advantage of human weaknesses and that it is time for the government to develop some counterforce.

I believe that the concept of nudging is a refreshing way to look at creative, inexpensive and new ways to help consumers eat healthier. But indeed, evidence so far on how nudging helps improving food choices is limited, so more research is needed to understand whether they work and how exactly. And if nudges work, will they have a sustained impact on consumer behaviour?

March 05, 2011

A new healthy food logo in the Netherlands: nutrition labelling stays high on the agenda

Mayonnaise with Choices logo and Heinz ketchup without
Who's reading the detailed nutrition information at the back of food packages? Not many consumers, and that is why they moved a summary of this information front of pack in the form of a logo, seal of approval or health stamp. Look at the picture at the right; there you see a small nutrition logo at a jar of mayonnaise I found in my kitchen cupboard. These logos are supposed to make your healthy choice more intuitive and easy. Quite an ambitious goal for the typically very small sized logos. Not surprisingly, these logos are currently highly debated and received a great deal of attention in research and policy.

This week, the updated Dutch Choices logo called 'Ik Kies Bewust'  was presented to the public. On the basis of criteria that define maximum levels of nutrients as fat, added sugar and salt, products are entitled to carry the Choices logo on the front of the package. Important to note is that this decision is based on the relative healthiness of a food. So, foods which are better in nutritional quality than other foods in the same category may get a Choices logo. The green logo does this for neccessary basic food groups such as vegetables, meals and dairy products and the blue one for the remaining food categories like snacks. These logos emphasize the positive nutritional aspects to consumers as no products are presented in a negative frame. Not all products joined the Choices initiative, which may explain why the Heinz ketchup does not have a logo and the CalvĂ© mayonnaise has (see picture above).

Nutrition logos which also present the negative nutritional qualities of a food exist as well, the most well-known example is the British Traffic Light logo with its green, amber and red symbols. For example, a red traffic light shows that the food contains a high level of one of the  key ingredients fat, sugar, and salt and should be eaten occasionally. The more green traffic lights, the healthier the choice.
The British Traffic Light label (left) and the new Dutch Choices logo (right)
Proponents argue that front of pack labels are effective in helping consumers make healthier choices. Furthermore, Vyth and colleagues found that the Choices logo initiative has influenced food manufacturers to reformulate existing products and develop new products with a healthier product composition. There are opponents as well. For example, food politician Marion Nestle and nutrition expert David Ludwig are less positive about nutrition logos. 'Healthier foods are not necessarily healthy', they state in their paper in which they make a case for an outright ban for front-of-pack nutrition lables as they mislead consumers. Particularly integrative nutrition logos such as the Choices logos have been critized for creating a too simplifying contrast between good and bad foods. A recent study among 520 consumers by Andrews and colleagues showed that 'seal of approval' type logos as the Choices logo are perceived as more healthful than food with a traffic light logo or no logo. Other studies find that for some consumers the nutrition logos feel as an intrusion; an upleasant attempt to control their food behaviour. For example, the French consumer association sees a traffic light system as incompatible with the French food culture. For the French no red traffic light to spoil the pleasure of eating!

Gezondheidslogo's op eten
Considerable research exists on consumer comprehension of nutrition logos and nutrition profiling methodologies. Unfortunately, less is known about real use in practice and whether these logos actually lead to better diet quality and health. That is not easy to find out as there are many factors that influence consumers' food choices and nutrition labelling is just one of them. In 2009, Hans Dagevos and myself edited a book about nutrition logos: Gezondheidslogo's op eten.Verkenningen rond hun recente opmars. Yes, that is Dutch, so that is why we are working on a paper in which we consider the consumer friendliness of nutrition logos. Keep an eye on this blog; we will update you about our progress.

February 12, 2011

Taste beyond the basic senses: the role of expectations and cues in the environment ­

The Wikipedia page about taste discusses the basic senses like bitter, sweet and sourness and how these influence the sensation of food in the mouth. Fine with me, but don’t go entirely on the Wikipedia story, because you would miss out on many more fascinating aspects of taste. Taste is as much about the basic senses as it is about the expectations one has and whether or not these are confirmed. Expectations shape experiences. As this is true for almost all life events, it definitively plays a huge role in taste experiences.
To illustrate this, researchers Martin Yeomans and colleagues presented a group of consumers a smooth, non-sweet peach-coloured smoked-salmon ice-cream. Imagine how that looks like. Then they told about half of the group that it was ‘ice-cream’ and the other half were told it was a ‘frozen savoury mousse’. Not surprisingly, the first group rated their ice cream as disgusting and inedible. The ‘mousse’ group, however, found it quite okay and some even enjoyed it. This study shows that when there is a big ‘negative’ contrast between what you expect and what you actually get, disappointment follows.
This finding holds true as well for the promotion of food, as found in a recent study I conducted with Brian Wansink and Mitsuru Shimizu during my stay at the Food and Brand lab of Cornell University. In this study, we randomly assigned 68 college students to a supposed advertising study in which they had to watch a series of fast food and restaurant commercials or a series of commercials for products like car insurance and electronics. As the study happened to fall over lunch, participants got a free lunch as an incentive. Following commercials viewing, participants served themselves the meal and we secretly measured the amount of food they ate. The participants also filled out a questionnaire about how they rated and enjoyed the food. This is what we found: those who watched the food commercials felt hungrier but did not eat more than the other group. Watching food and restaurant commercials did, however, led to lower ratings of liking and enjoyment of the meal. Apparently, these participants were somewhat disillusioned of our ordinary pasta meal with the ‘I’m loving it’ song of the McDonalds ad still in their mind.
This clearly shows that we taste what we expect to taste. Usually, the difference between what we expect and what we get is not that extreme as in the examples above. For small differences, most consumers try to explain away these conflicting feelings or change their perception of the food they ate. In 1950s, Leon Festinger introduced the term ‘cognitive dissonance’ for this phenomenon. Basically, if we think that a food is going to taste good, we look for positive qualities that confirm that belief and justify our choice.
Noteworthy as well are the positive halo effects which refer to consumers’ tendency to think that when a food possesses one desirable feature, the food is automatically assumed to have more desirable features as well. A specific ingredient claim (‘80% less fat’) or a suggestive menu label (‘Grandmothers apple pie’) can provide strong cues that bias taste evaluation. In his book Mindless Eating, Brian Wansink vividly explains a variety of research findings of such biases. For example, consumers liked ‘Belgian Black Forest Double Chocolate Cake’ better than ‘Chocolate Cake’, even if they are the same, old cake. Another finding was that consumer evaluated brownies on China plates as excellent, while identical brownies presented on paper plates were good and the same ones handed out on napkins are only ok.

Do McDonalds fruit wall posters enhance the taste and health experience of a milkshake?
Consumers often think that ‘tasty’ equals ‘unhealthy’. Indicating foods as healthy reduces consumers’ taste expectations and taste experience. In other words, if we are really enjoying it, it must be bad for us. This is the persistent 'unhealthy=untasty' intuition that consumers use. So, promoting the healthiness of a food may ironically decrease its attractiveness in terms of taste. However, it does not mean that consumers will restrain from eating it. In contrast: several studies have shown that putting a healthy label on a food gives a ‘license to sin’. For example, labeling snacks as ‘low fat’ increases food intake during a single consumption occasion by up to 50%. Unluckily, in the study this was particularly the case for overweight people. This is because labeling food as ‘healthy’ or ‘low fat’ makes consumers underestimate the calories and gives them a reason to reward themselves by overeating or indulging in other foods. This effect is called a health halo and consumers are generally unaware that claims such as ‘healthy’, ‘natural’, and even ‘organic’ serve as a green light to go ahead and indulge.   
All things considered, taste expectations are strongly influenced by cues in our purchase and eating environment.

February 05, 2011

Food compensation: do exercise ads change food intake?

The answer to this question is: yes, they do! Our paper 'Food compensation: do exercise ads change food intake?', based on a Food and Brand lab study with Brian Wansink and Mitsuru Shimizu has been published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. More about the results of this study can be found at a previous blog post. Essentially, fitness commercial viewers ate fewer calories, enjoyed their meal more, and considered themselves to be more active and in shape than the people who watched the control commercials.

To take advantage of the results of our study, Amanda Sides suggests cutting inspiring fitness pictures out of magazines like Shape, Yoga Journal or Runner's world and hanging them at your kitchen cupboard. Another idea is to get a few shots of yourself during your group fitness workouts and make sure you see these pictures every day. This will help you keep on the healthy track. Funny idea, I think I am going to try it myself.
By the way, the paper is published in an open access journal, which means that full-text papers are free available online with no expensive subscriptions needed for interested readers. I like that! I hope you do as well.

January 01, 2011

My Top 5 of most illustrative Diet Blogs

It is time for New Year's resolutions and new diet and exercise plans for a slim body. Luckily, you are not alone in your painful efforts to lose weight. Many people around the globe are sharing their ups and downs with you. You can learn a lot of the psychology behind people's efforts to lose weight by reading diet blogs. After reading dozens of blogs, I can see some key issues coming back all the time. Therefore, here my Top 5 of the most illustrative diet blogs:

Reporting what you eat gives insights in how much and when you eat and just the reporting itself makes you think twice before putting food in your mouth. Although it takes a lot of time, effort and commitment, a food diary can even double weight loss. Useful to make a good start, but I am wondering who is really interested in all your blog posts and tweets what you eat?

Number 4) The Diet Blogger who follows a different diet weekly
This is an interesting 'working experiment' of a woman who wants to share her experiences on a wide variety of diets, from the Cabbage Soup diet (that week must be long...) till the Subway diet and many more. Research has shown that more variety in the diet leads to more consumption, so this blogger is making her life much harder. On the other hand, she is one of the rare bloggers who keeps on blogging and losing weight. Apparently, she is having fun.

Number 3) The Diet Blogger who tries to motivate himself by being sponsored for charity
Jochem tries to lose 40 kilograms while supporting the Dutch Heart Association at the same time. This creates accountability and reporting your progress to an internet audience can have enormous motivating value, particularly when you are successful. But when the days and weeks come when you do not feel like eating right and exercising, it is hard to keep on being honest. After one or two blog posts with frustrations and disappointing results, most diet bloggers quit blogging.

I guess that is the reason that someone started this twitter blog and left it by that action alone. Making the decision to do something good already gives a boost to your self-esteem. One study even found that increased fitness intentions are used as a direct defense against concerns about death. So, start a diet blog; a simple way to feel better instantly!

I am afraid this is the most illustrative diet blog. John had very ambitious intentions and it seems that he failed to fulfill them. And that is what happens with most diet blogs: after a few weeks dieters stop blogging simply because they quit dieting. The motivation to keep on dieting typically falls after about four weeks. Two well-known experts in the field of diet psychology, Janet Polivy and Peter Herman, call this the 'False Hope Syndrome' which is characterized by unrealistic expectations about the likely speed, amount, and ease of losing weight, which lead to disappointment and failure.

So, watch out for unrealistic expectations, but remember: without hope and good intentions, it is never possible to lose weight. And maybe a diet blog helps you in achieving your goals.
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