June 22, 2013

Debunking fast food: How expectations shape our eating experiences

When I was at the Food and Brand lab at Cornell University, the crew of Penn and Teller (well-known US TV show) filmed a small-scale consumer experiment. They invited a food designer known for doing 'extreme makeovers' with fast food (see his blog 'Fancy Fast Food'). This designer changed the fast food bought at places like KFC, McDonalds and Dunkin' Donuts into beautifully looking restaurant dishes.

Then the experiment started. Visitors of the lab were tricked into believing they were eating fancy restaurant food. As a result, the food was highly liked. 'It is something my grandma would make', one guy told. Then a second experiment started. Here, one group was correctly told that the salad they were served came from the fast food chain Taco Bells. Not surprisingly, the response was accordingly: 'Big, greasy and maybe not so healthy'. However, when exactly the same salad was presented as coming from the 'California Garden Cafe', people were much more enthusiastic ('It's good... it's light').

We like to believe that we are experts in recognizing excellent cooking. In reality, how we experience food is not only determined by the characteristics of the food itself, but at least as much by our expectations, desires and beliefs. If we think that a food or drink is going to taste good, we look for positive qualities that confirm that belief and justify our choice. This is related to the health halo effect, which refers to consumers' tendency to think that when a food possesses one desirable feature ('freshly made'), the food is automatically assumed to have more desirable features ('it tastes light'). A risky bias, which may lead to underestimating how many calories we actually eat.

Watch this video, it is really fun. By the way, I am not in the video, I was washing the dishes...

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