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Food guru Professor Brian Wansink’s fascinating theories on affecting environments can help your business promote a healthy lifestyle and perhaps even save €€, writes Doug Whelan



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15 October 2015

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Professor Brian Wansink is based at Cornell University in New York, where he and his group have been credited with expanding the scientific understanding of food habits among consumers

Professor Brian Wansink is based at Cornell University in New York, where he and his group have been credited with expanding the scientific understanding of food habits among consumers

What is the key to a healthy lifestyle? That question has occupied researchers for decades, and the answers are as varied as the question itself. Put it to an ordinary person though, and their response will be along the lines of ‘eat well and get plenty of exercise’. But is that all there is to it?

Eating well is certainly key to a healthy lifestyle, but is it simply the choice of one lunch over another? Salad instead of pizza? Wrap instead of burrito? Research suggests that those choices aren’t as black and white as they seem; the environment plays as much a part as internal desires. In short, why we like what we like and why we do what we do is a very complicated area. It’s also a topic that US health expert Professor Brian Wansink has made his life’s work.

Wansink was in Dublin recently, to speak at the 8th Annual Nutrition and Health Foundation Seminar, where he presented his fascinating research to a captivated audience. Professor Wansink is based at Cornell University in New York, where he and his group have been credited with expanding the scientific understanding of food habits among consumers – in the home, in school, or in the workplace.

Win-Win Activism

In particular, we were fascinated by Wansink’s theories on affecting customers’ choices through subtle manipulations of placement, layout and other seemingly insignificant areas. According to Wansink, retailers can do their part to promote healthy eating among customers without them even knowing it, while saving on food waste in delis and buffets, thus saving money. It’s not often that you can legitimately say ‘everybody wins’, but this may well be one of those situations.

“My approach is something called ‘Win-Win Activism’,” Wansink told us. “It’s not about telling somebody that they should do something, it’s telling them that if you did this, here is how you would benefit.” Of course, that includes telling consumers how slight changes to their food habits will benefit them, but also telling businesses how they can help customers and also make themselves more profitable.

Enticing descriptions

Wansink’s first case study involved working with the owner of a cafeteria who wanted to prompt his customers to buy more food, rather than just stopping in for coffee. Wansink experimented with the items on the menu, first introducing ‘seafood fillet’ and watching how it sold for a few weeks. Subsequently, he renamed it ‘Succulent Italian Seafood Fillet’. It was the very same dish, yet overnight the sales went up by 20%.

“This worked in every instance,” he continued, “no matter how crazy the new name was. If it was a dried out chocolate brownie, we changed it to ‘Belgian Black Forest Double Chocolate Cake’, and people reacted immediately.

“Through all this,” he said, “there was one word that poisoned everything and meant nobody would choose that dish: ‘healthy’. When all these new words guide a person to expect something is going to taste good and anticipate all those features, ‘healthy’ had the opposite effect. It’s hard to believe it is this powerful, but we have done a lot of work in this area. Staying away from the word healthy, and instead doing whatever you can to build taste expectations; that will have a rewarding impact.”

What we have, Wansink explained, is a short example of understanding why we like what we like. It’s not just taste, it’s also expectation, which is often in the hands of the retailer.

All you can eat

Next, Wansink moved on to explore theories behind why we do what we do, using the example of all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets. They are a huge business in the States, and are the subject of some debate. “People think they should be outlawed,” Wansink said, “or at least zoned so that they’re not allowed near schools and so on. Because they do nothing more than make people FAT! Or do they?”

Wansink was enlisted by the owner of a large chain of Chinese buffets in the mid-western USA, who wanted help getting customers to eat less in his buffets. Not for the health benefits, but for profit: he wanted to reduce food wastage. “We didn’t care about his bottom line,” Wansink explained, “but we had a shared objective – eating less – so we agreed to work with him.”

Wansink and his team set up a large research project in which they closely observed the behaviour of customers in the restaurants. “We watched every single thing they did, from the second they walked in the door,” he said. “Which way they move, where they sit, what they do with their jacket, their napkin. Everything they did, we noted it.”

Something else they noted was whether the person was a fat person or a skinny person, because how could it be that some people who eat regularly in Chinese buffets can remain skinny, while others do not? They uncovered some key behaviour among the two core groups that could in theory be seen as contributing to their body type, and hence their overall health.

Indentifying skinny trends

“A heavy person chews their food 11-12 times,” Wansink said, “while a skinny person chews an average of 14 times. They are seven times more likely to take a small plate if one is available. On average they sit 16 feet further from the buffet, and are three times more likely to sit facing away from the food.

“A heavy person is more likely to sit facing the food,” Wansink revealed. “You know why? Because sitting facing the food, you see people walking towards the buffet to serve themselves, and it feels more normal to go up for seconds and thirds. Skinny people are more likely to use chopsticks, and around 72% of them ‘scout’ the food before they pick up a plate. They walk around, identify what they might like, and then serve. In contrast, nearly 80% of heavy people are likely to do just the opposite. They go straight for the plate, then consider the first item on the line immediately.”

Once Wansink had identified these traits and characteristics, he went back to the buffet owner and made the following recommendations:

  • When somebody arrives, have a staff member guide them to a table as far from the buffet as possible
  • Provide smaller plates and more chopsticks
  • Keep plates behind the buffet so that customers are forced to walk the length of it before making their choices
  • Set up some folding screens and paper walls, so that customers’ view of the buffet is obscured while they are sitting down

“We’ve got a saying,” Wansink said, “that if you want to be skinny, do what skinny people do. Just like a smart person bets on what smart people do. So the guy went off and implemented the recommendations. It took some time, because there were 63 restaurants in the chain.

“Eventually he got back to us, and he told us they’re on track this year for a saving of $38,000 per restaurant,” Wansink revealed.

“There are a lot of simple changes you can make simply by setting things up so people move in the right direction. You can fight obesity by regulating those restaurants, or you can encourage your customers to eat a little better.”

School rules

Next on Professor Wansink’s agenda was affecting environments in cafeterias. His data was based on research in five US high schools, but the recommendations can be applied to any business serving food.

“To begin with,” Wansink said, “we agreed that every lunch room in the United States has a ton of healthy food; the problem is the kids aren’t likely to pick it up. What we had to do was guide people to this healthy food, as opposed to change the menu. That would just drive the kids away.”

Instead, for his project, Wansink suggested that the five schools keep their menus intact, but change the set-up in the lunch room. Rather than serving fruit from an ugly metal tray, he told them to move it to a “pretty basket” and place the basket in a well-lit part of the line. Overnight, fruit sales went up by 101%.

The next challenge was encouraging kids to use the salad bar. Like the Chinese buffets, customers’ movement is key to this. So he told the schools to move the entire salad bar so that it’s the first thing the kids see when they come into the room, and they had to go around it to get to the junk food. It took some time, but sales eventually were up by almost 300%.

Using all the research above, Wansink came up with a 100-point scorecard, outlined in his book Slim by Design, which can be used in the workplace, retail or in the home to examine just how well it is slanted to promote healthy eating. “For example, if your milk is at the front of the fridge, you get a point,” Wansink says. “If healthy food is ahead of fatty food in the buffet line, you get a point.”

According to Wansink, the average score is between 25 and 35, which may seem like little, but he frames that score as a potential to make quick and easy changes to your business that can be incredibly effective in both promoting healthy eating among staff or customers, as well as contributing to financial savings on food wastage.                                                                                                

Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life by Professor Brian Wansink, published by William Morrow is available now. www.slimbydesign.org.




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