When it comes to eating, our brains bias our buds.  Research shows that we like what we think we’ll like and we taste what we think we’re eating.

Consider the following study:

A group of people were asked to taste-test strawberry yogurt, but researchers gave them chocolate yogurt instead.   What happened? More than half the participants said the yogurt had a good strawberry taste.

Why? The lights were out! Tasters ate in the dark.

The tasters believed they were eating strawberry yogurt, and so that’s what they tasted.

Here are some other brain twisters reported by Brian Wansink, the Director of the Cornell Food Lab, in his fantastic (and entertaining) book Mindless Eating.

In his studies, Wansink has found:

  • Tasters think brownies presented on china plates are excellent, identical brownies presented on paper plates are good and the same ones handed out on napkins are only okay.
  • Belgian Black Forest Double Chocolate Cake sells better than chocolate cake, even if they are both the same, old cake.
  • People like Traditional Cajun Red Beans with Rice more than plain Red Beans with Rice.

And with regard to things we think we don’t like…

  • Identical PowerBars are rated worse when tasters think they contain soy than when they think they don’t – regardless of the actual ingredients.

Food cues and expectations shape your kids’ taste buds too.

That’s why every expert out there encourages you to make your kid’s food fun – sprinkling Parmesan snow onto broccoli trees was always a big hit in my house – and why it’s so important to help your child accurately predict what something will taste like.  Tapping into your child’s imagination is one of the most crucial components of shaping new food acceptance.

According to Wansink…

  • Kids eat more veggies when they have cool names.  In one study X-ray Vision Carrots were almost twice as popular as plain carrots.
  • Playing dress up also works.  In another study, putting stickers on bags of healthy snacks enticed kids to eat them over unhealthy snacks.

Here are some other things to try:

(1) Prevent your kids’ imaginations from hijacking their taste buds by linking new foods to familiar favorites.  Point out the similarities in taste, texture, aroma, appearance, and temperature.  Read Look into My Crystal Ball and Collect Clues & Eliminate the New-Food-Blues.

(2) Pair new foods with favored flavors, even if it’s not the most nutritious combo.  Read When the Less Nutritious Choice is Right and Yogurt on the Brain!

(3) Teach your kids to taste and tell.  Read Nix the Negativity.

(4) Be mindful of the messages you send. Fun is in; healthy is not. Read How to Help Your Kids Hate Spinach and The “Look”: How YOUR Emotions Shape Your Kids’ Eating.

~ Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits. ~


Sources: Wansink, B., 2006. Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think. New York: Bantam Books. Pp. 119-138.  Food Brand Lab. 2009. The Mindless Eater. Spring.