Subscribe for 33¢ / day

When Brian Wansink was growing up in Sioux City, he earned extra money selling fresh produce grown at his uncle's farm.

"I sold a lot of vegetables door-to-door," he remembered. "Some people would say, 'Wow, 10 tomatoes for a dollar! That's a bargain!'"

"Yet, the people next door would react as if I was trying to unload kryptonite instead of farm produce," he continued.

That helped to disprove a popular myth.

"They used to say that only the rich can afford to eat well," Wansink said. "This wasn't the case when I was selling produce from a little red wagon and it isn't the case now."

The John Dyson professor of marketing and director of the Cornell (University) Food and Brand Lab, Wansink is one of the country's foremost authorities on eating behaviors.

The author of such best-selling books as "Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think" said people's tastes aren't formed by accident. Instead, they're formed by those around us.

Wansink calls those people "nutritional gatekeepers."

In his childhood home, it was his parents, John (a bakery production worker) and Naomi (a legal secretary), who taught him about eating.

"Both of my parents were raised on farms and believed in good food," he explained. "They made sure we ate dinner as a family every night."

However, Naomi Wansink was the principal cook and food buyer.

"Mom would make traditional Midwestern foods like a Jell-O salad," Wansink recalled. "Dad knew the recipe for toast and that was about it."

It wasn't until Wansink left home for college that he began cooking for himself. And it wasn't until he married his wife Jennifer (a Cordon Bleu-trained chef) that he experienced gourmet cuisine on a regular basis.

Although he admitted to be a bit of a "foodie," Wansink prefers to examine why we eat the way we eat.

Described as "the Sherlock Holmes of eating," he helped develop 2010's Dietary Guidelines for the USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion and worked with the Blue Zones Project to develop a strategy in which restaurants offered options for diners who wanted healthier choices and meals with fewer calories.

The father of three, Wansink's research often revolve around kids.

"When a child is given the choice between French fries and apple slices, the child will immediately go for the fries," he said. "However, if we ask kids what choice their teacher, parent and Batman would make, they'll say apple slices."

"If we can make every child eat like Batman, we'd be a much healthier country," Wansink said with a laugh.

That's also true for adults when confronted with the choice between pork chops versus "Iowa" pork chops.

"People will respond to the Iowa pork chops strictly due to their perception of the state," Wansink said. "Perceptions matter a lot in the things that we eat."

So does the introduction of smaller plates in restaurants or the popularity of smaller 100-calorie packages of food.

"People have no idea how much food they're actually eating," Wansink said. "We want to change mindless eating to 'mindful' eating."

Despite that, he readily admits to having a few guilty pleasure foods of his own.

"Burgers, pizza and steaks are my big three guilty pleasures," Wansink said. "If I go a two-week period without any of those, I begin to feel like one of those people stranded on a deserted island, yearning for the foods they love the most."

Even though his research has taken him all over the world, Wansink still enjoys coming back to visit his parent in his hometown of Sioux City.

"My food tastes weren't formed by accident," he said. "Growing up in Sioux City, they were were influenced by my folks."


Food and Lifestyles reporter

Load comments