Bringing a wet noodle to a gun fight: The USDA’s Brian Wansink vs. Big Food’s ads

The other day I got a press release from the USDA (PDF) announcing that Brian Wansink had been appointed the Executive Director of the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (CNPP):

Dr. Wansink will be responsible for overseeing the planning, development and review of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the food pyramid known as and programs including the Healthy Eating Index, the USDA Food Plans, the Nutrient Content of the U.S. Food Supply, and the cost of raising a child.

Currently, Wansink is a professor of marketing and the director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab in the department of applied economics and management at Cornell University. He is the author of "Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think," a book about the psychology of eating — how plate size and other cues influence how much we eat.

Nutritionist Marion Nestle wrote approvingly of the USDA’s choice, as did Kat at Eating Liberally ("After years of watching the cavalcade of cronies this administration has appointed to every conceivable position, I find myself experiencing the utterly foreign impulse to enthusiastically applaud a federal appointment.").

Wansink’s research has included some clever experiments, such as giving free stale popcorn to movie goers in buckets of various sizes and then measuring how much people ate (those with the bigger buckets ate more), or monitoring consumption of candy when the bowl is placed at different distances from one’s workspace (the quantity consumed is much higher when the bowl is less than an arm’s length away). One of my favorites is his research team’s continuously refilling bowl of soup. In the experiment, half of the participants ate soup out of normal 18-ounce bowls; the other half ate from bowls that were refilled by a tube built into the bottom of the bowl (the diners did not know about the refilling device). Those who ate from the refilling bowls ate 73 percent more soup than those who had the normal bowls. All of these studies point to visual and psychological cues that overrule the body’s "I’m full" messages.

But he faces a tremendous challenge: his office’s resources are trivial compared to those of the food industry.

Nestle’s book "Food Politics" estimates that the USDA spends about $300 million on nutrition education, with much of that going to research projects, agricultural extension, and other narrowly focused programs. (I’m not sure how much of that $300 million goes to the CNPP — my dives into the federal budget documents did not find a line item.)

The food industry, on the other hand, spends tens of billions of dollars each year on advertising and marketing. In 1999, for instance, it spent over $30 billion. Most of this spending was to promote "convenience" foods, processed foods, restaurants and beverages; less than 3% was for fruits, vegetables, grains, or beans. In that same year, McDonald’s alone spent $627 million, more than twice what the federal government did. Burger King spent $403 million, Taco Bell $206 million, Coke and Diet Coke $174 million.

Will Wansink’s experience and enthusiasm be enough to counteract a spending ratio of far more than 100 to 1? Will he be able to inspire messages that can cut through the clutter of value meals, biggie sizes, and grab-and-guzzle advertisements?

For the sake of the nation’s health, we hope so.

More on Brian Wansink:

Wansink photo by Bob Fila.

4 Responsesto “Bringing a wet noodle to a gun fight: The USDA’s Brian Wansink vs. Big Food’s ads”

  1. Cakespy says:

    What a great post! Mindless Eating is probably one of my favorite books…I have both the book and book on CD that I like to listen to. It really does remind you of how mindless we can be! I will be watching to see how this story develops with great interest!

  2. aliza says:

    all of that money….plus additional money from the USDA’s own commodity check-off programs. Wansink’s a smart and creative guy, but he doesn’t seem likely to challenge any of the larger structures of subsidies, etc., food industry influence on nutrition policy- which may be why he was chosen by the administration.

  3. Poor man. I fear for his soul. Perhaps like Dante he can report back to us.

  4. ExPat Chef says:

    I wish him the best. Hope they don’t crush him. BTW, most of the advertising dollars the food industry spends are not visible to consumers in the way of ads. Here’s some insight into the ways that money is spent and why: