Colorful Eye Candy (Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution Repost)

My story on Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution:

Turn off the lights and room-temperature Spaghetti Bolognese tastes awfully like little worms in tomato dirt.

When I was in elementary school, the parents at our school would turn one of the classrooms into a haunted house on Halloween (an American holiday celebrating all things macabre). Luscious “delicacies” for consumption would reside in a pitch black “tasting room”. Parents transformed the most innocent dishes to gruesome nightmares because they understood and exploited an important principle of eating: We not only eat with our mouths but also our motivations, emotions, culture, sight, and touch. When prohibited from using my eyesight in the haunted house, it became clear to me that vision as much as taste was critical to perceiving what we eat.

Naturally color, a visual cue, plays a central role in eating and can serve as a vehicle for instilling healthy eating in children. In the context of child nutrition and school lunch, there are two overlooked insights that can help the Food Revolution:

1) By creating meals around children’s color preferences on a plate, school lunch reformers, parents, and policymakers can increase children’s purchase, consumption and enjoyment of healthy food.

2) For children, color labels instead of calorie count labels can serve as more effective signals for food that is good for you.

Color in Food Presentation

While Jamie Oliver has often joked on TV about enhancing the viewer experience by providing “smell-a-vision”, viewers still derive considerable pleasure from watching rather than tasting wonderfully plated food. Our visual centers trigger our scent and taste brain regions even when we cannot smell good food. When a plate of food is presented to us, we already form judgments before the food reaches our mouths. As a consequence, making food attractive to children can significantly increase purchase, consumption and enjoyment of healthy school lunches.

Recently published research shows that preteen children prefer six different colors and seven elementson their plates while adults prefer three different colors and three elements (Zampollo et al., 2012). The difference is drastic and surprising, because everyone falls prey to the self-projection bias, a bias where people tend to think others are more similar to themselves than in actual reality. As adults, we might not understand children’s preferences and tend to plan school menus or family meals according to what adults think looks appetizing. However, adults and children visually perceive food differently!

Schools can increase the effectiveness of their nutritional initiatives with little to no additional cost. Just some smart planning is all that is needed. Meals can be organized so that the mix of foods at a lunch line exhibits a wide range of colors. Luckily, vegetables and fruits offer the most personality in the color department, so pushing tasty and nutritious food can be done effectively just by virtue of serving chopped fruit or veggie mixes. Colorful and easily mass-produced dishes like stews, soups, and curries with a variety of ingredients can prompt children to broaden their palates while piquing their curiosity about the ingredients. The toy and child wear industry have known the power of color for decades, so why not apply the same principles to create literally healthy “eye candy” that excites children before it even reaches their mouths?

Color as a Signal

The lunchroom is where children start to solidify healthy eating habits through consumption but also through informational education. As schools start to label cafeteria food with their nutritional value, a question of how to convey nutritional value to children comes to the fore. A 2012 study suggests that color-coded labels are highly effective in triggering healthy food purchasing behavior (Thorndike et al.) whereas past literature has found calorie count labels to be ineffective.

Color is a more primal call to healthy behavior than numbers are. For example, green, yellow, and red are strongly associated with go, get ready to stop, and stop respectively. Even at young ages, children understand the different emotions behind darker versus lighter colors. Labeling healthy foods with green labels, less healthy foods with yellow, and unhealthy foods with red easily allows kids to build cognitive categories of what is good for you and what is not.

Why is this approach particularly suited for kids? First of all, calorie labeling requires much more complex cognitive processes such as numeracy and knowledge of a healthy person’s average caloric intake. Young children do not possess the necessary skills to process calorie information but can easily process color signals. Color labels also create directional effects of either attracting children to healthy food using a “go” association or steering them away from unhealthy food using a “stop” association. Calorie labels do not have this directional effect.

Color is a powerful tool. It can scare a kid from eating Spaghetti Bolognese for a year. Or it can aid countless children’s development of lifelong healthy eating habits and preferences.

About the author: Mark (Yien Hao) Lock is a researcher at Harvard Business School investigating effects of marketing interventions on healthy eating. His blog Thinking and Eating touches upon the intersection between psychology, marketing, and all aspects of food from consumer behavior to nutrition.


Thorndike, A. N., Sonnenberg, L., Riis, J., Barraclough, S., & Levy, D. E. (2012). A 2-Phase Labeling and Choice Architecture Intervention to Improve Healthy Food and Beverage Choices. American Journal of Public Health, 102(3), 527-533. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2011.300391

Zampollo, F., Kniffin, K. M., Wansink, B., & Shimizu, M. (2012). Food plating preferences of children: the importance of presentation on desire for diversity. Acta Paediatrica, 101(1), 61-66. doi:10.1111/j.1651-2227.2011.02409.x

Mixing Cultures: Science or Emotion (Part 2)

Continuing on from my previous post about stories and emotions behind the food we eat, here are some more stories from dishes cooked during the holidays. They represent the mixed cultural background that shaped my childhood.

Malaysian style Pad Thai/ Pad See Ew (Char Kway Teow): Most people are familiar with the Thai dish Pad Thai or its close counterpart that uses dark soy sauce, Pad See Ew. This is similar and a signature Malaysian dish that combines Thai, Malay, Indian, Dutch and Chinese cuisines. You have the dark soy sauce, lard (which I did not use), and wok cooking influence from the Chinese. The chili sauce from the South Indians. The ketchup from the Dutch. The wide rice noodles from the Thai (which are dry and what I used) and Cantonese (which are fresh and hard to find in even non-Cantonese Chinese areas like Taiwan). The proteins are Muslim-influenced since seafood and chicken breast are the safest bets for keeping a dish Halal.

My family moved to Taiwan when I was 5 years old, but every year we would head back to Malaysia for Chinese New Year. When the plane landed it would be the family’s mission to seek out Char Kway Teow first thing. It is one of the dishes my mom misses the most from Malaysia. Understandably so given the fattiness from the oil, sweetness of ketchup, saltiness of the dark soy, fragrance of the chinese chives, and the chewy rice noodles.

To me, Char Kway Teow represents the flavor profile of Malaysia. I can smell it a mile away. It brings me back to 90 degree weather, dirty coffee shops that show no separation between al fresco and indoor dining, sundry shops that block out the afternoon sun using their oversized bamboo shades, crazy shopping centers, and the messiest, busiest Chinese restaurants I have ever been in my life.

Smoked Salmon Fried Rice: So many culinary discoveries come from mistakes. There are so many things wrong with this dish that it is probably the best mix-up story in the world of cooking. Regardless, smoked salmon fried rice is comfort food from my childhood and is probably for anyone who grew up in Taiwan. If it’s strange to you, it probably is: my parents do not understand it either having grown up in Malaysia where salmon was not available let alone smoked salmon.

Smoked salmon fried rice combines Western (or an Asian conception of Western food), Japanese, and Chinese influences, which aptly sums up my experience in Taiwan. One day, researchers are going to document the history of this dish and this blog post will be in it. I was there from the beginning.

As Taiwan was in the process of modernizing right when I arrived at 5, many foreign influences came streaming in. Japanese food has always been part of Taiwanese culture but at that time, Japanese-influenced Western food (Yoshoku) started to become popular. We got spaghetti with ketchup napoletano (naporitan), angel hair with mentaiko (the roe of pollock which is absolutely salty and delicious), and of course, omurice (ketchup rice wrapped in an omellete skin). Around 1998 (I was 10) I first ate at Cafe Onion, the trending  Taiwanese-adapted Yoshoku restaurant of the time. They served this smoked salmon fried rice. The saltiness of the cooked smoked salmon offered little bites of flavor along with the umami of the eggs and wok-charred mixed veggies.

Smoked salmon is not native to Japanese cuisine (fresh sashimi salmon is the norm) but is from the Scandinavian tradition. Smoked salmon is also not native to Chinese cuisine. Salmon is seen as a Japanese fish and does not tend to do well when steamed, the preferred method for Chinese fish preparation.

Here’s probably what happened in the kitchen of Cafe Onion: 

Chef 1: Let’s put a fried rice dish with a twist on our menu so our more “Chinese” customers will be happy. Salmon is big in Japan. I think it would be nice to have a salmon fried rice. Could you get me some salmon from the market and we’ll try the recipe out.

Chef 2: I’m back from the market. The salmon from Japan is so expensive. I found this new western thing called smoked salmon and it’s less expensive. It’s also western which fits in with our restaurant brand image.

Chef 1: What is this? I probably shouldn’t taste it until I cook it.

The last comment aptly captures the ignorance of a chef from a Chinese cooking tradition and how it probably sparked the creation of this dish.

What’s wrong with this dish?

1) Scandinavians would cringe at the thought of smoked salmon being cooked through under high heat as required for any fried rice dish.

2) Japanese would cringe at the thought of smoking salmon in the first place. Fish should be fresh!

The Taiwanese invented a bastard of a dish that stemmed from misguided perceptions of the Japanese’s misguided perceptions of Western food. After two levels of cultural misunderstandings, I bring you one of my childhood favorites:

A fried rice flavored lightly with soy, scallions, mixed vegetables, smoked salmon pieces mixed and heated through at the end with a touch of sesame oil.

The Psychology of Children’s Eating: How to Leverage it for Good

This post was originally a guest post for, a blog run by Sarah Wu author of Fed Up with Lunch and school lunch reform advocate. 

I once overheard a friend say, “ What is the deal with all these school lunch advocates? I had bad school lunches when I was a kid and I dealt with it. All that matters is that now I am eating healthy.”

He said this while he was forking some salad into his mouth … but downing America’s favorite beverage—Coca-Cola.

Actually, it matters more than ever that children should be eating healthily. Habits and palates are formed when young and surprisingly impact diet choices significantly later in life.

School lunch is where children have a chance of developing healthy eating habits when older. Try to imagine any other eating establishment that has a captive serving audience of 5 meals a week over 40 weeks which equals 200 meals a year for thirteen years (K-12). There are probably few to none that wield this amount of power.

Let’s evaluate the statement, “All that matters is that now I am eating healthy.” Such a statement is misleading because in psychological research we see time and time again that people are hindered by behavioral inertia to adopt new behaviors (even if they know those new behaviors are much better than their old ones). If children start eating unhealthily they need to overcome much more behavioral inertia to switch over to healthier ways of eating when older.

Status quo and default options are large forces in determining what gets eaten later in life. If children eat French fries and unrecognizable mystery meat day in and day out, this becomes ingrained in their perceptions of what is normal. Familiarity then leads to increased preference for these foods due to mere exposure, as has been evidenced in classic psychological studies. The psychological framework below illustrates how these forces strengthen and propel people into a never ending loop of potato chips and Coke.


The biological explanation further supports the point that school lunches can ruin or create a lifetime of healthful eating.  I had the pleasure of studying under Bart Hoebel, renowned Princeton neuropsychologist who built his research empire on obesity. His work investigated the effects of the two most prevalent ingredients in processed food including school lunches: High Fructose Corn Syrup and Fat.

He found that High Fructose Corn Syrup enables weight gain much faster than less processed versions of sugar such as sucrose. What is even more surprising is that High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) intake triggers addictive behavior. Rats who received HFCS for a while and then stopped being fed HFCS exhibited signs (teeth chattering, eating more sugar after the sugar-fast period was over) similar to symptoms of nicotine and alcohol withdrawal.

Fat, while hasn’t been proven to be addictive, can mess around with people’s perceptions of food satiety. In 2001, Jiali Wang and colleagues showed that rats who were fed high-fat high-energy diets were desensitized towards eating fat (in human terms, this means it takes more and more fat to feel satiated if you regularly eat fatty foods).  If we are feeding kids high-fat diets, how easy will it be for them to change to healthier diets later on in life without feeling starved? It is pretty darn hard considering that an adult brain becomes less plastic and malleable with age.

What can schools and parents do?! Tips from the marketing department

Schools and parents should fight for school reforms and changes in home cooking with an understanding of how food is perceived by these kids for maximum effectiveness.

Why do kids hate vegetables and fruits, the most nutrient dense foods per calorie? They are definitely not filling on their own and definitely not addictive. How are fruits and vegetables going to compete with greasy pizza and strawberry milk then?

Flavor your vegetables!

A natural grilled beef patty is actually harder to process for kids than your average boiled cabbage, but is only much more palatable when it’s drenched in a sweet sauce or has been wrapped with chunks of fatty meat in a sausage casing.

Why aren’t we taking this approach to vegetables as well (but keeping our common sense about nutrition)? Spice up the flavor of vegetables by adding flavor! It is a bizarre phenomenon how school lunches are plagued with rock hard carrot bits and sharp tasting celery sticks. A  December 2011 publication from the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that kids increased their consumption of vegetables by 80 percent when they were offered dips with them. Low-fat yogurts and regular yogurts both were equally effective! This means children’s neural pathways are not craving unhealthy food, they are merely craving flavor. Hummus and apple sauce are also good dips to use.

Present your vegetables (strategically)!

Mrs. Q posted a picture of her “party rice” some time ago where she included a variety of vegetables chopped up and dispersed within a large bed of rice. It was a huge hit for her son. What Mrs. Q did was successfully “market” her vegetables (or in other words, hiding them). In July 2011, Maureen Spill and colleagues published a paper showing that vegetables that were pureed and incorporated into other food prompted children to eat more vegetables. Kids ate 73% more vegetables calorie-wise when pureed than in their un-pureed forms and reduced their overall calorie intake by 12%! Because schools are forced to think about their lunches from a food pyramid standpoint, it is hard not to compartmentalize foods when planning menus.  But the extra step of mixing fruits or vegetables into starch or protein dishes may prove to be an effective tactic. Hide those vegetables and before you know it, kids will be eating more of them without even knowing.

What Do IKEA Furniture and Woks Have in Common?

Today’s post is about the IKEA effect by Mike Norton and why I love my carbon steel wok so much because of it (and why professional Chinese chefs have extremely strong emotional connections with their cookware). The IKEA effect explains why I am not crazy.

(Right: Yang wok, carbon steel which handles oil-based cooking Left: Yin wok, stainless steel for handling water based cooking, requires no seasoning)

Consumer products companies are people pleasers. To sell product they want to give as much comfort, happiness, and value to the consumer. Often times this means making a product as intuitive, simple and easy to use as possible so the consumer can be as lazy as possible.

“Siri, please write my blog post for me because I am too lazy to use my fingers.”

No, I did not write this post using Siri, but there is no doubt that companies are enabling more and more laziness (or “ease” is what Apple would say) for the consumer. This trend might not be the catch-all approach to success.

Mike Norton and his colleagues ran an experiment in which they discovered people who put effort into the products they bought, such as assembling their IKEA furniture or making their own teddy bears from Build-A-Bear, consistently overvalued these products (even if they were of a lower quality). There are two psychological explanations that are not mutually exclusive:

1) We form an emotional attachment with the product because we are spending a lot more time investing in it than we would a product that requires no upfront effort.

2) Cognitive dissonance and effort justification theory suggests we might change our cognition to explain our behavior. In this case, we increase our valuations for the product, because we want to justify why we put effort into it in the first place.

3) The infamous effect economists call sunk cost bias can be basically attributed to a combination of effort justification and emotional attachment.

Woks require an intense seasoning process before you can use them and also require some good old-school care. In other words, it is not dummy proof and requires large amounts of effort to use properly. For that reason, I love my wok so much more than any of the other quick easy fixes like non-stick pans.

It is absurd to ever hear someone talk about a personal connection with a non-stick Teflon pan. A non-stick pan gets weaker as it ages, and you buy a new one when it’s done its 2 years. Chinese chefs describe woks as “alive”, getting stronger as they age. The patina (shiny coating of anti-corroding black rust with carbonized oil that prevents the wok from rusting and sticking) builds up over time imparting a nice flavor to the food that is produced.  Home cooks have woks they pass down generation to generation.

Grace Young, award-winning Chinese cookbook writer, lists a million ways to season a wok in her book Breath of a Wok. I have tried probably five different ways to season and clean my wok and do so regularly. I worry about it incessantly at times and would never let a novice cook touch it. When it comes down to it, the wok is just a thirty dollar piece of metal that has my stamp on it (literally, the rims of the wok shows bronze splashes from the first time I erroneously used olive oil to season it).

It was something I built up and has sentimental value. Any traditional Chinese grandmother will tell you the same.

This is an example of the IKEA effect in action. A thirty dollar product has been transformed into, for me, a priceless product. Therefore, it would be fruitful for marketers to start thinking of ways to let people in on the “construction” process of the products they use—not necessarily customization features (which is already popular and need not be effortful) but finding ways to get people to expend effort. This can create enormous value.

But only if the end product is satisfying! Are there any products that inherently grow in value from “effort investments” not just from a psychological standpoint?

The key is marrying the psychological value of the IKEA effect with the tangible value that the seasoned product delivers.  I love my wok because I spent effort on it and because I see the progress and taste better dishes coming out of it every day. If a product is of a significantly inferior quality after it is assembled, there is no hope for that. It is just a bad product no matter how you spin it.

Thinking and Eating

Follow EatPsych on Twitter

Mashing up psychology, culture, and food. Mark Lock (Yien Hao) is currently a research associate at Harvard Business School working on psychological research related to food and the digital marketplace.

Create a free website or blog at