"We as consumers don't tend to realize the extent to which our world really affects the choices we make." - Dr. Ernest Baskin
Shireen: Dr. Ernest Baskin is an assistant professor of food marketing and general pack fellow at the Haas School of Business at St. Joseph's University, he researches consumer behavior in the food domain. Welcome Dr. Baskin.
Dr. Baskin: Thank you, Shireen for having me.
Shireen: So diving in, the very first thing I want to ask you is what really sparked your interest in consumer behavior and marketing research?
Dr. Baskin: So in grad school, I became interested in how people make decisions and how the environment affects those decisions. So I did a lot of work in thinking about when people go out to eat or when they go to a grocery store, what do they wind up buying? And how does the layout of that store affect their choices? How does that affect their meals that raw? And I think that that really inspired me to look deeper to motivate people to make choices that are better for them?
Shireen: And so how does your research translate to how we as consumers interact with that world?
Dr. Baskin: Yeah, so what we as consumers don't really think about is that our world very much influences the choices that we make. So for instance, I did some research with Google, where we looked at the structure of their micro kitchens. And it turns out that in areas where sodas are closer to unhealthy snacks, people were eating more of the unhealthy snacks and in areas where the sodas and the coffees were further off from the unhealthy and so we as consumers don't tend to realize the extent to which our world really affects the choices we make. And I think that's part of what really inspires me, in my research to really point out the parts of the world where we're not aware of the way it impacts us, but it definitely does.
Shireen: And so how can we utilize this research that you've done to make better healthier decisions for our health, especially for those that are living with chronic illnesses?
Dr. Baskin: Yeah, so I think that we really need to think about the way in which we structure our everyday lives. So generally, we don't spend a lot of time on the choices we make. If you just think about going to a grocery store, nobody spends four hours at a grocery store, making a decision about each and every product on the store shelves. So they make these very quick decisions. And then when they get home, they again make these very quick decisions about what it is they're going to eat. So what I think about and what this field of research is called Nudge theory is how do we structure our environment so that the choices that are easiest, to me are the ones that are most impactful to us, and the ones that are make our health better, right. So if you're struggling to eat healthier, for instance, you want to make sure that products that you want to eat are the ones that are in the front of your refrigerator, rather than the back of the refrigerator. You want to make sure they're not obscured by anything else, you want to make sure that your environment is configured in such a way that it's extremely easy to make the choices that you want. Do we do this on a regular basis? I think most of us don't, I think most of us don't pay attention. We put everything everywhere. And we don't we don't really take the time to structure our environment to in service of our goals. And I think that if we do I think that will help us keep those goals much easier.
Shireen: So you mentioned Nudge theory and want to understand that a little better. And also I want to clarify is the goal, then Dr. Baskin, to make the healthier choice, the easier choice. Is that is, that what we're going for? Is that convenience?
Dr. Baskin: Yeah, I think so. I think the goal is to make the easier choice, the healthier choice, the easier choice, because in many cases were what the research called cognitive misers. So we tend to not expend a lot of our mental energy on the choices that we made. So because we know that about humans, we know that they don't expend a lot of energy on thinking about their choices, we want to make sure that the effort less choices are also the choices that are good for us. And we can see the opposite of that in many arenas. So for instance, if you go to the supermarket and you look at the checkout line, all of the checkout line is filled with various candies. And in that case, you have the impulse buy the easier choice. And it's set up in such a way that the easier choice is maybe not the best for you to be eating all the time, but it's there, and you can easily pick it up. Whereas some of the other choices that might be better for you are strewn kind of throughout the store, and you might need to look more deeply for them. And so much like the store can change what you buy based on the layout, you yourself can also create a knowledge by structuring your kitchen and your pantry to focus on specific products and specific meals that are going to be in service of the diet you're trying to keep and that goal there are going to be repetitive or the chronic illness that you're living with.
Shireen: And so is that what Nudge theory is?
Dr. Baskin: So Nudge theory is more general. Nudge theory is talking about in general, how can we affect people's choice and it's been applied to a number of domains. So healthy eating is just one domain, a domain that's of interest right now is vaccination uptake. So it I've done some research on vaccination uptake, a couple of others have done vaccination uptake uptake experiments, basically, what are some low cost ways to structure the environment to get people to elect to vaccinate themselves, my research focused on essentially making it look like the vaccination center was convenient to you by showing a map in the initial email that told you that a vaccination was available. And in my research, it shows that even if the map is included in a link that you click in the email, just having the map in the body of the email was enough to get a statistically significant percentage of people to get their flu vaccination In my case, but a very similar thing could apply to the COVID vaccine. Back to the COVID-19 vaccine, you just want to make sure that it is as convenient as possible for folks to take it and you want to communicate that convenience and structuring the environment to communicate that convenience becomes critically important.
Shireen: And it's like that you mentioned where we're I believe you use the term cognitive misers, right? So we just want we just want the information given to us honestly, played you don't want to think much about it. I just want to make it as easy as possible, just sort of digest that information.
Dr. Baskin: Exactly.
Shireen: So how is food marketing and adjectives use impacting our experience as consumers? And is there anything we should look out for there?
Dr. Baskin: Yeah, so labeling has been a very interesting research area for me. And so one of the past research projects that I've been working on has been how do labels which you're not really sure of how do they affect your perceptions of objects. So for instance, right now, in foodie culture, we see a lot of restaurants and a lot of manufacturers in the retail phase, basically creating really weird names for their products. So if you go into a restaurant and you see awakened broccoli, I have no idea what awakened broccoli is. And I think many listeners probably also have no idea what awakened broccoli is, however, the restaurant they both awaken broccoli on its menu is trying to signal something. And what I found in my research is they may not be getting the message across, but they think they're getting across, I found out that if people see that there's a war that they don't understand, they obviously know that they're supposed to understand it, they obviously know that they that it means something. And so they try to predict what it means. And so generally, a couple of things happen, people wind up thinking that when a product has a word that they don't know what it means it's less prototypical of its category. So an awakened broccoli is not a normal broccoli. It's an uncommon type of broccoli. And so what happens when you view an uncommon food item, all of a sudden, you think that it's likely to be more expensive, because it is uncommon. And the other thing that you think about is, you're likely going to enjoy it let you predict that you're likely going to enjoy it less. So you're less likely to maybe go to that restaurant or buy that product. And the reason why we think that is likely because people generally don't like taking risks in the domain of food. And people generally view themselves as having more conventional take, they don't see themselves as unconventional and so products that are less prototypical probably are not going to filter their teeth. And so that becomes problematic, particularly if those adjectives are trying to signal that the product is healthy, it's better for you. Because as soon as there's an adjective that you don't know, all of a sudden your prediction says yeah, maybe I'm less likely to enjoy it and so I'm likely not going to buy it even if that may be kind of good for me in the long run.
Shireen: So what can consumers use? If they come across such adjectives? I guess what, what can they do on their part to understand the, the healthier the nutritious value, what it means what that you know, agitate for specifically means and if it's sort of meeting their goals or not?
Dr. Baskin: Yeah, so I'm a big proponent of consumer education. So I think that if consumers don't really understand what something means, rather than assume you know what something means you should really take the time to look it up. And there's been some movement on the part of manufacturers in the food space to give you more information so on the back of certain packages, you'll find QR codes which allow you to dig deeper into what some of the ingredients are, how a product was made, etc. And you can find a much deeper dive into all the information that's on the packaging often at the company website offer a lot of process we bought it and so yes, this is really hard to do for an entire grocery store of items but for the product categories which matter most to you that you're spending a good portion of your food budget on I think it makes a lot of sense for folks to at least at the beginning when they're trying that food product to look up information on how it's made, what those adjectives mean, how they're derived that they might not necessarily know.
Shireen: You know, we polled our audience are Yumlish audience on social media and they wanted to know about a few labels that are seen on popular products. My biggest one that I go to is when shopping for eggs. Boy do they make it hard to try to decipher, you know, it's incredibly hard looking at organic and if it has that organic seal on it, because I know, you know, there's certain claims that are made. And then you've got the pasteurized, got, you know, ultra, I don't even know what half of these terms mean. So Dr. Baskin, walk us through what, what all of these different terms mean, when we're shopping for eggs, you know, very for dairy even? Can you walk us through some of those?
Dr. Baskin: Yeah, sure. So this is one of those things where certain so the FDA generally regulate all of these terms, all of these terms. And it's important as a consumer to know how strongly each of these terms is regulated versus not regulated. So for instance, if it's labeled organic, that is a very strongly regulated term. So there is a list of procedures that a farm has to follow if it, if it can get the USDA Organic seal. And so if you see something that has a USDA Organic seal, it's in third party verified, and you can be confident that it is organic. Now, one of the things that you have to keep in mind, though, is organic, makes absolutely no claims about health, right. So just because something is organic does not necessarily mean it is healthier it might be but it's not necessarily a one to one correlation. So one of the things that's important if you're going to spend the extra money for organic because obviously, the yield on organic produce, and dairy is lower. And so companies charge higher for organic products, because it costs them more to make them. So it's important if you're buying those products for a premium that you go and you look up all the standards that are organic farm has to follow and you ask yourself, are these standards something I value? Am I willing to pay more for them? And if they're not, then you don't pay more? But if you are, then you do and I think that a lot of folks tend to equate health and organic. And that's not the case. And the other thing that's very, very common that you see out in the world is you see the natural labeling. And so the natural labeling is almost the opposite, because natural is not third party regulated at all. So there's no inspector that comes in and says, okay, is this natural or not? Right? So the USDA goes and checks for organic, but nobody comes in and checks what is natural. So the FDA basically has a loose definition of what naturalists, so it's basically nothing is artificial or synthetic in the product, and nothing is added that you wouldn't normally accept about it. Now let's think about what that doesn't include. So it doesn't really include any kind of production methods. So while a term like organic, it has in the list that you can't use pesticides that are you can't use artificial pesticide, a term like natural doesn't explicitly prohibit that you may be used, you may not be using pesticides, but it's completely up to you. It's not that natural in and of itself, or hibbett from using it. So it doesn't really it's not intended to address food production methods. So for instance, you know, things like pesticides, pasteurization irradiation, things like that. So it's not intended to address any of those. Another thing that, that folks often talk about is GMOs. So will a natural product, ie GMO free or not? Well, we don't know, it may or may not be again, because this is a manufacturing, it's considered kind of manufacturing natural doesn't really address whether a product is a GMO or not. So it's really important when you think about these types of labels to think about what actually is regulated and what isn't so organic. There's a complete list, you can check that list. And it's a fairly broad list and very, very specific, you may want it to go further. And there are labels by third parties that go there are even stricter than our gap because some organizations believe that maybe even organic doesn't go far enough. But natural, on the other hand, isn't specifically regulated and a couple of things that when you ask people they think it's regulated on.
Shireen: Another one that I want to ask you about quickly, is free range and cage free?
Dr. Baskin: Yeah, so that's another good one. So free range, I think it's, so it is regulated. So you have… So for instance, if you buy free range chicken, for instance, that chick those chickens had to have access to the outside, but it is less broad than you might think. So for instance, they could have the, a bill, all they need to do is they need to have the ability to go outside. And for many chickens, they can either go outside where the weather maybe is not so nice, or they can stay inside in their climate controlled area, which is very nice. And so for a lot of cases when you see free range you unless there's some other terminology or some other description, you don't really know how much time that chicken has sent outside because the actual usage of the word free range doesn't require a specific amount. time that the chicken has spent outside only that they had the ability to go outside. And it doesn't require the chicken even choose to go outside, only if they had the ability to do so.
Shireen: So does, does that mean cage free is better.
Dr. Baskin: So I hesitate to say that anything is better or worse, because I don't necessarily think that anything is better or worse, it's a matter of what you are willing to pay for. So certain things are more expensive than others, right. So certain things lower the production ability of the farm. And when you lower the production ability of the farm, the cost or individual egg for that farm increases, right. And so if you give animals the ability to go outside, potentially, you're going to increase costs, right, all of a sudden, it becomes not a sealed environment anymore. If you remove cages, you have to worry about animals interacting with each other. And sometimes they can get into fight. And so that's no good either. So various to all of these things, increased costs. And so the one thing that I would recommend to consumers again, is education is so important, because a lot of times when we go to a store and we see all of these labels, we automatically assume that they're all positive, and we should buy them really regardless. But what we really should be thinking about is what is this label conveying? What does the manufacturer have to do to get that label? And are we willing to pay a price premium for that specific label?
Shireen: Another one that I want to ask you about is when cereals claim to lower cholesterol?
Dr. Baskin: Yeah, so I think the big example here is Cheerios, which has a huge can lower cholesterol banner on their, on the front of their package. And there, I think it's important to look at the documentation for how they got the can lower cholesterol banner. And so what they say is they have a clinical study, which says that if you eat Cheerios, you can lower your cholesterol. But the important part of that clinical study is that clinical funny was as part of a balanced diet. So it's really important to note that if you just eat Cheerios, and nothing else, you're gonna have low cholesterol. Is that true? No. If you eat Cheerios, and then a bunch of junk food, is that gonna help you? Probably not either, but if, but we know that you know, whole grains are good, right? And if you eat Cheerios as part of a general balanced diet, and as part of a general healthy diet, that's good for you. And so that's what they tested. And it's very, very important to know that that's kind of the evidence for that claim. It's food, eat a specific food is not a cure all. I don't believe that any kind of food can be a girl, I believe in kind of a lot of things in moderation, because no one thing is going to be the girl. And similarly Cheerios, you know, can help it can lower cholesterol, but it's not a cure all. Where if you just eat Cheerios, magically, you're not, you're going to lower your cholesterol. That's just not true. It has to be within the context of a general healthy diet.
Shireen: The last one I want to ask you about is no added sugar?
Dr. Baskin: Yeah, so no added sugar is I think another great one. And you see that pretty commonly in a lot of juice drinks, I think. And the reason why they manufacturers add no added sugar is because we look at that and say, Oh, that's great. I'm not adding any sugar to my diet, you know, amazing. The thing to keep in mind with no added sugar is that no added sugar is a labeling that speaks for itself, we the manufacturer have not added any sugar to the product. What that doesn't mean is there is no sugar in the raw because that is a different label that is a zero sugar label. And particularly in juices. juices are a rich source of natural sugars, they have a lot of sugars in of themselves. So if you look at the nutritional labeling on a, you know, bottle of apple juice, for instance, you will see that it has just as much sugar as a bottle of soda. Although in the case of fruit juice, it is natural sugars. In the case of a bottle of soda and maybe added sugars, it is unclear the extent to which natural sugars are going to be better than the added sugars. Actually, you should probably keep your sugar consumption down kind of across the board. But I think it's important to note that just switching from soda to fruit juice is not a cure all because fruit juice comes with its own sugar. And so what we've seen is that part of what's helpful from a consumption standpoint is if you eat actual fruit, when you eat actual fruit, you get that fruit sugar, but you also get it with fiber so you don't wind up consuming as much of the fruit of the fruit sugar, and it takes a lot longer to digest and you feel fuller, right? Well, rather than when you consume the sugar when you consume the fruit sugar as fruit juice. It's sort of just kind of directly should you get sugar directly and it processes much liquor.
Shireen: I feel like there, there are a bunch of different adjectives and claims that I can ask you about further but we've had we're toward the end of the episode Dr. Baskin. At this point I'd love for our listeners to learn more about How they can connect with you and just learn more about your work?
Dr. Baskin: Sure, yeah. So you can connect with me on Twitter, I am at Ernest Baskin and also on LinkedIn. If you'd like to see any of my previous published work, you are welcome to look on Google Scholar and search by Ernest Baskin, and you can see all of my published work, and in general, feel free to email me I'm happy to chat with folks. Yeah, I think that's it. Yeah.
Shireen: Okay, great. Um, so with that, Dr. Baskin, thank you so very much for your time. This was very interesting for us to learn about all these different labels, what they really mean and how we as consumers really need to educate, inform ourselves. And don't be afraid to whip out your phone and start googling things if you don't understand them. So I think this, this is very empowering. So really appreciate your time.
Dr. Baskin: Absolutely. And thank you so much.