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New book focuses on how to market better nutrition

ITHACA, N.Y. -- Just because people know that a food is nutritious does not mean they will eat it. In fact, efforts by government officials, health professionals and even parents have been surprisingly ineffective in getting people to consume a more nutritious diet -- that is, a diet that is heart-healthy and reduces the risks of obesity, diabetes, cancer and other diseases.

"This has led to floundering sales for soy foods, embarrassing results for expensive Five-a-Day for Better Health programs and uneaten mountains of vegetables at homes and in school cafeterias," says Brian Wansink, a Cornell University marketing professor and the author of the new book, "Marketing Nutrition: Soy, Functional Foods, Biotechnology, and Obesity" (University of Illinois Press).

Marketing nutritious foods is very different from marketing toothpaste or any other product for that matter, the book points out. That's because consumers already know what they like, regardless of how much they know about the benefits of healthful eating.

"Unfortunately, many people will not eat any better even if we can get them to pass a nutrition quiz," writes Wansink, an expert on how advertising, packaging and personality traits all influence a person's eating habits. He is director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, a group of interdisciplinary researchers who have conducted more than 200 studies on the psychology behind what people eat and how often they eat it. A primary focus of the lab is to help companies develop "win-win" ways to encourage people to eat more nutritiously.

The book, intended not only for brand managers but also for health professionals, public policy officials and researchers, identifies 14 problems that now interfere with effective nutrition marketing, such as how consumers turn away from good nutrition, their frustration with the federal recommendations to eat five servings a day of fruits and vegetables, marketing to counter the drivers of obesity and targeting nutritional gatekeepers. He addresses each problem with research-based solutions for his targeted readers. These include, for example:

  • how to change eating habits by targeting cooks, not consumers;
  • the best ways to introduce new foods into a diet;
  • how a "clueless cook" can make foods taste better in less than a minute;
  • what types of health information are most effective; and
  • what nutrition label information is most effective.

Focusing on why people eat the foods they do, and what can be effectively and efficiently done to improve nutrition, Wansink's recommendations incorporate the combined findings of more than 30 researchers and a series of 20 studies involving more than 5,000 people on five continents.

"The problem with nutrition is that it comes with a cost, often losing to competing considerations like price, convenience, habits and taste," says Wansink, who also shows how food fads, food perceptions, consumer reactions to food crises and the psychology of various marketing segments can be used to boost the consumption of nutritious foods. He offers practical tools for applying consumer psychology to marketing nutrition and suggests lessons that can be gleaned from the failures and successes of others.

Wansink is the John S. Dyson Professor of Marketing in the Department of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell.

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