Come and Get It!

A Q&A with noted food research psychologist Debra Zellner

Photo: Mike Peters

Debra Zellner

Fascinated by food on and off the job, psychology professor Debra Zellner wants to understand why we eat what we eat. She has written extensively on food cravings and the factors that influence how much we like foods. The 2012 – 2013 president of the Eastern Psychological Association, she is also a member of the Culinary Science Advisory Council at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York. She has been a member of the Montclair State faculty since 2001.

What whetted your appetite for food study?
I first became interested in it after graduate school, where I’d been trained in Pavlovian conditioning. I ran a lot of studies on rats, but eventually became extremely allergic to them – so decided I needed to change what I did.

As a post-doc at the University of Pennsylvania, I worked with Paul Rozin on a new area: the psychology of food. We did the first study of flavor-flavor conditioning in humans, which can increase liking of foods. Today, this is a booming area of psychology, with lots of people looking into why we eat and like certain foods.

What are you focused on these days?
I’m looking into how to get people to like the foods that they should be eating. For instance, I recently partnered with the Culinary Institute of America to see if presenting food attractively makes it taste better. So far, the results show that diners enjoy food more when it is artistically or neatly plated.

What about food pairings?
I’ve found that when a food is paired on a plate with foods with a flavoring – like a sweetener – that a diner already likes, it will be liked more even when the sweetener is absent. Think of liking the flavor of coffee because it has been paired with sugar in the past. Surprisingly, when you put a slightly liked food on a plate with a disliked food, you will like it better than if it were paired with a highly liked food.

Can your findings help people to eat healthier?
My research shows that you can make healthy food seem to taste better simply by flavoring it with something tasty or by presenting it more neatly or artistically. This could make a huge difference in getting people to eat healthier.

How are you encouraging people to eat healthier?
Next year, I’ll be on sabbatical in Philadelphia, working with the Vetri Foundation for Children. Chef Marc Vetri established the Foundation to help young people make the connection between healthy eating and healthy living. I’ll be involved with the Foundation’s “Eatiquette” school lunch program.

What does the program involve?
It’s a great program! The Foundation goes into lower-income elementary schools one to five times a week. Children take turns being in charge of a round table, where a teacher or parent is present to help. The child in charge comes early, puts on a chef coat and sets the table. The children serve the family-style lunch – the food’s all made from scratch – and then clear and bus the tables.

Eatiquette tries to introduce healthy foods to these kids. We’re thinking that I can apply what I’ve learned over the years to the program. We’re asking the questions: Does it matter if the food looks good when it comes to the table? If we offer broccoli with tasty flavorings will the children choose to eat broccoli on non-Vetri lunch days? Will their positive experience with broccoli and other healthy foods carry over to help them make healthy food choices?

Isn’t healthy food more expensive?
A lot of people say that it’s too expensive to eat healthy foods. It does cost slightly more, but not that much. You can definitely eat healthy foods and not spend too much. It’s a matter of learning what to do and what to eat.

You also explore food cravings. What have you learned about food cravings?
It seems we teach ourselves to crave things. Certain people, for instance, eat certain foods at certain times and under certain circumstances. Cravings appear to be conditioned. You might train yourself to want that candy after work, or to take a break and go buy that package of chips from the vending machine, or even eat lunch at a certain time.

What can you do to control cravings?
Don’t develop habits and patterns. If you have habits, extinguish them!

You were recently appointed to the CIA’s Culinary Science Advisory Board. What is your role?
The CIA has started a new Culinary Science program. My role is to review their curriculum and the progress of the program and its students. The first meeting was great! The first day we discussed curricular issues and had faculty research presentations.

On day two, we had presentations from the students. They are very impressive! They are the first class in the program and they’re doing amazing things.

You were a featured presenter in November at the TEDx Montclair conference. Did you enjoy that experience?
I found all the talks interesting and enjoyed meeting the other speakers. There were a few of us there whose work focuses on the important issue of finding ways to encourage healthy eating.

What are your favorite foods?
I eat everything! I really love food. I think you should study what you love. I’m neophilic – when I go into a restaurant I always order something new. Sometimes I get things I don’t particularly like – like jellyfish. It’s boring!

What’s your idea of a perfect meal?
I don’t have a perfect meal. I’ve had really good meals. Maybe one of the best I’ve ever had was at Lucas Carton in Paris. It was just marvelous. Everything was cooked exactly right and perfectly presented. The flavors were wonderful.

Do you enjoy cooking?
I do cook, but I don’t like to cook as much as I like to eat!

What do you do to relax?
Relax? What’s that? I like eating. I like trying restaurants. I’m into food in all kinds of ways. But a couple of evenings a week, I relax with yoga.