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Despite the role of biology in determining what we eat, our eating habits are profoundly influenced by food trends.  Thus, try as many of us do to avoid being just another “follower”, we often make food choices based on fads, fashion, and what everyone else is eating. As food writer David Sax suggested, while “we do have a choice about what we put in our mouths, the reality is that our appetite is collective”.

There is clearly some truth (maybe a lot) in this.  Consider all of the foods we probably did not grow up eating, but which so many of us now eat routinely – sushi (at least 5 sushi restaurants in Lincoln), kombucha tea, and of course upscale coffee drinks are everywhere.

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Dorm food culture

More than 7,000 students live in UNL dormitories. That’s nearly a fourth of the student population.  Most of those students also eat their meals in dorm cafeterias. Years ago when I was a freshman (way back in the 1970s), dorm food was awful, an opinion that was widely-held on campus. The vegetables were canned and overcooked, the breads were tasteless, and the meats were hardly recognizable.  Then there was the weird but predictable menu rotation.  Monday there would baked chicken, Tuesday there would be chicken and gravy, on Wednesday we would get chicken a la king, and perhaps Thursday chicken soup.

What amazed me the most however, was the discovery that there were always a handful of students who actually liked dorm food.  How bad their food at home must have been, I thought, for them to consider dorm food likeable, much less edible.

The times, it appears, have changed.  Dorm cafeterias at many college campuses now feature fresh, healthy, and tasty items.  Recently, the bestcolleges.com website posted the top 25 colleges ranked for dorm food (UNL was not among them).  Healthy choices as well as offering a variety of alternatives helped these schools get on the list.  Creating an inviting atmosphere was also important.

Nonetheless, I am sure chicken a la king is still served somewhere.

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Eating socially

As noted in class, eating habits are profoundly influenced by social situations.  Nonetheless, many of these social influences fly under the radar, and we don’t realize that what we eat is affected by social circumstances. For example, we’ve all been out with friends to a nice restaurant, and when the dessert cart arrives, we look around to see who is indulging. Indeed, that’s one reason why the social phenomenon of “sharing” is so common at dessert time.

There is also an eating phenomenon called “modeling”.  Again, this is very common, but we usually aren’t aware of it.  It occurs when you decide what (or how much) you will eat based on someone else’s eating choices.  The “model” can be your dining companion, but can also be a stranger at another table.

When you were younger, your parents or older siblings were probably your primary food models. However, according to the research, college students are likely to choose peers as models.  The peer factor is one of the main reasons for why college students change their eating behavior once they arrive on campus.  So long meatloaf, hello sushi!

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Hungry? There’s an app for that

That cultural and social attitudes influence what we eat is rather obvious.  We will discuss these factors in some detail over the next several lectures.  However, one important factor that has a profound influence on what we eat, but is less obvious perhaps, is technology.

I was thinking about this the other day while ordering restaurant food from my computer.  Who, after all, hasn’t ordered food from a smart phone app or tablet?  What is interesting, however, is that the technology changes not only how we order, but what and how much we order.  Researchers have shown, for example, that ordering food on-line can lead to larger orders, and importantly, more calories per meal.  Why do you think this is the case?

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Depressing food

As college students, you certainly know what it’s like to eat on a budget.  Perhaps the three most important requirement are that food should be filling, use simple ingredients, and above all, be cheap.

Last week, I heard on “Fresh Air“, an NPR interview show, two authors describe how Americans ate during the Great Depression of the 1930s.  That was a time when there was great poverty and families struggled to put food on the table.  With the best of intentions, home economists and school lunch managers developed recipes and food plans that did indeed fill stomachs and stretched budgets.  In hindsight, however, these foods were awful, both in culinary terms and nutritionally. There was a lot of creamed stuff.

As we begin our first unit on “food and culture”, it might be instructive to think about the economic and other social factors that influence what you eat.

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Top Ten reasons why you should study food science at UNL

10. Brand new, state-of-the-art building with modern labs, high-tech classrooms, and student lounges.
9. We speak Spanish, French, German, Portuguese, Chinese, Arabic, Hebrew, Hindi, Nepalese, Thai, Malaysian, Vietnamese, Tamil, and English.
8. We know the secret formula for Coca Cola, the 11 secret herbs and spices in KFC, and why Twinkies last forever.
7. We know which bacteria are in the food we eat, AND we also know which bacteria come out the other end.
6. Your parents will be happy to know that 100% of our students get food science jobs that pay real money.
5. Guys – 3:1 female to male student ratio.  Gals – did I mention the good jobs?
4. Teachers that excel at research and researchers that excel at teaching
3. We know how to spell Streptococcus thermophilus, lipoxygenase, and carrageenan.
2. We’re on a first name basis with Famous Amos, Cracker Jack, and Slim Jim.
1. Your classmates will be as smart as you.

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