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The Ringer: The Scientists Who Shape What and How We Eat

In the early 1900s, the American breakfast looked very different from what we think of as traditional today. Instead of artery-clogging platters of meat, eggs, and potatoes, most breakfasts consisted of little more than a roll, fruit, and coffee to wash it all down. As people left rural areas for the cities and for new opportunities brought about by the Industrial Revolution, they left heavy farm breakfasts behind them, too.

Those in the bacon business weren’t pleased. In the 1920s, Beech-Nut Packing Company contacted a man named Edward Bernays and asked him to find a way to get people to eat more of its product. Bernays went to a “famous New York doctor” and asked him, with a bit of a wink and a nudge, whether a hearty breakfast might be better for Americans than the paltry smattering of calories they were getting from coffee and cereal. The doctor said sure, why not? The body loses a lot of calories during sleep, and jump-starting the morning with a bigger meal would help get people going. Bernays had this doctor write to 5,000 physicians telling them, essentially, that the body lost energy during the night. Did they agree that eating a hearty breakfast would be a better way to recover?

“Obviously all of them — we got about 4,500 answers — all of them concurred,” Bernays said in a video for the Museum of Public Relations. He publicized the results of this survey to newspapers throughout the country, each one adopting a variation of the same headline: “4,500 physicians urge Americans to eat heavy breakfasts to improve their health.” The stories included the helpful note that there was no heartier meal than bacon and eggs. Rather than selling to the American public, Bernays let the public sell to itself. The idea that bacon and eggs is somehow good to eat first thing in the morning has been passed down through generations ever since. It’s so ingrained in American culture that while I can happily eat unusual lunches or dinners while visiting foreign countries, something feels off during breakfast when I’m served little more than a croissant in France or savory fish soup in Thailand.

You are not what you eat. Though you may have brought home bags of groceries from the store and put them together in the form of a meal (or accidentally left them to rot in the crisper like every other bag of salad I’ve ever purchased), your choices aren’t strictly your own. Bernays was only one of the first to realize how easily people can be swayed by the right kind of advertising — a kind that speaks to our unconscious minds and pulls at our emotions. It’s no coincidence that Bernays — these days known as the “father of public relations” to communications students across the country — was the nephew of Sigmund Freud.

In 2014, there was a huge outcry when it was revealed that Facebook had secretly tinkered with over half a million users’ News Feeds to make some of them see more negative posts and others more positive. The emotions were contagious — those shown happy posts got happier and vice versa. The reaction to Facebook’s psychological manipulations was uniformly swift and angry. Yet when a group of psychologists remodels a cafeteria or grocery store to see if it changes people’s eating habits, we hardly think twice about it.

Those types of changes have occurred for decades. Advertisers, economists, and even the government have been stepping in to shift what we put in our mouths. Sometimes these interventions mean well and try to make our eating more healthful. But not always. And as these “nudges,” as they’re known today, often appear in the form of advertising, there’s little incentive for any oversight on these forms of manipulation involving our meals and our minds. Especially when we’re the ones doing the manipulating.

Read more at The Ringer.

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