Skip to main content
FALL 2011
Print Bookmark and Share

CALS Notes

Faith and Food

From kosher law to portion size, two CALS researchers are serving up food science and psychology informed by religion.

Ellen Leventry ‘95

Brian Wansink
Credit: Jason Koski

After indexing the sizes of the foods in depictions of the Last Supper by the sizes of the average disciple's head, brothers Brian (above) and Craig Wansink found that both portion sizes and plate sizes have increased by over 65 percent in these paintings.

For decades, manners mavens from Emily Post to Amy Vanderbilt have admonished readers to keep their elbows off the table, say “please” and “thank you,” and never mention religion at the dinner table. Two CALS scientists are disregarding that last bit of advice.

Brian Wansink, the John S. Dyson Professor of Marketing and director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, set out to tackle what was an apparently secular question—when did the phenomenon of “supersizing” start?—and ended up tracking the incredible growing American portion size by examining depictions of the Last Supper.

Wansink’s team started the hunt for the origins of supersizing in the modern American kitchen by content analyzing all eight editions of the classic cookbook The Joy of Cooking—from 1936 to 2006—to determine whether portion sizes had grown in accordance with its serving suggestions.

Historical information was more difficult to come by until divine inspiration, of sorts, struck. Wansink, the author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, and his brother, Craig Wansink, professor and chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Virginia Wesleyan College and an ordained Presbyterian minister, scrutinized 52 of the best-known paintings of the Last Supper, as collected in Phaidon Press’s Last Supper. They measured the size of the main course, the plates, and the bread and indexed them based upon the size of the heads in each painting.

“The Last Supper provided a tremendous Rorschach food test of history,” says Wansink. “There’s no mention of food in the Gospel versions other than just bread and wine. Whatever the artist painted would have been based on their imagination and grounded in their day-to-day experience.”

The self-funded study, published in the April 2010 issue of the International Journal of Obesity, found that “portion distortion” has been happening for a millennium, with the main courses depicted in the paintings growing by 69 percent, plate size by 66 percent, and bread size by 23 percent.

“The increase in these things pretty much mirrors the increase in availability and affordability of food in whatever culture in which it’s painted,” notes Wansink. “Supersizing is a byproduct of food being cheap and plentiful.”

The brothers also discovered that the meal depicted at the Last Supper—considered by many scholars, based on descriptions in several Gospels, to be the Jewish Passover Seder meal— became less kosher, with Jesus and his disciples eventually being painted feasting on trayfe (non-kosher) delicacies like eel.

Joe Regenstein ’65, MS ’66, head of the Cornell Kosher and Halal Food Initiative (CKHFI), knows the kosher food rules well, but he wasn’t always aware of the how: as a young faculty member specializing in fish and poultry processing, he attended a meat sciences lecture on kosher slaughter and found it fascinating.

“I came from a Jewish home. My mother had grown up kosher. I had all the framings, but what I didn’t have was the details,” explains Regenstein, a Conservative Jew who now keeps a kosher home. “It was a wonderful talk. But while the kids normally were engaged by this instructor, they were totally disengaged. He provided the technique, but not the cultural framework.”

Approaching his colleague with concerns about the lack of context, Regenstein soon found himself teaching the section and would go on to teach the popular Kosher and Halal Food Regulations course. (Kosher being Jewish dietary laws and halal being the Muslim equivalent.) He also directs the CKHFI which addresses issues at the interface of religious communities, regulatory agencies, consumers and the food industry—an important initiative as foods carrying a kosher mark comprise about 40 percent of the market.

Regenstein, who often collaborates with well-known animal behavior expert Temple Grandin, is currently focused on developing international animal welfare standards for kosher and halal, and humane on-farm halal slaughter. His group is also investigating whether it is possible to examine the lungs of a live sheep to determine if the sheep is likely to meet kosher requirements. Currently, the animal’s lungs must be examined post-mortem, an expensive and complicated process that often yields kosher certification for less than 50 percent of the slaughtered animals.

Regenstein, who has worked on religious food regulation enforcement with many religious groups and consumer and governmental institutions, may be best known as the person who helped Nabisco begin developing a kosher Oreo. Regenstein’s eye is still on the sweet prize, working to improve other kosher sweets and treats.

Undergraduates in the “Candy Lab,” a disused meat lab, are trying to create better-tasting kosher gummy bears and marshmallows using fish gelatin, an approved substitute for gelatin made from pork and non-religiously slaughtered beef. While it’s too early to share results, Regenstein notes, “We have no trouble getting rid of our leftovers.”

While Regenstein concentrates full-time on the interactions of faith and food, Wansink, who primarily focuses on mindless eating, returned to the topic to investigate whether families who say grace together eat differently than those who do not.

As part of a current pilot study of 200 families in the greater Ithaca area, Wansink, a Congregationalist whose family says grace before dinner, wondered whether there was any correlation between healthier eating habits and the practice of giving thanks—sacred or secular—before meals.

He has found only minor differences in relation to what people eat. In the families that pray together, kids tend to drink milk or water instead of soda, and are more likely to try new vegetables or dishes. But they are also more likely to eat bread and a dessert at the meal.

Saying grace does seem to be associated with better behavior at the table, he says. Grace-saying families are more likely to eat more dinners together—an average of 2.1 more meals per week—and are more likely to stay at the table until everyone is done.

Perhaps, the best news is that, on average, whoever cooked the meal is thanked more often. Surely, Miss Manners would approve. •