clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Joy of Cooking claims to be victim of bad food science from Brian Wansink

The food scientist had claimed that the cookbook’s calories and portion sizes were increasing

If you buy something from a Verge link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Food delivery

Cornell University researcher Brian Wansink is famous for his studies of eating behavior, but in recent months, evidence has piled up that challenges his research. Now, the latest voice claiming to be a victim is... Joy of Cooking. Yes, the legendary cookbook that has been published since 1936.

In 2009, Wansink and his team reviewed seven editions of Joy of Cooking to conclude that the recipes were increasing in both calorie count and portion size. They implied that the well-known cookbook, and not just fatty restaurant meals, was responsible for growing obesity rates.

In a tweetstorm this week, the Joy of Cooking Twitter account claimed that Wansink’s analysis was unfair. For example, Wansink choose to analyze only 18 out of the hundreds of recipes that have remained in the cookbook over the years, and he didn’t account for the addition of “healthy” chapters like salads, grains, and vegetables. Additionally, the account claimed, the study included recipes that didn’t include portion sizes — so the claim that portion sizes are increasing could not have been true — or arbitrarily increased them.

In an email to The Verge, Wansink pointed out that the article was not intended to criticize Joy of Cooking specifically, but rather to see how recipes for comparable items changed over time. “So, for instance, we wouldn’t have included tofu scramble if it was in the most recent cookbook, but not in the others,” Wansink wrote. This would explain the paper not taking into account later, healthier recipes.

Still, out of at least 174 recipes present in all the editions, 18 remains a very small sample size, as John Becker—a fourth-generation member of the Joy of Cooking family who is writing the newest edition—pointed out in an email to The Verge. Of course, as the account itself notes, people working on Joy of Cooking are hardly impartial when it comes to Joy of Cooking. Still, it has become clear that Wansink’s work is not to be trusted either.

Wansink was once one of the most famous figures in the field of food studies. His studies received attention from television to The New York Times, and he wrote a popular book, Mindless Eating, based on his research. But in recent months, journalists led by BuzzFeed’s Stephanie M. Lee have uncovered a pattern of problems with Wansink’s studies, with many of them based on low-quality data that don’t back up the papers’ conclusions. For example, four widely covered studies about eating pizza came from a single experiment that even Wansink wrote was “flawed.”

Take the Joy of Cooking study: it was widely picked up by mainstream outlets such as the Los Angeles Times, which quoted Wansink as wondering whether restaurants were to blame for obesity: “What has happened in what we’ve been doing in our own homes over the years?”

Even at the time, the editor of the 2006 cookbook criticized the study for having “such a tiny number of recipes” and pointed out that the cookbook had become healthier overall. It’s just now, nearly a decade later, that we’ve collectively taken a closer took. So if you feel like you’ve been personally victimized by Brian Wansink, journalists and researchers have got your back.

Update February 28th, 12:30PM ET: This post has been updated to include information from Brian Wansink and John Becker.