Food Psychology: What’s in a Name?

In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Juliet opines that the fact of Romeo’s being a Montague (sworn enemy of her family, the Capulets) means nothing at all. After all, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet.”

Well, Juliet, not even close. The truth seems to be that names markedly alter our perceptions. In experiments in which smells are given positive names—say, “banana bread,” “black licorice,” or “orange peel”—sniffers perceive them as much pleasanter than when the same smells are given negative names, such as “moldy vegetables,” “insect repellant,” and “dead animal.” A rose dubbed “hospital disinfectant,” in other words, might not smell particularly sweet to us at all.

Even our own proper names can come back to bite us. If you were christened DeShawn, LaToya, Precious, or Jamal, for example, you’re much less likely to be tapped for a job interview than the identically credentialed Brendan, Brad, Emily, or Claire. And if you’re looking for a job in the sciences, according to a 2012 study from Yale, your name better be male: faculty employers, presented with identical resumés, reproducibly found applicants with male names to be superior to those with female names, and recommended that the “males” get significantly higher salaries.

Names also matter when it comes to food. During World War II, the Department of Defense enlisted a cadre of psychologists and anthropologists—among them Margaret Mead—to convince the American public to eat unpopular organ meats (hearts, kidneys, brains, stomachs, and intestines) and other avoided animal parts, such as cows’ heads, chickens’ feet, and pigs’ ears. One ploy was to simply change the name: while people balked at brains, most were willing to accept “variety meats.”

Jell-O—a traditional American dessert—contains gelatin, or a flavorless food product derived from animals. Photograph by Sébastien Barré

Jell-O—a traditional American dessert—contains gelatin, or a flavorless food product derived from animals. Photograph by Sébastien Barré

When it comes to food, we’re also suckers for adjectives. Studies show that customers at restaurants and cafeterias are more likely to order food and find it tasty if it comes with a descriptor. “Succulent seafood filet,” for example, trumps barebones “seafood filet;” and we prefer chicken if it’s touted as “home-style” and lettuce if it’s preceded by “crispy.”

Given all this, you can imagine how we react to “pink slime.”

Pink slime first created a media storm in 2012, in part due to British chef Jamie Oliver, who devoted a TV show to demonstrating (dramatically, but misleadingly) how the stuff is made. Tactfully referred to by the meat industry as “lean, finely textured beef” (LFTB), pink slime is a hash of leftover beef trimmings, heated, centrifuged to separate protein from fat, and then treated (with ammonium hydroxide or citric acid) to kill pathogens, notably E. coli and Salmonella. It’s then used as meat filler, to bulk up hamburger, hotdogs, and other processed meats.

The consensus among scientists and consumer advocates is that there’s really nothing wrong with pink slime. Granted, it’s not filet mignon, but it’s reasonably safe and nutritious; it lowers the overall fat content of hamburger; and it’s cheap, which is a help to schools, all struggling with slashed budgets and the need to supply some 50 million kids with lunches. So why all the brouhaha?

And why—if pink slime’s content sends us into fits–aren’t we equally upset about sausage or Jell-O? Sausage, deconstructed, is a hotch-potch of meat scraps, organs, blood, and miscellaneous tissues, plus generous dollops of spices and chemical preservatives.  Jell-O–staple dessert of hospitals—is made of gelatin, which in turn is made from boiled bones.

The pink slime panic is a classic demonstration of the power of a name—a reaction to what marketing analysts call “negative branding.” There’s nothing positive about the word slime. Slime is the icky goo of creeping fungi and oozy swamps. Slime is what happened to the unlucky in Ghostbusters. My thesaurus lists twelve synonyms for slime, all bad. Slimy people are creepy sycophants. An evil boyfriend is a slimeball.

The media hype over pink slime benefits from our justifiable worries about what’s in the food we’re eating—and there are certainly a lot of worrisome issues there. But sometimes, as in the case of pink slime, things aren’t as bad as they look.

It’s important to remember that a name packs a lot of biased punch. Look at what happened to Romeo and Juliet.

This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.


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