Here’s How A Controversial Study About Kids And Cookies Turned Out To Be Wrong — And Wrong Again


Cornell University professor Brian Wansink claimed that he’d
found a way to get kids aged 8 to 11 to choose fruit over
junk food. But the research was actually done on toddlers.

Posted on October 18, 2017, 21:15 GMT

Stan Honda / AFP / Getty Images

Last month, a controversial study about the food
choices of elementary school students was retracted for
statistical errors and replaced with a new analysis. But the

updated version is also seriously flawed, undermining the
study’s premise, BuzzFeed News has learned.

Originally published in JAMA Pediatrics in 2012, the study
found that children were more likely to choose apples over
cookies during lunch when the apples had a sticker of Elmo.
Both the original and the replacement claimed that the study
included 208 students “ranging from 8 to 11 years old” at
seven schools in upstate New York.

But, as confirmed to BuzzFeed News by the leader of the
study, Cornell University professor Brian Wansink, the data
was actually collected while observing kids 3 to 5 years old.

“We made a mistake in the age group we described in the JAMA
article. We mistakenly reported children ranging from 8 to 11
years old; however, the children were actually 3 to 5 years
old,” Wansink told BuzzFeed News by email.

After discovering the mistake last week, Wansink added, he
asked for the article to be retracted.

“We just learned that the study was indeed conducted with
preschool children, not 8-11 year old children and are
considering the appropriate next steps,” JAMA Pediatrics
Editor Frederick Rivara told BuzzFeed News by email on
Wednesday.

What’s more, emails obtained by BuzzFeed News via public
records requests suggest that another paper by this research
team, a study about carrots
published in Preventive Medicine in 2012, looked at kids
in preschools while claiming to be about older children.
Wansink did not answer any questions about this study.

The Smarter Lunchrooms Movement gives advice to nearly 30,000
elementary, middle, and high schools.

These age discrepancies matter because both studies are
touted as evidence for the Smarter Lunchrooms
Movement, the $22 million, federally funded program that
gives advice to nearly 30,000 elementary, middle, and high
schools about how to get kids to choose healthy foods.

The errors are only the latest in a slew of
scientific misconduct allegations facing at least 50 of
Wansink’s studies. Journals have so far retracted three
papers (including the first retraction of the apples study)
and corrected at least seven.

“The Smarter Lunchrooms Movement is all about influencing the
choice that children make,” Nicholas Brown, a graduate
student at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands and
one of Wansink’s
loudest critics, told BuzzFeed News.

“If a daycare worker is standing over a 3-year-old and
saying, ‘Now Tommy, do you want a cookie or an apple?’, it
doesn’t tell us anything about how 8- or 9-year-olds are
going to react when we offer them a choice.”

Brown flagged this age issue in a letter sent to Rivara on
Wednesday and shared with BuzzFeed News.

“We are taking the questions raised about Professor Wansink’s
work quite seriously,” Cornell Vice President for University
Relations Joel Malina told BuzzFeed News through a
spokesperson.

“The University is undertaking timely and appropriate action,
in compliance with our internal policies and any external
regulations that may apply.”

Brown first became suspicious of the apples study
earlier this year, after he and two other researchers

unearthed 150 errors in four of Wansink’s papers about
pizza consumption.

Brown
thought the apples study was fishy, too: Would
11-year-olds really pick something because it had an Elmo
sticker? “That wouldn’t be my choice of character,” he said.

In the letter he sent to Rivara, Brown pointed out that the
revised study’s data spreadsheet included comments such as
“no snack, didn’t wake up” and “picked neither was feeling
sick after nap” — behaviors that sounded more like kids in a
daycare or preschool rather than an elementary school.

Brown also noticed that the comments seemed to contradict the
study’s statement that “each child’s choice was unobtrusively
recorded” by researchers. One child “told me what he wanted
before he saw the options,” one of the data-enterers wrote.
Another “knew he wanted sticker before snacktime” and yet
another “wanted to switch to apple halfway through the
cookie.”

“From what I remember, they were Head Start programs.” 

Some of the entries in the apples study spreadsheet were
originally made by a woman named Jen Loveland, who is now
known as Jen Neubauer and runs a company that recommends
wine. In an interview, Neubauer confirmed that she worked in
Wansink’s Food and Brand Lab as a Cornell undergraduate from
2007 to 2009, and handed out food and inputted data for the
apples study.

“From what I remember, they were Head Start programs,” she
said when asked what kinds of schools she visited for the
study. Head Start is a federally subsidized education
program, based in schools, child care centers, and other
institutions, for low-income children up to 5 years
old.

Neubauer was not involved in writing up the study. She
remembers visiting one school with kids around 10 to 14 years
old. “But I think for the most part it was younger children,”
she said, adding, “I’d say an average of like, maybe, 5.”

Although the apples study reported that the researchers
observed students from a distance as they picked out their
lunches, Neubauer said that she and the other Cornell
staffers who accompanied her interacted with the children.
“We were definitely handing them out to the kids directly,”
she said.

Although Wansink told BuzzFeed News that his team “discovered
this mistake last week,” he has frequently referred to
studying young kids in published articles and emails obtained
by BuzzFeed News.

In the original version of the study, for example, he and his
co-authors concluded, “Just as attractive names have been
shown to increase the selection of healthier foods in school
lunchrooms, brands and cartoon characters can do the same
with preliterate children.”
In the new version, “preliterate children” was replaced
with “young children.”

In a 2013
editorial, Wansink wrote, “Even putting an Elmo sticker
on apples led 70% more daycare kids to take and eat an apple
instead of a cookie,” naming the study in the footnotes.

He repeated the claim, though with a different number, in a
2015
article: “Even putting an Elmo sticker on apples led to
46% more daycare children taking and eating an apple instead
of a cookie.”

In private correspondence, Wansink has made similar
references to the children in both the apples study and the
carrots study. The latter summarized two experiments at seven
elementary schools in New York in 2011, including a group of
147 children “ranging from 8 to 11 years old.” It found that
giving vegetables names like “X-ray Vision Carrots” led more
children to choose them.

This study, published in Preventive Medicine, was supposed to
be corrected,
as BuzzFeed News previously reported. But the journal’s
editor, Eduardo Franco, told BuzzFeed News by email that that
correction is now “on hold until the journal has the
opportunity to assess the new request for the change in age.”

“They were probably done with those different Daycares around
Ithaca.”

When he first started getting questioned about the apples and
carrots studies, Wansink emailed a few collaborators. He
informed them that the two food-naming papers “under siege”
were missing data that needed to be found. “They were
probably done with those different Daycares around Ithaca,”
he added in the February 21 email.

A few weeks later, Wansink replied to an email from Eric
Robinson, a behavioral scientist at the University of
Liverpool, who had brought up several apparent
inconsistencies in the carrots study. Among several concerns,
Robinson asked why the number of carrots that the students
did and didn’t eat failed to add up to the number they’d put
on their plates.

“As you know with your study about elementary school kids and
carrots, not all end up in mouths or on the tray,” Wansink
responded in the March 11 email. “Preschoolers are even
worse.”

And on July 2, Wansink sent an ex-collaborator an apparently
unpublished draft of a paper discussing both the apples and
carrots studies. The paper described the carrots study like
this: “Study 2 examined whether preschoolers increased the
choice likelihood and consumption of a healthy food (e.g.,
carrots) by attractively labeling it (both verbally and with
a sign) as “X-ray Vision Carrots.” The draft also cited the
researchers’ “discussions with preschools” in figuring out
how to set up the experiments.

One potential reason for the disconnect between what Wansink
said happened in the apples study and what actually happened:
He wasn’t there.

From November 2007 to January 2009, he took a leave of
absence from Cornell and moved to Washington DC, where he
served as the executive director for the USDA’s Center for
Nutrition Policy and Promotion. He explained this to the JAMA
Pediatrics editor in a June 22 email, as his team was trying
to correct the original study, which was carried out in the
spring of 2008.

“Neither David nor I were at any of the sessions, and Collin
was only at some,” he wrote, referring to David Just and
Collin Payne, the other two co-authors on the paper. “What do
we put down under the question as to who supervised this?”

That led to some back-and-forth between the collaborators
over whether Payne should be held responsible for the data
analysis. (Just and Payne did not respond to requests for
comment.) Eventually, though, Wansink decided that the
responsibility was his.

“I’m very sorry, Collin, that I hurt you. I certainly
wouldn’t have done that if I would have thought twice,” he
wrote. “This continued pressure and feeling of abandonment
(schools, journals, people, etc.) clouded my judgement.”

UPDATE

Oct. 18, 2017, at 21:21 PM

This story has been updated with comments from Eduardo
Franco, the editor of Preventive Medicine.

Stephanie Lee is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed
News and is based in San Francisco.

Contact Stephanie M. Lee at stephanie.lee@buzzfeed.com.


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