Bowl Science – Really?

April 19, 2016 in Foodland, Foodland Chronicles, General, Weight Management by Joyce Bunderson

I’ve read a tad this year about the new trend in the use of bowls, rather than plates. At first I was attracted to the information as related to the size of bowls; but the more I read the more I realized to my absolute surprise, that there’s quite a bit of science in this whole bowl issue. And although it may be hard to believe, some of the bowl issues may impact you without your even realizing it; some of the issues may be helpful and some – well, may be harmful.

When I first looked at the ‘bowl articles’ I was thinking of the stated size of the new trendy bowls. Of course, if you’ve been reading this blog for a long time, you know that I’m going to cite Brian Wansink’s work when I read about companies that are introducing their new “bistro” bowls in 38-ounce and 68-ounce sizes. Just in case you don’t have your fluid ounce-to-cups/quarts/gallons calculator handy, 38- fluid ounces is 4-3/4 cups – (over a quart); 68-ounces is 8-½ cups – (over a half gallon).

Maybe just one example of a common recipe by the cup would be helpful – one cup of stir-fried vegetables without any animal protein is approximately 125 to 150 calories per cup. If you only have the 38-ounce bowl you may have 600 calories. Let’s say that you have a cup of healthy brown rice at the bottom of your bowl (216 calories) and two cups of veggie stir-fry (300 calories) you’re up to 516 calories before any tofu, chicken or meat or sesame seeds. I don’t think three cups of food would look like too much in a 4-¾ cup - 38-ounce bowl. This example is not a high calorie example. You can see if you choose to have your chicken Alfredo in your 38-ounce bowl – that would be at least 618 calories for 3 cups. Let’s not even allow our minds to dwell on the idea of filling the bowl up or using the 68-ounce bowl.

Wansink has shown many times, using many different research models that visual cues influence portion size and thus how much is eaten; some of his early work was done with bowls of soup. Wansink and his colleagues have continued to use creative methods in helping us realize that what’s going with weight, size and color of tableware and how those variables can influence our intake. So it’s not new info for us to realize that choosing gigantic bowls can be very unwise for portion control.

Ellen Byron, who wrote Bowls Are the New Plates for the Wall Street Journal; quoted Rich Brinkman, vice president of the company that markets and sells Fiesta tableware. Brinkman said; “Before, the average consumer would buy one 68-ounce bowl as a serving dish, and now they’re buying six to eight of them. People are eating from them, not serving from them.”

So probably a 38-ounce or 68-ounce bowl might influence us to consume more than we need. But Ellen Byron also introduced us to another researcher who may have pointed out a benefit for the use of bowls. Juliet Boghossian, founder of Food-ology, a Los Angeles-based consultancy that researches eating behavior. What Boghossian discovered is that piling vegetables and eggs in a bowl, makes the diner less likely to ‘mourn’ the missing bread. She said, “You’re taking away all the carbs, like toast, muffins and potatoes but you don’t see the empty space on a plate.”

Another positive shift may be that Americans are consuming more stir-fries – hopefully, spell that – More Vegetables and that’s a trend that would be positive. Stir-fries lend themselves to bowls (but don’t require trendy large ones).

The head chef of Panera, Dan Kish had discovered one of the downsides of the bowl – it swallows food up. When your business is selling food, the food cost is an issue for control. Kish says, “The value perception may be that there’s not that much food in there, but meanwhile it’s a big cavity to fill.” Think back to those quart-plus and gallon-plus new bowls. There is little question, based upon Wansink’s work, that portions of the same size seem smaller to diners when the size of the plate or bowl is increased.

A third benefit is an observation by executive chef Russell Michel: bowls, he said, “tighten up the presentation with all the colors nestled together.” Why not take advantage of this rather intangible benefit of bowls by smartly serving in a smaller, more moderately- sized bowl?

Chris Baraniuk’s article was published on February 26, 2016 on BBC’s future. In this article he explains some of the science behind the observation that “bowl food just tastes better.” It sounds crazy, but there’s actually research behind bowl-marketer-sounding assertion.

Can we claim the benefits, without getting allured into the dangers of gigantic servings? First we must weigh the benefits, and they seem rather small and intangible, and attainable through smaller sized bowls. Then we must look at the dangers of larger bowls; and they seem quite real. So let us use good judgment. It certainly does matter how we serve various types of food; but let’s keep in mind that we should try to be aware of what it could do to our portion sizes, and in turn, to those portions of our bodies that might fill out in response to the filling out of a seemingly nearly empty large bowl.