As the majority of food commercials clearly show, what we consume is heavily gendered. Marketers exploit specific traits of masculinity and femininity to make food appeal to us: Yogurt and certain types of breakfast cereal are branded as healthy, light and slimming, while energy drinks and Crunch Wrap Supremes are branded as powerful and strengthening. Although they may come across as heavy-handed, these sociocultural influences end up affecting what we choose to eat more than many of us realize.
In a 2015 paper published in the journal Social Psychology, researchers found that both men and women were more likely to see unhealthy food options as masculine and healthy options as feminine. And, according to their research, people were more likely to dislike foods that did not align with these stereotypical gender cues.
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In the first set of experiments, researchers had participants identify foods as either masculine or feminine: They were asked to compare French fries to baked potatoes, fried chicken to baked chicken, fried fish to baked fish, and regular potato chips to light potato chips. The results showed people were much more likely to identify the baked, lighter foods as feminine, and the fried and heavier options as masculine.
For the second round of experiments, researchers packaged the same blueberry muffin in several ways. Muffins were given feminine packaging with the word "healthy" alongside an image of a ballerina, and masculine packaging with the word "mega" beside an image of men playing football. Researchers also created gender-confused muffins, packaged with the word "healthy" alongside the same image of football players, and "mega" alongside the image of the ballerina. Both men and women reported the muffins with mixed gender messaging to have poorer taste than those that aligned with gender stereotypes, despite the fact that all the muffins were identical.
"If you package healthy food in feminine packaging, people prefer that, and the same goes for unhealthy food when it is packaged in masculine packaging," Luke Zhu, the study's lead researcher, explains. "But you see a sudden drop in preference when you package unhealthy food in feminine packaging or healthy food in masculine packaging, and the reason this happens is that you're violating the expectation—you're violating the stereotype that people have about femininity or masculinity."
According to Brian Wansink, the director of Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab and the author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, people are more likely to eat a food when they associate with it qualities they'd like to see in themselves, which is perhaps why our anxieties about gender roles play out in our food consumption patterns.
Supporting this theory, research indicates that this gender-segregated eating culture and its effects may be culturally specific: For instance, a 1999 study found that nearly 50 percent of American women regularly crave chocolate, a food traditionally associated with women in the US, while only about 20 percent of men reported chocolate cravings in their day-to-day life. But the story was different outside the US: In Spain, men and women craved chocolate equally, at about 25 percent. In Egypt, neither sex craved chocolate, and everyone exhibited an equally high preference for salty foods.
Sensory psychologist Marcia Pelchat, who specializes in food and beverage selection at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, says that culture and environment are the biggest instigators when it comes to our specific food cravings. "The craving is learned; it's a habit. It's a self-indulgent behavior that's triggered by cues in the environment: the menstrual cycle, anxiety, depression," she tells Broadly. "Food marketing reinforces these stereotypes, but it also reflects them, so there's a positive feedback going on."
In other words, craving dessert—traditionally seen as female quality, and often associated with stereotypically feminine actions like dealing with PMS and dealing with breakups—is constantly reinforced and exacerbated by food marketing. Indeed, a 2001 study finds that women are more likely to report food cravings than men, despite being more likely to report being concerned about their weight. Relatedly, women also reported having more frequent negative feelings associated with indulging their cravings.
Most people view food choices as a negotiation between healthiness and taste, failing to recognize the way those very categories are gendered in our culture, according to Zhu. "We tend not to link gender with eating habits most of the time," he explains. Yet it's this unawareness that allows gender stereotypes to persist, leading them to affect us more than we realize. "But these little cues that you aren't conscious of can actually change your eating habits because you are unaware of them. The reason they're dangerous is because they're subtle."