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Dec 6, 2023 2023-12 Business Administration Faculty Research in Education

Want to eat less? Bake – don’t buy – those holiday cookies, new research says

Want to eat fewer unhealthy snacks this holiday season? The key is to bake them at home from scratch, according to a new study from Gies College of Business professor Sarah Lim.

“Our research found that self-producers are likely to eat less – not more – of a batch of cookies. Overall, they consumed 10 percent less throughout the day than those who were offered cookies that had been made for them,” said Lim, assistant professor of business administration. She co-authored the paper “Baking Your Own Cookies: Does Food Self-Production Increase Consumption?” with Arnaud Monnier (Nova School of Business & Economics), Kathy LaTour, (Northwestern University) and Stijn M. J. van Osselaer (Cornell University). It was recently published in Journal of the Association for Consumer Research.

Lim said they chose cookies for the study because they are generally categorized as unhealthy, and they can be shared and conserved for several days – like many food products that consumers produce at home.

In a series of four experiments, participants were randomly assigned to enter a culinary lab or seminar room (control group). Those in the lab were given the raw ingredients, cooking equipment, and a step-by-step recipe to bake a batch of chocolate chip cookies from scratch. Meanwhile, those in the control group were asked to complete a series of unrelated surveys. Those in the lab kept half of the cookies that they baked, and the other half was given to those in the control group. Both groups took a follow-up survey that evening to answer a series of questions about their cookie consumption.

The beauty of this research is that unlike past studies, participants were able to take the food home, which enabled the research team to assess consumption patterns in a more realistic manner. With lab experiments, they surmised, there is likely to be an attitude of “eat it now or lose it,” Lim explained.

Lim said the study reinforces Michael Pollan’s mantra from Food Rules that says, “Eat all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself.”

Nine in 10 Americans – nearly 300 million people -- bake cookies at Christmastime, according to the American Baking Association, and 83 percent whip up a batch of homemade ones throughout the year.  But the implications of this study go far beyond baking cookies.

“Consumers want something quick to eat. Less than 60 percent of dinners are cooked at home as ready-made food options have become increasingly available,” said Lim. “However, our research suggests that these options can offer convenience at the cost of healthy eating. Self-production can lead to healthier consumption (i.e., eating fewer cookies on a day) because people are putting their labor into it and this might make them willing to enjoy it for a longer time.”

Lim and her co-authors also think their findings can inform how CPG brands package and market their products.

“Brands could consider adding a step that requires a bit of effort – something as simple as an egg – to enhance consumers’ attachment to what they’ve made, which could promote healthier consumption," said Lim.