Cafeteria Cameras Watch Your Waistline for You

At the university cafeteria, women linger longer than men over their lunch decisions. Given a choice, they tend to opt for meat labeled "animal friendly," while men likely will go for a new product.

Cameras are watching them. From inside a control room, monitors record the customers' movements, hesitations, facial expressions, posture, weight, even their eating habits.

It gives the scientists plenty to chew over. They study the influences on eating, how products can be made more appealing, and how to direct consumers to specific — perhaps healthier — choices.

Does it matter if the cheese slices are wrapped in plastic? If the bread is presented as a loaf or sliced up? Whether the salad is on a red table or a blue one? Whether the soft drinks are by the entrance or by the checkout? Or where they stand in relation to fresh juices?

The $4.5 million Restaurant of the Future is run by scientists of Wageningen University and Research Center, working with Sodexo, an international catering firm, and the Noldus software company, to answer questions from the food industry and behaviorists.

"We think of ourselves as rational beings, always making the best choice," says Rene Koster, director of the Restaurant of the Future Foundation. But that's not true; 80 percent of our decisions are made subconsciously, he said, citing U.S. studies.

Research on consumer behavior has been around since marketing began. Cornell University professor Brian Wansink has published popular works in the United States on how to fight obesity through food psychology, and runs a lab designed to look like a kitchen on the Cornell campus. McDonald's has done confidential studies on its own customers.

But with its spy machines, databases and battery of analysts, the Wageningen project, with 42 companies participating, is meant to take the study of eating to a level approaching rocket science.

Knowing how to subtly guide choices could have a huge commercial impact. About half of all food consumed in the United States is outside the home. That figure shoots up to 68 percent in Japan.

Companies are interested, of course, but so are public facilities. A hospital in Utrecht has asked for a project on the effects of a better meal or a change of dining surroundings on the well-being of its patients. Schools want to know how to deal with young teenagers who throw away home-prepared food and lunch on potato chips and Coke instead.

The cafeteria is organized in a series of islands, each with a different food type, in what Koster called a free-flow system rather than the traditional long line serving everything. People feel they have a wider selection — and they tend to spend more money, he said.

The checkout is self-service. Customers punch in the dishes they chose on the touch screen and pay by card, ensuring that everyone's eating habits can be tracked and their responses to changes can be recorded. Flush on the floor at the checkout is a scale that records the customer's weight.

The lunchroom serves about 200 diners a day. Some 480 people registered for the project and gave their written consent to be monitored. Casual visitors are not part of the experiment.

Discreet ceiling cameras can zoom in on a face or a plate, or pull back to view a table or broad section of the lunchroom. They record not only what food you selected, but what you almost selected and how long you paused before deciding. Facial recognition software analyzes your level of enjoyment.

In the control room, technicians watch the action on individual screens and on a large overhead screen divided into quadrants.

"The first weeks are not very nice but you get used to it," said Vida Mohammadani, an employee on campus, adding that she no longer pays attention to the monitoring.

"It's in how things are laid out that prompts you to buy something," said student Bram van Doorn. "Or when you smell a nice smell, you may buy something that you wouldn't otherwise buy," he said.

Volunteers are encouraged to sign up by the cheap prices — it's one of the few places in the country you can eat a full meal for $6.30.

Researchers are just beginning to experiment after establishing the clientele's baseline behavior since the cafeteria opened early this year. But they already are piecing together anecdotal evidence. Some examples:

Put the same coffee in four mugs of different colors and ask people which is stronger. Men likely will point to the brown mug. Women are less likely to be fooled, Koster said.

For months, he said, customers bought milk from a vending machine. One day, the label was changed to indicate the milk was organic — prompting some people to comment that it tasted funny.

People eat more when food is served on a big plate, less on a small one.

Attitudes change when freshly cut flowers are on the table.

In a study published in the September-October issue of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, Wageningen doctoral candidate Pascalle Weijzen reported that people who say they like healthy food often succumb to junk. Nearly 600 people were asked which snack they would pick among an apple, banana, a candy bar or a molasses waffle. A week later they actually were offered the choices — and 27 percent who claimed to prefer fruit scarfed the candy instead.

"This is a laboratory. We control all the conditions," Koster said. The prices, assortment, arrangement and presentation can be changed according to scientific need.

"But we still call it a restaurant," he said. "If we used the word 'laboratory,' it might influence behavior."