Brian Wansink, researcher behind 100-calorie snacks, discredited after 13 papers retracted

Brian Wansink, an expert in eating behaviour, became a daytime TV darling that used science to promote eating smaller portions. Now his theories are being questioned after 6 studies were retracted in one day.

Known for promoting small portions, the Cornell University professor had 6 studies retracted in one day

Brian Wansink of Cornell University demonstrates the 'bottomless bowl of soup' he used to explore the highly variable appetites of humans. (Stan Honda/AFP/Getty)
Listen18:41

Read story transcript

Few people want to give up their favourite meals and snacks when it comes to losing those few dreaded pounds, so when it comes to eating healthier, the easier the solution, the better.

That's what made Brian Wansink's research so appealing. The food researcher, known for his studies on eating behaviour, was behind the push toward smaller portion sizes recommended by dietitians and 100 calorie snacks you find in the grocery store.

But on Wednesday, the Journal of the American Medical Association retracted six of the renowned Cornell University professor's papers in one day. Those come on the heels of seven previous retractions.

The next day, the school announced he would resign as a teacher and researcher.

Among the problems with his work, Cornell University Provost Michael I. Kotlikoff cites misreporting of research data, problematic statistical techniques, failure to properly document and preserve research results, and inappropriate authorship as key violations.

Tim Van der Zee, a University of Leiden PhD candidate, has documented those transgressions.

"This is the end of a much longer process — much longer than it has been in the public," he told The Current's guest host David Common, adding that the criticism of Wansink's work has been ongoing for nearly two years.

While the University of Michigan visiting scholar doesn't believe Wansink's conclusions are wholly incorrect, he was alarmed by a "high level" of inconsistency in and between articles.

In the 'Bottomless Bowl' experiment, Wansick provided subjects with an automatically refilling bowl of soup to determine if and when they would stop eating. (Julia Sudnitskaya/Shutterstock)

"Sometimes he would describe the same study in multiple papers and all the numbers would be slightly different," he said.

In a statement to The Current, Cornell University admitted that Wansink committed academic misconduct after a years-long review of his studies.

The simplicity of Wansink's research turned him into a daytime TV celebrity with his methods promoted by the likes of Oprah and Dr. Oz — and, indeed, discussed on The Current.

Eyes bigger than the stomach

"Science is often not an very interesting story. It's definitely not simple, Van der Zee said.

"As soon as we start ignoring the complexity and simplifying those stories almost by definition, we're going to get more or less reliable research."

According to Vox writer Julia Belluz, Wansink's studies "were catnip for journalists, like myself."

"He was just hugely influential and, absolutely, even if you didn't know his name, there's a good chance that you interacted with his ideas in some way," she said.

This shows that we are keeping research to high standards and that people are working on correcting errors- Tim Van der Zee, University of Leider PhD candidate

Wansink's blockbuster 2005 "Bottomless Bowls" study found that subjects would endlessly consume soup as long as the bowl was automatically refilled. Eating instead from a smaller bowl would reduce the chance of overeating, the study concluded — an easy and seemingly logical solution.

Some who relied on Wansink's research, like Toronto dietitian Kara Rosenblum, were disappointed by the retractions.

"It just feels like a huge breach of trust and it really makes me sad," Rosenblum told The Current.

Smaller portions are still good, says dietitian

While retractions are rare, Belluz says, they don't indicate that Wansink's theories are invalid.

"His particular studies and the way that he ran his statistics … there are questions about that," she said.

Registered dietitian and columnist for the Globe and Mail, Leslie Beck, agrees and says she will continue teaching his suggestions on portion control.

"We have to remember that he wasn't the only researcher out there looking at the influence of environmental factors," she told The Current.

Though he has resigned, Wansink will remain at Cornell University throughout a continuing investigation of his work. (Mike Groll/Associated Press)

In an age where science is questioned, however, Van der Zee admits he worries how these retractions might affect the public perception of scientific accuracy.

But he says that the review proves the system works.

"This shows that we are keeping research to high standards and that people are working on correcting errors [and] retracting false papers," he said.

"I do hope that that gives people trust in the scientific method."

Listen to the full conversation near the top of this page.


Produced by Allie Jaynes, Julie Crysler and Richard Raycraft.