Why Do People Drink Shampoo?
Patient: Good evening. I just called because I thought it was a cookie and ...
Physician: ... you have taken a bite of a dishwasher tablet haven’t you?
Patient: Yes. [...] I was watching a game on TV and I wanted to eat something, my wife is so clever, she put it with cookies we buy for our grandchildren.
It's a tale as old as mindless eating itself. Distracted, you reach for the cookie box, lift a morsel out, and take a bite. But when you taste soap instead of chocolaty goodness, you reluctantly turn your gaze from the television to the "cookie box" and realize you've been duped. Then -- naturally -- you blame the error on your spouse.
The above conversation actually took place, by the way -- it was captured by scientists during the course of completing a study recently published in PLoS ONE. French researchers recorded over 30,000 phone calls to the Marseille Poison Control Center over a period of 14 months in an attempt to determine why people accidentally consume household chemicals like cleaning solutions and personal hygiene products. Here's another sample from those recordings:
Patient: I’m calling because, in fact, you are going to laugh, but I actually screwed things up and took a tube of hair gel for a mayonnaise one.
One thing the researchers noticed when reviewing the calls was that people would commonly complain that the mistakenly eaten non-food product looked or smelled a lot like real food. In light of this common thread of anecdotes, they planned an experiment. Subjects would be brought into the laboratory and shown four real products -- two food and two non-food -- while inside an fMRI scanner. Researchers would watch subjects' brain activity for gustatory inferences, patterns centered in the orbitofrontal cortex, the fusiform gyrus, and the insular cortex that materialize when viewing appetizing foods.
Fourteen subjects took part in the experiment. The researchers found clear signs of gustatory inferences when subjects viewed Cottage Happy Shower Tequila Sunrise, a shower gel that conspicuously sounds a lot like a drink you'd order when vacationing in Cancun, and even features a push-pull top like those found on sports drinks for easy d̶r̶i̶n̶k̶i̶n̶g̶ lathering.
But despite the tempting packaging and even more enticing smell, you don't want to drink Cottage Happy Shower Tequila Sunrise ("a" in the image above). It won't make you feel very good. Yet that's exactly what at least one mentally sane 41-year-old woman did, totally on accident. Given their results, the researchers partially blame deliberate marketing tactics meant to disguise non-food products as food. They suggest that the similarity actually "fools" our brains.
"The consequence of a food metaphor applied to a hygiene product is that implicit gustatory inferences can be found in the brain of the consumers. Such inferences most certainly participate in the accidental ingestion of a hygiene product," the researchers say.
Obviously we can't lay all of the blame at the feet of manufacturers, but one has to admit, a Tequila Sunrise does sound delicious.
(Images: Upstate Medical University, Basso F, Robert-Demontrond P, Hayek M, Anton J-L, Nazarian B, et al)
Source: Basso F, Robert-Demontrond P, Hayek M, Anton J-L, Nazarian B, et al. (2014) Why People Drink Shampoo? Food Imitating Products Are Fooling Brains and Endangering Consumers for Marketing Purposes. PLoS ONE 9(9): e100368. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0100368