Betty Capaldi Phillips once taught rats how to like cinnamon. Now, she's out to teach Arizonans how to like broccoli.
Phillips is the host of a new Arizona PBS series, Eating Psychology with Betty. In the show, the professor of psychology and Provost Emerita at Arizona State University explains the psychology behind human eating habits, like why people have different reactions to the same flavors.
With the new show, Phillips hopes to educate viewers not just about what they're putting in their mouths, but also why they prefer to eat certain foods.
"I study normal eating," she says. "How we learn to like food, dislike food, where our food habits come from and how we can change them."
Phillips started in her career in psychology doing research with rats, specifically with rats navigating through mazes. As she observed the animals, she realized they learned new things about food. The experience sparked her interest, and she entered the then-burgeoning field of eating psychology.
While there was a lot of research about why humans sometimes have negative reactions to different food items, Phillips was interested in studying positive reactions to food.
In one of her first experiments, she taught rats how to like cinnamon, examining how humans could learn to like a certain flavor. Phillips found if she paired cinnamon with artificial sweetener, rats eventually would gravitate toward plain cinnamon, even if they wouldn't have done so prior to the experiment.
"You can learn to like a flavor if it's associated with a flavor you already like," she says.
According to Phillips, the trick to changing a food preferences is all about "training your taste buds." She suggests making less desirable foods taste better by pairing them with appealing ingredients initially. For example, mixing with broccoli with cheese would help a person train his taste buds to like the taste of the vegetable.
Phillips says it takes just seven separate tastings to learn to like a food. After the initial trial period, broccoli no longer needs cheese to taste good because diners will have learned to genuinely like its taste.
"One of the main things I'm trying to do is have people enjoy their food, not to feel guilty all the time," she says. "There's nothing wrong with butter, there's nothing wrong with sugar, there's nothing wrong with chocolate — you just have to eat them in moderation."
And whether we're aware of it or not, Phillips says, everything we put in our mouths affects our eating habits. A person who eats salty chips every day is adapting their taste buds to higher salt intake, thereby making other, less salty foods taste bland.
Geography, too, can impact our flavor preferences. For example, in the Southwest we're more inclined to eat spicier foods as a mechanism to cope with the heat, according to Phillips.
In her own kitchen, the ASU professor cooks a lot of simple, Northern Italian-inspired dishes. While she counts pasta and ice cream as her weaknesses, broccolini and chicken are more common staples in her kitchen. Trained at a cooking school in Italy, Phillips cooks almost all of her meals at home and rarely goes out to eat. She's currently working on a cookbook marrying her love of psychology and cooking.
"You cook — that's just the first step," she says. "The second step is that the people you serve [food] to enjoy it and like it. So you want to make the atmosphere right. That affects how the food tastes: the color of the food, the implements that are being used, the music that's being played."
For Phillips, the most important part of eating is mindfulness. The professor takes stock of every single piece of food that goes in her mouth, never haphazardly inhaling a cheeseburger with one hand on the steering wheel.
"People eat without paying attention; they don't even realize they eat," she says, adding, "That means you're not getting the pleasure of the food."
And eating, to Phillips, is all about pleasure, not shame or anxiety.
The goal of the new show, she says, is to make people more aware of their culinary routines.
"It's much better to understand that your experience produced your eating habits," she says. "And your experience can change them if you want."
"Eating Psychology with Betty" airs Tuesdays at 11:30 p.m.. Encore broadcasts will air on the 8.2 Life channel on Fridays at 10:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m., as well as Sundays at 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.
For more information and to see descriptions of all 13 episodes, visit the Arizona PBS website.