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How 'Foodies' Were Duped Into Thinking McDonald's Was High-End Food

We all know that how a food is packaged and marketed can influence our choices, no matter how hard we try to shake the effect. Haven't you ever found yourself contemplating a row of wines, trying to decide which bottle to buy, and then opting for the one with the higher price tag, the prettier label or the more tempting descriptors?

So perhaps we shouldn't judge too harshly the people featured in a new viral video who are tricked into praising McDonald's food for its "pure," "fresh" taste.

In the video, two Dutch pranksters sneak into a large food-industry expo in Houten, The Netherlands. (The video doesn't name the event.) There, the duo ask exhibitors and attendees to sample their "new, organic alternative to fast food" from their "high-end restaurant." In reality, they are serving up cut-up pieces of what appears to be McDonald's fare including muffins, burgers and nuggets.

Presented with bite-size samples attractively arranged on a platter with serving toothpicks, the patsies in this little experiment react with effusive praise. (While the pranksters are clearly gleeful about duping people whom they describe as culinary or organic "experts," we don't really know who they are or whether they consider themselves "foodies," as much of the coverage has styled them.)

"The taste is very rich," one person tells the fake restaurateurs, who go by Sacha and Cedrique and work for Lifehunters.TV, an outfit that specializes in creating viral content.

"It's definitely a lot tastier than McDonald's. You can just tell this is a lot more pure," offers another taste-tester.

"It rolls around the tongue nicely; if it were wine, I'd say it's fine," says a third.

But before you jump on this as evidence that these people are clueless, consider this: These folks may have been duped not just by Lifehunters.TV but by their brains as well.

Research has found that when you tell people that what they are eating or drinking is a high-end product, they won't just say that it tastes better than a cheaper product — their brains will actually experience it as better.

In one study, researchers gave subjects wine to sample and scanned their brains using an fMRI scanner. The subjects all drank the same wine twice. But on one occasion, they were told it was a $90 bottle, while another time they thought it was a $10 bottle.

Not only did these subjects report that the wine tasted better when it was presented as a much pricier vintage, but their brains reacted differently, too. Scans showed increased oxygen and blood flow to the medial orbitofrontal cortex, a part of the brain believed to play a role in how we experience pleasure in food and other types of rewards.

In other words, how a food is branded really does seem to affect how we perceive it on a neurological level.

And that's probably cause for comfort for McDonald's, which, coincidentally, announced this week that it plans to offer more organic foods in a bid to boost its flagging U.S. sales. The company reported Tuesday that same-store sales fell 3.3 percent in the third quarter, continuing a downward trend.

McD's executives are presumably hoping that customers react to its new organic offerings as enthusiastically as the people in this video did.

Update: Of course, there's another possibility, as many of you commenting have pointed out: Maybe these taste testers were simply being polite.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Maria Godoy
Maria Godoy is a senior science and health editor and correspondent with NPR News. Her reporting can be heard across NPR's news shows and podcasts. She is also one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.